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Ravens linebacker Lewis seems unable to shed blockers, chase down backs

By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun –

BALTIMORE — A helmet to the chest from Kansas City Chiefs center Ryan Lilja rudely greeted Ravens inside 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 showing glee at crashing into the 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 running back Jamaal Charles sprinted around him to gain 140 yards during the Ravens’ 9-6 victory 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’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 said. “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. Is he the same player now as he was at 27? No, but he still brings a lot to the table.”

A slipping defense

Although Lewis leads the team with 43 tackles and has 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 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. It will be interesting to see if people go after him since this last game.”

The Ravens are without 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.

In the past, the mere presence of Lewis, an emotional leader known for his elaborate pregame dance and inspirational speeches, would have been enough for the defense to maintain its traditional gold standard. This season, 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.

“He’s playing unbelievable,” outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “Yeah, he might’ve been faster a couple years ago, but he’s still dominating the game. He’s done something not many players have been able to do.”

Lewis led the Ravens last season with 95 tackles despite missing four games with a painful toe injury.

For his career, Lewis has 2,629 tackles, 411/2 sacks, 31 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries.

“I see the same guy,” Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said heading into Sunday’s game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. “I see a guy who is the emotional leader of that defense and the emotional leader of that football team. I see a guy who makes a ton of plays.”

Lewis’ diminished production caught the attention of NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell, who noticed last year that he wasn’t getting as much depth on pass drops.

Cosell said the explosiveness is no longer there despite Lewis’ having gotten down to 235 pounds this season, the lightest since he was a rookie in 1996, the Ravens’ first year.

“I don’t think he’s nearly as effective in the sub packages anymore,” Cosell said. “The guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s being blocked like he never has before. He’s lost some of his athletic movement.

“He’s 37 years old, so none of this is a surprise to anyone in the NFL. His lateral movement skills have deteriorated. He’s not the same sideline-to-sideline player he was.”

The Ravens stonewalled Charles in the second half primarily because of more aggressive play from the front seven and a sharp halftime adjustment by defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Pees shifted his defensive linemen farther outside to combat the perimeter runs and walked up the linebackers to enable them to attack more quickly.

It was an effective gambit.

Pees attributed a lot of the problems in Kansas City to the defensive linemen’s not keeping blockers occupied and off Lewis.

“If you watch the film, I wouldn’t put a lot of that on No. 52,” Pees said. “We did a couple of other things with some fronts that did not help us, and they really hurt the linebackers. I don’t care who it is. It could be Dick Butkus, it isn’t going to make a difference. Watching that film, I didn’t see anything with Ray.”

What lies ahead?

The Ravens haven’t started grooming a potential replacement for Lewis. Inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe have had moments, but neither is dominant.

Lewis will make $4.95 million this season and is under contract through 2015 with nonguaranteed base salaries of $7.3 million, $5.4 million and $6.5 million the next three years.

“Can the Ravens win without Ray Lewis right now?” Bowen said. “I don’t think so. Until you can win without him, you have to live with the ups and the downs.”

The Ravens’ win-loss record, not his personal accomplishments, is Lewis’ primary focus as he pursues another Super Bowl ring.

“I think for us to be where we are right now as a team, it’s probably more important than anything individually,” said Lewis, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV after the 2000 season. “So, I throw things out the window. The blessing is there is not an accolade or record I don’t have. None of that impresses me. What impresses me is having my team ready to play every week to come out and get a ‘W.’”

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