The motto this year for the Baltimore Ravens‘ defense has been “next man up.” When Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle went down with injuries this season, they had players step up and fill the void - a system defense, if you will.
The system? Ray Lewis.
The linebacker, who in his 13th NFL season should be in the twilight of his career, instead remains one of the best at his position in the league and is again leading a powerful Ravens defense that has not allowed a touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
It is a defense with great talent, from perennial All-Pro Ed Reed at safety to outstanding linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott and a tough defensive line led by Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata.
But the brains and brawn of the defense the Washington Redskins will face Sunday night is the same as it was when the Ravens marched through the 2000 season on their way to a Super Bowl championship - Lewis.
At the Ravens’ training facility Wednesday, Suggs was asked about his defense’s ability to put points on the board.
“Our chances are better when we have the defense making plays,” Suggs said, adding, “and it always helps when you have Ray Lewis.”
The presence of the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker and two-time NFL defensive player of the year has not appeared to wear thin. If anything, Lewis’ impact on this team is stronger than ever, as he has grown to be a tremendous on-field defensive coordinator.
“Just watch the man before the snap,” Suggs said. “He has a lot going on. That is why he is the leader. He pretty much kind of guides us. I kind of tend to guess sometimes, but he knows. He tells me, ‘This is coming, that is coming.’”
His ability to read defenses frustrated Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh during Baltimore’s 34-3 win over Cincinnati last week so much that Houshmandzadeh felt compelled to ask Lewis about it on the field.
“T.J. came up to me after seven straight plays and asked, ‘How do you know what every play is going to be?’” Lewis said. “I said, ‘I do a lot of studying.’ He said, ‘No, it’s something you’re watching, something you’re seeing.’”
Lewis said he works harder than ever to be prepared for each opponent, not just for his position but to make the calls for everyone else on defense as well.
“I sit down and go through films for hours, so it is second nature for me,” Lewis said. “I can say, ‘OK, I’ve seen this before.’ It is about getting my players in the right position so they can make plays.”
Someone asked Lewis how many plays can he see coming. “It’s a high amount,” he said.
That is no idle boast. Lewis leads the team with 84 tackles. The Ravens’ run defense, ranked third in the NFL, hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 games. Baltimore is second in turnovers this season with 23 and has the top-ranked defense on third down. It ranks among the league leaders in nearly every defensive category.
Lewis is careful to spread the credit around, including Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan.
“We have a mentality that everybody has bought into, and that is to find the football,” Lewis said. “We just are playing where we are supposed to be.
“The run we are on comes with a lot of guys really buying into the system,” he said. “Rex is doing an incredible job of getting us in the right schemes and things like that. There is a lot of credit to go around. And the offense is controlling the ball a lot. We’re not going three-and-out. So it is a lot of different things, the way we are playing right now.”
Ryan is the third defensive coordinator Lewis has played for. The one constant throughout the Baltimore Ravens’ era of defensive excellence has been Lewis. In fact, Lewis - even with the stain of an obstruction of justice conviction in a fatal 2000 stabbing - has become the identity of Baltimore sports.
The Lewis era doesn’t appear to be close to ending, either. When asked whether he thought he had a season like this left in him, when it appeared he was on the downside of his game, the 33-year-old Lewis replied: “Men and women lie, but numbers don’t. You just keep playing football. You don’t care what people say. Bottom line is you line up and ask the people playing against me. You just play the game the same way and approach it the same way you did in Year one as you do in Year 13 with the same passion, the same dedication.”