The Baltimore Ravens‘ emotional leader and long-time captain at inside linebacker, Ray Lewis, returned to practice this week. Lewis, at 37 years of age, has missed the past six games and won’t play again this Sunday. Despite tearing his triceps against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, the Ravens fully expect Lewis to return to the field this season and he will be eligible to do so at Week 15′s game against the Denver Broncos.
Many expected the Ravens’ whole team to falter without Lewis. He is a future hall-of-fame linebacker with an incredible intellect and understanding of the game, but even prior to his injury, the effects of playing 17 seasons had notably taken its toll on his ability to be an impact player. Lewis had 57 total tackles, one sack, one pass deflection and one forced fumble in the six games prior to his injury. Yet, despite that statistical prowess, he wasn’t having an efficient season as the younger, more athletic offensive players were beginning to consistently keep him away from the ball.
Without Lewis in the lineup, the Ravens started Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe for the most part. Ellerbe replaced Lewis, until he dealt with his own injury issues that allowed Albert McLellan to be more prominent. Neither Ellerbe or McLellan have the resumes of Lewis or anything close to his experience and leadership, but both carry much greater athleticism than him at this point in their respective careers.
Ellerbe is enjoying his fourth season in the league, having been a bit-part player during his first three years. He is 27 years of age and was enjoying a breakout season in Lewis’ place. In 11 games and just five starts, Ellerbe had 81 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, two pass deflections and a forced fumble. He has been very active in each of his starts, notching at least nine tackles in four of the five games.
Most importantly, Ellerbe’s play on the field has elevated with his role. Alongside McClain, he has enjoyed much better performances on the field which has helped the overall performances of the team both against the run and the pass. After initially struggling to adapt without Lewis, giving up 43 points to the Houston Texans in Week 7, the Ravens defense adjusted during the bye week and have been very effective since. Against the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers and Steelers again, the Ravens have given up on average 13.5 points per game. While that may not be a murderer’s row of NFL offenses, it has contributed to a 4-1 record.
If Lewis were still in his prime, it would still be very difficult for him to return after just nine weeks from a triceps tear. The thought that at 37, he could return and be a difference-maker for this team physically at this point is just foolish. He’s not Adrian Peterson. There is definitely only one Peterson. Obviously, the Ravens would love to have Lewis back on the field for his ability to battle quarterbacks mentally, but he was already struggling to keep up with opposing tight ends and receivers prior to taking a few months out of the season. His triceps injury will likely limit his impact in run defense, too.
Lewis may have every single requirement to play in this league mentally, but even prior to his injury, he was beginning to tail off physically. Being rushed back from a triceps tear can only hurt his chances of being a positive influence on the team. Lewis’ leadership and inspiration can still be effective from the sidelines, but Ellerbe and McLellan’s physical attributes can’t.