The Ravens linebackers have always been “Ray Lewis & Friends” and that isn’t just because of Lewis’ commercials or NFL pregame hype. Lewis improves the players around him, and most seasons had followed the same script: Ray Lewis attracts the attention of the offense and otherwise mediocre linebackers are able to make advantageous plays around him. 2010 was different for a couple of reasons: Lewis’ diminishing range leading to slightly less attention from opposing blockers, and Terrell Suggs’ (re-)emergence as one of the premier pass-rushing linebackers in the NFL. Even so, Baltimore has a long way to go before they can put together a group close to what would be needed to replace Lewis’ leadership, energy, and intelligence. First and foremost, a truly complementary linebacker will have to be found either among the clustered group currently vying for the spot alongside Lewis or from outside the organization.
Ray Lewis had another steady season, but his limitations as a linebacker were apparent in 2010 unlike any past season. Lewis remains a fearsome run stopper, but his days of dropping effectively into deep coverage on an athletic tight end are over, as are his days of breaking through the line on a regular basis. This season Lewis gained most of his sacks and many of his tackles for loss on plays designed to free him up and give him an open lane to the backfield. Now, do not confuse this for Lewis not being a great linebacker. He remains one of the smartest field leaders and most sure tacklers in the NFL, and understands how to make the most of his remaining athletic ability. He is not going sideline-to-sideline, but neither do most NFL linebackers. He had the fewest sacks he has had in a full 16 game season since 2003, though his 102 tackles were his best since 2004. As long as Lewis is capable of suiting up, he improves this team, regardless of his age. His leadership and understanding of opposing offenses make him an asset to the defense far beyond his raw athletic ability. He will be back in 2011, and Baltimore will be better for it.
Particularly since no other middle linebacker was able to distinguish himself in the 2011 season. Dannell Ellerbe once again bounced around from the bench to a starting position, and once again seemed to be in a position to blossom towards the end of the season before another undrafted player, Jameel McClain, took control of the linebacker spot aside Lewis. Gooden has again failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity and translate his athletic gifts into smart play, with the former second-round pick from the University of Miami continuing to free fall and run out of opportunities. This position is a lot like a Tampa Bay quarterback situation under Jon Gruden. Bring in about 3 or 4 mediocre players and hope that one is a star. Unfortunately in this case, none of the three seems anything more than a mediocre linebacker. Ravens fans have seen Ray Lewis make a lot of players look better playing next to him (see: Hartwell, Ed; Thomas, Adalius). Baltimore can still roll with the players they have for now, but I don’t see a long-term replacement for Lewis among this group, though Ellerbe could prove me wrong.
Terrell Suggs is the big story for his production this season, but that I think was more the result of effort than anything else. It has been well-known the talent that Suggs has in him to disrupt the passer and generally cause havoc behind the line; it was more on this potential than past production that landed him the 6-year, $62.5 million contract in 2009. Prior to this past season, Suggs had seen his production dwindle from his rookie season, but he exploded back on the season this year. Part of the reason was a commitment to have him rush the passer on almost every play, and the other part was his enthusiasm in doing so. The weakside linebacker in the Ravens’ defense has the freedom to attack the offense at will, so anything other than gaudy numbers should be considered a disappointment. Even at these standards, Suggs outplayed any previous season. If he enters 2011 with the same kind of fire, things look very good for another successful season for the Ravens defense.
Jarret Johnson is the prototypical strongside linebacker- capable of taking on a tight end or tackle at the point of attack to force a runner back inside, less able to drop back in coverage against said tight end but can hold his own. If Suggs on the weakside is given freedom to attack at will, Johnson on the strongside has very defined responsibilities that don’t show up in the box score. On that level, he has done well in helping lead the 5th ranked rush defense in the NFL. Baltimore would not be hurt however by looking for a more dynamic playmaker at the position, but Johnson is a smart, steady force who will be difficult to replace until his physical skills start to diminish.