The Denver Broncos are heavy favorites over the Baltimore Ravens largely because of a Week 15 win over them in Baltimore. This game is in Denver and the Ravens are coming off a shortened week. It will be very difficult for the Ravens to pull off a victory and the only significant difference between Saturday’s game and Week 15 will be the presence of Ray Lewis.
Lewis returned last Sunday after missing nearly three months to lead the Ravens to a victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs. He also announced his retirement, meaning a loss in Denver would be Lewis’ final game.
If there’s one guy whose presence alone can make you nervous it’s Lewis. Much like Peyton Manning, the physical skills aren’t quite as sharp as they once were, but Lewis is still effective. Lewis’ leadership skills and instincts are off the charts even if he’s no longer an imposing physical defender.
It’s amazing that Lewis could play every snap on defense after sitting on the sideline since Week 6 and at one of the most physically demanding positions in football. Lewis sported a hefty brace on his left arm indicating that he’s still not 100 percent healthy.
As a leader, there is no one quite like Ray Lewis. Great players like Lewis and Manning have the ability to elevate the players around them. “(Manning) raises all boats, for sure. Guys see that, and he raises the bar pretty high for all his teammates,” John Fox said (via the team’s official website). He could have just as easily been talking about Lewis.
Of course, leadership is one of the intangible traits that cannot be measured. There’s just no way of knowing if Lewis’ presence will really help the Ravens overcome unfavorable conditions to beat a formidable foe. It makes a difference, but how much of a difference it will make is topic of great debate.
Baltimore has a 6-1 record when Lewis plays and a 4-5 record when he doesn’t this season. That’s a pretty drastic difference which is actually greater than the impact Manning had on the Broncos’ record from 2011 to 2012. That’s not to say that Lewis has more impact on his team; it only highlights the impact.
There is also Lewis’ actual play on the field, which is probably more important to the actual outcome of the game on Saturday. The Broncos are certainly devising ways to beat the Ravens and a big part of that will be trying to beat Lewis.
Lewis is still capable of making impact plays even with a bum triceps and playing for the first time in weeks. Lewis can do this because of his football instinct and intelligence. At one point in the first half against the Colts, Lewis shoots the gap to bring down Vick Ballard for a loss.
Lewis doesn’t fall for the play fake and is able to drag Ballard down for a two-yard loss on the play. It’s hard for an offense to account for a linebacker shooting a gap from the non-play side and still making the tackle.
Plan of Attack
Although Lewis is still capable of making some plays when he’s unblocked, his physical skills have diminished to the point that he’s no longer great when he has to get off a block. Surely his triceps injury is making it even harder for Lewis to disengage from blockers to make plays.
On this run, Lewis reads the run immediately and moves into position to make a tackle. Rookie tight end Dwayne Allen is going to pull around and engage Lewis on the edge to try and clear a path for his running back.
Allen and Lewis engage at the line of scrimmage, with Ballard looking for a running lane. The very fact that Lewis read the play so well probably made this play doomed from the start. It was a good outcome for the Ravens, but a play that the Broncos would be very wise to examine.
Look how far Lewis gets blown backward by the rookie tight end. When the play is over, Lewis has been moved at least four yards and is nowhere near the ball-carrier. It would be one thing if Lewis didn’t have momentum and an offensive lineman got his paws on him, but this was a tight end.
If the Broncos want to use the running game like they did in Week 15, they will need to get a blocker to the second level to block Lewis. When left unblocked, Lewis proved he can still move laterally and come up and make the tackle. This is no different than the strategy to beat most NFL middle linebackers.
Make Him Cover
Lewis doesn’t move as well as he once did which means he’s not nearly as good as he once was in coverage. Lewis has never been the most agile of athletes, but he made up for it with his instincts and quickness. The instincts are still there, but Lewis is stiff. While Lewis reacts quickly to what he sees, his body is no longer able to turn that into an explosive play.
The Ravens don’t ask Lewis to cover man-to-man, but they do ask him to sink and take away the curl and hook in zone coverage. What defenses have learned to do is find an open receiver in Lewis’ zone and then force him to make a tackle in space.
At one point Lewis could break up those passes and would otherwise be right on top of the receivers, but that’s not the case anymore. The Colts threw at Lewis nine times, completing six for 80 yards according to ProFootballFocus. It wouldn’t be the first time a team attempted to attack Lewis in coverage.
Expect Manning and the Broncos to try to force Lewis to tackle a receiver in space by running receivers underneath his curl-hook responsibility. Once there, Lewis is going to have to come up and make a tackle or the Broncos will be able to turn the plays into nice gains.
Unless Lewis morphs into a 25-year-old or he’s able to elevate the play of those players around him, the Broncos can simply focus on getting a body on him in the running game and forcing him to move as much as possible in the passing game. The Broncos shouldn’t worry about Lewis, but if anyone can come out of nowhere to have an amazing game it’s him.