After starting 57 straight games from 2007 through week 10 of the 2011 NFL season, Ray Lewis has missed the past two games, giving fans a premature glimpse into the future in what we are calling "Life Without Ray." Looking out onto the field when the defense lines up and not seeing the familiar #52 that has been there for the most part since the Ravens became the Ravens in 1996, was a strange sight, considering that after 16 NFL seasons, the end is closer than we'd like to admit.
Ray has been quoted as saying that he would consider retirement if the Ravens win the Super Bowl at the end of this season, and it's not a far fetched dream to see that as a possibility at this point in the season. Therefore, when it was announced two weeks ago that Lewis had injured his toe and would miss the Cincinnati Bengals game, fans cringed at the thought of losing the team's leader on the field, the sidelines and in the locker room.
The Ravens survived the Bengals and when it was obvious he would not play this past Thursday when the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers came to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, people were even more worried that his loss would leave a huge hole in the defense. However, the Ravens not only won the game, they totally dominated the 49ers defensively as well as offensively, showing that the "next man up" mantra included replacing Lewis for another game.
How long Ray will continue to be on the sidelines, leading pre-game chants and for the most part, being another coach on the sidelines, is not officially known at this point. More on this will come to the surface as the week proceeds closer to game day when the Ravens next head to play the Cleveland Browns at 4pm next Sunday. One thing has begun to be obvious and that is the team will be just fine right now and even what was once unthinkable to even imagine, much less discuss, which is the aforementioned "Life Without Ray."
Against the Bengals, Lewis' reps were pretty much split between linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo and Dannell Ellerbe. On Thanksgiving, Ellerbe was also inactive due to an injury and Ayanbadejo played a majority of snaps next to Ray's inside linebacker partner, Jameel McClain. All three played excellent in these two games, especially the shutdown performance against San Francisco, which was held to 74 yards rushing on 21 attempts for a 3.5 yard per carry average.
The Bengals went over the 100-yard mark (119 yards) but their 4.0 average and almost 500 yards of total offense still couldn't pull out a victory over the Ravens, thanks to two big turnovers that led to touchdowns on the very next plays. McClain totaled 11 total tackles, including 6 assists in the two games, while Ayanbadejo totaled 8 tackles in those two games.
Coming out of Syracuse University in 2008, the same year as QB Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice, Jameel McClain inexplicably was not drafted by any of the NFL's 32 teams and signed with the Ravens as a free agent. After making the team, he played sparingly for parts of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, before starting 15 of 16 games in 2010 at inside linebacker next to the All-Pro Lewis. When Ray went down to injury, McClain took over calling the defensive signals and even refused to come out of the SF game despite his arm dangling by his side, knowing how short the team was at the LB position.
Dannell Ellerbe was also an undrafted free agent out of the University of Georgia and while he received a decent amount of playing time in his rookie season, he seemed to regress in 2010, spending much of the season watching McClain get the majority of reps. Ellerbe has been inactive a bunch of games in 2011 due to a lingering thigh injury, but has played well when active. He seems t be playing the run better than the pass, which explains his sharing reps with veteran LB Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is a bit more athletic as evidenced by his being originally signed by the team as a Special Teams ace through free agency in 2008.
Now these three have seen their roles blossom from obscurity to front and center due to the injury to Lewis and have given us that premature glimpse into what will certainly be the future of the Ravens defense, if not after this season, then certainly not much beyond that. While it is unclear whether or not Ray will return this coming week or even be out the remainder of the season, one thing has begun to come into focus and that is that the team will ultimately be able to digest what once was a nightmare of a possibility and that is of course, "Life Without Ray."