Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis left Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys in the waning minutes with what is likely a season-ending torn triceps injury. In the absence of its emotional leader, the team will need several players to step up to fill Lewis' void in the defense.
The news of Lewis' injury was broken by NFL Network reporter Jeff Darlington. Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports that Lewis will receive an MRI on Monday to determine the true extent of the damage.
A rash of injuries slammed the Ravens on Sunday, but the loss of their face of the franchise for the season would be particularly devastating.
Here is a look at several players Baltimore will be counting on without the future Hall of Famer anchoring its 3-4 scheme.
Despite not starting a game all season, the former undrafted free agent has notched 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He is likely to replace Lewis as a starter on the inside, which means he will have to put the defense in the proper positions to succeed.
Being mentored by Lewis for his entire career is a huge advantage for Ellerbe. There aren't many better players that he could have learned from.
Ellerbe should be ready to fill in and must be able to match wits with the opposing quarterback. The Ravens have struggled all season on defense, and part of it may be due to playing Lewis so much. Lewis did lead the team in tackles, but definitely seems to have lost a step or two.
Having the superior speed of Ellerbe on the field even more frequently might actually improve Baltimore's defense. Filling in Lewis' big shoes from a football IQ standpoint is quite a tall task, though.
A lot of what the Ravens have been able to do on defense has depended on Terrell Suggs' ability to sack the quarterback. An offseason Achilles injury to Suggs thrust Kruger into a much more significant role for the first time in his four-year career.
Kruger is now counted on to provide pressure from the outside linebacker spot, but he needs to be more productive than he has been. He had 5.5 sacks last season, and has 1.5 through five games in 2012.
Whoever replaces Lewis in the heart of the defense will not be able to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage as well.
That should lead to more aggressiveness and blitzing to compensate, and Kruger will be the one coming off the edge to chase the opposing QB.
As a second-round pick in 2009, Kruger has been one of the few prospects that the Ravens have arguably missed on in the draft. He must prove otherwise for the defense to endure the impact of Lewis' likely long-term injury.
The emergence of Lardarius Webb as a top-tier cornerback and the stellar play of Cary Williams left Smith as the odd man out. As a 2011 first-rounder, Smith has only started three games in his brief NFL career.
However, as Aaron Wilson's aforementioned report indicated, Webb tore his ACL on Sunday and will definitely be lost for the season. That means Smith will likely move into a legitimate starting role for the first time, although he did strain his groin against the Cowboys as well.
Smith must turn into the corner GM Ozzy Newsome thought he was getting in last year's draft.
At 6'2", 205 pounds, Smith brings exceptional size to the corner position, and the Ravens' aggressive defense may be able to be more versatile if he can use that size to provide solid press coverage.
Williams has been a ball hawk with three interceptions already in 2012, and Smith must be similarly opportunistic.
Baltimore may be sitting at 5-1, but its defense is hurting through injuries and lackluster production. Dallas was the second straight opponent to run for over 200 yards.
Webb's value was one of the few bright spots, as the team has allowed an uncharacteristic amount of yardage this season.
Smith will be counted on in both the absence of Webb and Lewis to be a leader on defense. He must lock down his side of the field so that the Ravens can have more flexibility on its shorthanded defensive unit.
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