- - Wednesday, October 17, 2012

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Since 1996, Ray Lewis has been the unquestioned leader of the Baltimore Ravens‘ defense.

Lewis led his team to a Super Bowl title in 2000. He was the focal point of some of the best defenses of the past decade. Teammate Terrell Suggs refers to Lewis as “the general” of the defense, which has had a history of making days difficult for opposing offenses.

But Monday, the Ravens received the news they feared, which was that Lewis would probably miss the rest of the season with a torn right triceps sustained in Baltimore’s 31-29 win over Dallas on Sunday. Though Lewis was placed on the injured reserve-designated to return list Wednesday, it’s unlikely Lewis will return to the field this year.

Now it’s time for the Ravens to figure out a way to replace their leading tackler and emotional leader.

“We just have to find a way to fill the void,” Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “You can’t really replace a guy like that. He’s just the type of leader that really changes the game and changes the whole atmosphere. To see him go down is going to be detrimental. I hope we can rally. I think we will. We just need guys to step up.”

The pressure is now on for a cast of young defenders that will be called upon with Lewis out. Josh Bynes, a second-year linebacker out of Auburn, was signed from the practice squad to fill Lewis‘ roster spot. Starting weak side linebacker Jameel McClain will move to middle linebacker, with Dannell Ellerbe becoming the starter at McClain’s former spot.

The Ravens were in this position a season ago, though. Lewis missed four games in the middle of the season with turf toe.

During that absence, the Ravens gave up more than 20 points once — in a game against Cincinnati that Baltimore won 31-24. The defense didn’t surrender more than 10 points in the other three games — against San Francisco, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Linebacker Albert McClellan received his first career start against San Francisco last year when Lewis was out. He said it was a learning experience for the younger players on defense.

“We’ve got to overcome adversity like we did when he was out for those four weeks,” McClellan said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”

Making matters worse, however, is that cornerback Lardarius Webb is out for the season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament against Dallas. Webb not only was Baltimore’s best cornerback in coverage, he was valuable in run support as well. Webb has a reputation of being a sure tackler who is versatile enough to line up at multiple spots.

The Ravens could use a committee to replace Webb. Second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith will start in Baltimore’s base defense with corners Corey Graham, Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson getting looks as well.

When the Ravens are in their nickel package, Webb lined up against the slot receiver since he could play various roles from that position. Graham figures to be the primary candidate to step into Webb’s nickel role.

Graham spent his first five years in the NFL on special teams with the Chicago Bears. He came to Baltimore in free agency for the opportunity to play on defense, something he didn’t feel he was getting with the Bears.

However, Graham conceded the additional playing time because of an injury is bittersweet.

“I’m happy that I’m going to get the opportunity to play a little bit more,” Graham said. “That was one of the reasons I came here, to get the opportunity to play more. But being in this situation [stinks]. It’s not how I wanted it to happen. I wanted to get the opportunity to play with Webb.”

There’s an adage in the NFL that the next man up must be ready when someone goes down with an injury. It’s something coach John Harbaugh has been telling his team since Monday, when he received word that it would be playing the rest of the season without two of his best defenders.

“It’s an opportunity, and we talked about doors closing and opening,” Harbaugh said. “It’s part of the National Football League.”

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