Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (No. 59) celebrates with… (Kenneth K. LAM, Baltimore…)
Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe laughed when he heard the question. Then he smiled. And then he smiled some more.
"It feels good to roam around the yard," said Ellerbe, laughing.
Ellerbe has been unleashed.
After spending substantial time in head coach John Harbaugh's doghouse, suffering recurring injuries and changing defensive coordinators several times, Ellerbe seems to have found his niche in the defense.
Remember, though, he has been in this situation before. Every time Ellerbe seems to be on the verge of having a breakout season, he either gets hurt or benched.
Ellerbe could accept the injuries (thigh and later concussion) because they are a part of the game. But sometimes being sat down was from a lack of maturity.
Sometimes he was late for a meeting. There were other times when he was late for practice. Once, he reportedly was late for a game, which can happen on the road.
But this was a home game.
Harbaugh never talked about those issues to the media, but clearly he was agitated enough that Ellerbe couldn't get out on the field.
"I think he can probably tell you that more than anything, and I think every year once you get into the league and understand that your role is starting to increase, increase, increase, then you understand that you've got to take the business way more serious than he probably did in his younger days," said Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis about Ellerbe's immaturity. "And what you're seeing now is his study habits [and] the way he approaches the game now, now you know that he's really turning into a real veteran to understand the business side of it."
Everyone is starting to take notice. Ellerbe, in his fourth season out of the University of Georgia, is second on the team in tackles with 23, 10 behind team leader Lewis. The Ravens have used him almost exclusively on passing situations, primarily to cover runners out of the backfield, but Ellerbe has done well as a pass rusher with 2.5 sacks.
He can shoot up the gaps or come hard off the edge. Nothing or no one is stopping him right now. Only injuries or Ellerbe can stop Ellerbe.
"Nah, I'm not looking over my shoulder because injuries are a part of the game," Ellerbe said. "You just have to go out there and play the game, and whatever happens, happens."
And what about this Ellerbe character that used to get in trouble?
"You have to go through certain things in your life and those things make you a better person," Ellerbe said. "I've had my fair share at Georgia and here, and now I'm just trying to keep prospering."
It comes at the right time. Shortly into his rookie season, Ellerbe showed a lot of promise despite being an undrafted free agent. There has always been talk about him becoming the replacement for Lewis, who is in his 17th season.
But now, it's more than talk. The next step is consistency, and showing that he can become an every down player.
"I'm out here working hard, doing everything I can," Ellerbe said. "I will play where they want me to play. I can play inside the box, or wherever they need me."
"Everybody has their own packages," he said. "I do feel like an every down linebacker. I did that early on in my career. They had me in only in run situations, and a couple of games later, they had me back in on every down again. In my second year, I was in only on passing situations and last year I did both. I just have to show I can do it for an entire season."
Ellerbe is filling plenty of roles. He is also tied for second on the team with two special teams tackles.
"Ellerbe is playing great," safety Ed Reed said. "He is doing awesome. He fought through some injuries early, but he's doing great now."
A lot of the bad things appear to be behind him now. Ellerbe once weighed 266 pounds. He now stays under a team prescribed 240. He is still learning the game from Lewis and Reed, but teaching it to some of the younger players as well. He has stepped up as well as grown up.
"I'm in my fourth year," Ellerbe said. "I still learn from the veterans, but I can teach young guys what to do on and off the field. I just have to work on getting better. I can cover guys, but I can take on offensive linemen as well. I am nasty enough to stop the run."
"My goals for the rest of the season are to get better at what I'm doing, stay injury free and try to sneak into a Pro Bowl," said Ellerbe, laughing.
He might be on his way. At least for now, he's moving in the right direction. He's unleashed and out in the yard, away from the doghouse.