Baltimore Ravens Linebackers: Super Bowl XLVII Worthy
Baltimore Ravens Linebackers
Any team that makes it through their NFL schedule with enough success to make the playoffs, and then wins their conference, has had numerous things go really well. This Baltimore Ravens team has long been a franchise that stacked wins through the strength of their defense, and it was usually guys like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs leading the way, but this season we saw the Ravens get big time production from their entire linebacker group.
Lewis and Suggs both missed a ton of time this season as Lewis started just six regular season games, and Suggs just eight. Both are back now, and in fact these three playoff games are the only three games all season where Lewis, Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ed Reed have played for the Ravens. Lewis has led the team in tackles all three playoff games, and it looks like the Ravens are getting back to being a dominant defense.
The linebacker injuries made the Ravens seem more vulnerable vs the run than they had been in the past and we saw only three teams get run against more than Baltimore, but the players we will look at provided depth and helped the team allow just 4.1 yards per carry (tied for no.7 in the NFL). The Ravens did allow a whopping 15 touchdowns on the ground, but since Lewis and Suggs have returned in these playoffs the Ravens are yielding just 3.9 yards per carry (just 3.4 on the road) and they allowed zero rushing touchdowns during this AFC Title run.
This slideshow article is a look at the production that the Ravens have had from their linebackers all season as they are a unit that has helped the Ravens get to this point, and if they are going to win Super Bowl XLVII then these guys will need to be great one more time.
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Fifth year Raven Jameel McClain was in his third season as a starter, and he had amassed a career-high 57 solo tackles (79 total) when a spinal contusion in week 14 ended his (productive) season. McClain started at both inside linebacker spots and he is under contract through next season so we will see a lot more from him in the future.
With studs like Lewis and Suggs missing time this season the Ravens had to turn to special teams studs to give them production at the linebacker spot and guys like Albert McClellan and Brendon Ayanbadejo came through, big-time. McClellan played at numerous different spots along the linebacker line this season, and 10 year veteran Ayanbadejo started three games at inside linebacker (he had started a total of four games at linebacker in his previous nine seasons). Even Josh Bynes saw time at linebacker due to injuries and his play improved with each start.
The return to health of Lewis and Suggs, plus the strong play of guys like Courtney Upshaw, Paul Kruger, and Dannell Ellerbe mean that any of these guys are unlikely to see significant playing time in the Super Bowl, but they are contributors for the Ravens and they have shown if they are called on they can produce for this team.
The Ravens drafted Courtney Upshaw in the second round of the 2012 draft and they hoped he would fit into this linebacker unit and be able to contribute significantly better than their 2010 second round pick (fellow linebacker) Sergio Kindle. So far, so good.
The University of Alabama product was likely going to get a chance for a lot of playing time, and perhaps even earn a few starts in his rookie campaign, but injuries had him in their as a starter nine times. The 6'2" 275 pounder is not a threat to be a successful blitzer/pass rusher, but he is extremely good vs the run (likely their best player vs the run, even as a rookie).
Upshaw is not adept at getting in the backfield to disrupt a quarterback, but when he diagnosis that it is a running play he can be extremely disruptive/effective and he often makes the tackle for a loss of yards. He will not start in the Super Bowl, but this Ravens defense is aging and has been in a ton of action this season so they will need bench production vs the 49ers and Upshaw is their top sub for their LB crew.
Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger
Coming into this season Dannell Ellerbe had just 7 starts, and just 1.0 career sack. Due to injuries, plus his development, we saw Ellerbe start seven games this season alone, and he recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks. Ellerbe will start Super Bowl XLVII at left inside linebacker and it is worth noting that the majority of his production this season came away from home. The 6'1" 245 pounder is very good vs the run, and he is also good vs the pass. He is a very complete and well rounded linebacker.
Paul Kruger came into this season with a total of one start and 5.5 sacks, but due to injuries plus his improved play we saw Kruger start eight games this season (including playoffs) and he amassed 11.5 sacks (including playoffs). The fourth year player has developed into one of the top pass rushing outside linebackers for 3-4 base defenses, and he is likely the best pass rusher that the Ravens have (Ellerbe is likely the second best).
An interesting thing that I noticed is Kruger gets his sacks vs the future of the NFL, guys like Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Andy Dalton, but living legends like Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady always find ways to avoid him. I would have to think that Colin Kaepernick is the type of QB that Kruger has had success against this season and surely the Ravens will need to find ways to drop Kaepernick in the big game.
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are the big ticket items for this linebacker crew. We know this is the last game in the Hall of Fame career for Lewis, and Suggs is now on the other side of 30 so the Ravens will not be led by either of these guys going forward. Both are playing very well these days, in fact Lewis has led the team in tackles in all three playoff games, and Suggs has matched his eight game regular season output in these three playoff games alone.
The last time we saw a healthy season from Lewis was 2010, and despite the fact that he is sailing off in the sunset we still see he is playing at a very high level. The emotion and leadership that he brings is off the charts so when he makes a tackle it carries more weight than anyone else. I feel like his last great game was back in week 1 vs the Cincinnati Bengals, but in the playoffs he has been cleaning up play after play and making tackle after tackle.
Suggs has not looked like himself since returning from an Achilles issue, and he did seem to tweak that injury in the Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts so we are not seeing a 100% Suggs. In the past this guy has been a beast and the Ravens use his pass-rush abilities to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and wreak havoc. In the past five season Suggs has a sack in 35 games and the Ravens are 26-9 in those games (including playoffs).
As we have seen this Ravens linebacker group is deep and talented, but to succeed vs the 49ers they will require Lewis to lead the way with his tackling plus they will need Suggs to drop Kaepernick (perhaps more than once as the Ravens need to create ways to slow down this h-o-t 49ers offense).
Ravens Linebackers vs the San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are averaging a whopping 236 rushing yards per playoff game (wow) and of the 20 rushing touchdowns in the 2013 NFL Playoffs the Niners have seven of them (remember they were off for Wild Card weekend so that is seven rushing touchdowns in just two games...wow). They are a massive test for any linebacker group.
When the 49ers lose they do not even average 100 rushing yards per game, but in wins they average a massive 174 rushing yards per game. The Niners have only scored a measly one touchdown in games where they lose and we know their bread is buttered through their running attack. The Ravens will need all hands on deck in their linebacker group to compete with the Niners, especially considering how many plays this aging defense has been on the field for in these playoffs. Lewis and Suggs are sure to get the pub, but guys like Upshaw, Kruger, and Ellerbe will be called on more than once in the big game.
The Ravens offense is clicking, and their defense is healthier than it has been all season, but overall this engine is still powered by their linebackers.
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