Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is 37 years old and in his 17th season in the NFL. One would assume that a player of his age, no matter his past performance, would be seriously in decline after that long on the field. However, both Lewis and the Ravens have found ways for him to continue to contribute.
It helps that Lewis has one of the best supporting casts of defensive linemen and linebackers around him, but he isn't being overshadowed by his teammates. He's still making plays, if his performance in the Ravens' Week 1 win over the Cincinnati Bengals is any indication.
Lewis was the top Ravens defender in that game, notching 14 tackles (11 solo) and one sack. He was primarily used in stopping the run in the middle of the field and in coverage in the same area, taking on slot receivers and tight ends.
He was particularly active when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw to receiver Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Dalton tossed two passes to Hawkins when Lewis was there to cover him; Hawkins caught both of them, for 14 yards (including eight yards after the catch)—Hawkins, of course, is extremely fast compared to Lewis.
But Lewis blanked Gresham in the three passes thrown to him while Lewis was in the area. He also held running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to one four-yard reception (stats courtesy Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
Lewis played 63 snaps against the Bengals, with 23 of them against the run, four in pass rush and 36 in pass coverage. Though the breakdown of Lewis' snaps was similar in 2011, with him more involved in run defense and pass coverage, what makes this year different is that Lewis is now better prepared for the role.
This offseason, Lewis lost nearly 30 pounds in order to increase his speed in coverage, citing the rise in popularity of fast, physical, pass-catching tight ends like Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham as a reason to get lighter and speedier.
So far, it appears to have worked. Lewis looks leaner and faster than in 2011. Just look at him run across the field in an attempt to force Hawkins out of bounds after catching a pass:
And again, here's Lewis stopping Hawkins after a reception, allowing him maybe a half a yard:
He was particularly sharp when matched up against Green-Ellis, whether the running back was carrying the ball or catching passes. Here, Lewis crosses from one side of the play to another to make a big stop on Green-Ellis.
And here's Lewis stopping Green-Ellis; between the snap and the catch, Lewis drops back ever so slightly (he's out of the frame for a moment), then pops back up to hold Green-Ellis to no gain.
No matter Lewis' age, his dedication to his team and his passion for playing defense has given him an extended football life. He's gotten faster, he's always trying to make a tackle rather than just shoulder-checking running backs and receivers, and thus far he hasn't really been burned when playing in coverage.
The key for Lewis' longevity also rests in what he's being asked to do. They're not playing him as far back as their safeties, like some coverage linebackers do; instead, he's a middle-of-the-field beast.
The Ravens have shifted their defense somewhat to accommodate Lewis, and he appears well-suited to his current role. The weight loss helps, but ultimately the Ravens' defensive scheme has adjusted for Lewis, which maximizes his strengths and minimizes the areas in which he's less effective.
Age, apparently, is nothing but a number. Whether 37 or 27, Lewis is the same old No. 52—a playmaker.
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