Funny in a not so ha-ha way how Ray Lewis was injured last Sunday on what was his final play of the season and, perhaps, the final play of his career, although I’m not ready to bet on that yet.
Lewis, the heart, soul and face of the Baltimore Ravens since the day he was drafted in 1996, lost 20 pounds over the offseason in an effort to improve the speed that helped make him one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history. The reasoning, the 37-year-old Lewis said, was that offenses had gotten away from the power running-game roots of the NFL, pointing out it was more important for him to be able to drop back into pass coverage, which, frankly, he hasn’t been able to do for the past few seasons.
The truth is, as Lewis has aged, his ability to get to the quarterback and make tackles in space has been limited as well. But with the lost weight he was also having trouble stuffing the run, something he never had trouble doing before.
The Kansas City Chiefs, for instance, two weeks ago blistered the belly of the once mighty Ravens run defense for 214 yards, while the Cowboys, who are enormous on both sides of the ball (and, by the way, not too terribly bright), easily rolled to 227 yards last Sunday.
The play Lewis was flattened on? A running play right at him. Whether or not that was the specific cause of his torn right triceps muscle, it was a running play, and it was a running play that specifically landed Ray Lewis on his back and on injured reserve. Although on Thursday, the Ravens did designate him for return, a mere courtesy extended to the most important player in franchise history.
Not to A.) kick a man when he’s down, or B.) ever underestimate Ray Lewis, but the Ravens might be better off for now as it pertains to run defense, as Dannell Ellerbie is the next man up, just as he was last season for the four games Lewis missed with a toe injury. The Ravens, by the way, won all four of those games, but keep in mind outside linebacker Terrell Suggs also played in those games and, if you recall, Suggs was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Suggs, who has returned to practice for the first time since injuring his Achilles tendon last spring, was initially said to be out for the season. But the man who calls himself T-Sizzle said he’d defy all odds and return, and he has. The Baltimore Sun is reporting Suggs won’t play Sunday in Houston, although ESPN is reporting he will. Suggs, for his part, doing his best Garbo, says he “may or may not.”
Sunday’s non-division game in Houston is big for both teams as it could end up being a tiebreaker for a home playoff game, provided, of course, both teams make the playoffs. Sure, the Ravens are 5-1 and happy to be 5-1, their fifth win courtesy of a Dallas Cowboys stupidity grant (I mean, they are really stupid), but rest assured nobody in Baltimore is thinking playoffs right now.
For beginners, the Ravens defense currently looks like a MASH unit — a Pro Bowl MASH unit. More costly than Lewis, still the leader of the team, being done for the year is top cornerback Ladarius Webb being done for the year with another knee injury. On top of that, creaky Ed Reed says he has a torn labrum, and the team’s best player, Haloti Ngata, has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee as well as an injured right shoulder.
Are you kidding me? Playoffs!?
Not only that, the Ravens offense, which scores like a finely-tuned Gottlieb pinball machine at home (32 points a game), scores more like Steve Urkel on the road (16 ppg.). Throw in the Texans being embarrassed by the Packers on Sunday Night Football and the Ravens barely knocking them out of the playoffs last year when Houston was playing with a third-string quarterback, and there are a lot of ominous signs floating around out there if you are a Baltimore person.
Yet the Ravens will still make the flight to Houston, still play the game against the highly-talented, highly-irritated Texans in a highly-hostile environment, and by early Sunday evening, it will be seven games down and nine to go. Which is why I wouldn’t even let Terrell Suggs get on the plane.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org