With struggles this year, questions raised about Ravens LB Ray Lewis

Chiefs offensive line pushed veteran around the field, but team adjusted to pick up 9-6 win

October 11, 2012|By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun

A helmet to the chest from Kansas City Chiefs center Ryan Lilja rudely greeted Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a punishing blow reinforced by Lilja shoving the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year to the ground.

Lewis suffered similar rough treatment from Chiefs guards Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah, each seemingly taking glee at crashing into the respected 13-time Pro Bowl selection.

Unable to shed blocks or consistently chase down backs in the open field, Lewis was repeatedly left grasping at air as Chiefs star runner Jamaal Charles sprinted around him to pile up 140 yards during the Ravens' 9-6 victory last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

Like an aging heavyweight boxer who refuses to accept defeat, Lewis dusted himself off and played a major role in eventually halting Charles' runs and limiting him to 15 yards on 10 carries after halftime.

It was an ugly performance overall for Lewis in Kansas City, though, raising concerns about whether the 37-year-old has declined significantly five games into his 17th NFL season.

"He's outmanned at the point of attack," said retired Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams, Lewis' former teammate. "He's not as physical. You see a lot of Ray on the ground, on his back. He gets overpowered and stuck to blocks.

"You can't expect a guy to not lose a couple of steps with all the wear and tear on his body. You're not accustomed to seeing Ray have so many problems. It's glaring, it looks really bad."

Late in the fourth quarter, Lewis crushed Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray with a tackle for a loss.

It was one of Lewis' game-high 10 stops, but it was his only tackle that wasn't downfield.

"Obviously, Ray is like a quarterback and when things don't go well, people will point at him," former Indianapolis Colts coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview. "People are getting up on Ray and blocking him. He's not the same player he was 10 years ago. When I was coaching, I told the guys, 'If we don't block Ray Lewis, he will make every tackle.'

"He had big guys in front of him and he didn't have to take on a lot of blocks. That's not his strength. It's tougher now for him. It's a young man's game. It's hard for me to believe it was 2003 and I was coaching him in the Pro Bowl. Is he the same player now as he was at 27? No, but he still brings a lot to the table. I would be surprised if they don't get this run defense squared away."

Although Lewis leads the team with 43 tackles and has contributed a sack, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery, the Ravens have fallen on difficult times defensively.

The NFL's third-ranked defense from last season has dipped to 24th in total defense, 20th against the run and is tied for 22nd in pass defense.

In particular, Lewis has had trouble stopping physical isolation plays directly at him and zone-stretch sweeps, as well as keeping up with faster running backs like Charles. Cleveland Browns rookie Trent Richardson dashed away from him on a red-zone touchdown run.

"Ray still has the instincts, but he's not playing downhill," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout who's now an NFL Network analyst. "He's on the ground more than I've ever seen him. He's playing laterally on his heels. He doesn't strike the same and can't get off blocks.

"I can remember five years ago watching him flailing and people pronouncing him as done. Having been around the guy, I'm not comfortable saying that. I would just cover him up with linemen and let him just read, run and hit. He can still tackle."

At this point, Lewis appears to be getting the job done with guile and guts as much as his former trademark athleticism.

"When you lose your skill set a little bit, what you can do is be the smartest player on the field," former Washington Redskins safety and current NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. "No wasted movement, no false steps, read your keys, but you can still be exposed in the open field.  Ray is a Hall-of-Fame player, one of the faces to the NFL. Players look up to him.

"At the same time, if you can't get there, if you can't get that burst, if you can't open your hips and go, it will show up on tape. Losing weight was a smart idea for him. It will be interesting to see if people go after him since this last game if he's showing he's lacking some ability to work sideline to sideline."

The Ravens are bereft of NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who's on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a partially torn right Achilles tendon. His absence has affected the defense a lot as far as stopping the run and the pass.

In the past, the mere presence of Lewis, an emotional leader known for his elaborate pregame dance and inspirational fire-and-brimstone speeches, would be enough for the defense to maintain its traditional gold standard.

So far this year, that hasn't been the case.

Yet Lewis hasn't lost an ounce of respect in the Ravens' locker room, where he remains a powerful force.

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