Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis missed the majority of the regular season after tearing his triceps in the team's Oct. 14 win over the Dallas Cowboys, but he managed to return in time for the playoffs.
Lewis, whose arm is not yet fully healed, played all 188 of the team's defensive snaps over the past two weeks—not bad for a 37-year-old who has confirmed he will retire when the Ravens' postseason run ends. But have his contributions helped or harmed the Ravens?
Before Lewis' injury, it's hard to say he wasn't a liability. Both in coverage and against the run, Lewis' speed wasn't what it used to be, and helped contribute to why the team gave up an unprecedented amount of yards to their opponents. While his leadership was missed sorely, it seemed they were better off without him when it came to on-field success.
The time off, however, seems to have helped Lewis in the playoffs. Further, the Ravens defense has adapted to not having Lewis, and now that he's there, any weaknesses he presents can be patched up by other players. Of course, it doesn't mean that Lewis has been putting forth anything less than his best effort over the past two weeks, however his declining speed and his heavily braced arm have had an effect on his play.
Take the near-interception of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. It wasn't that Lewis had lost a step that he didn't pull that ball down—it was more than likely due to him having to extend that injured arm to grab it. Without the torn triceps, he would have had more mobility, more range of motion and less pain, making it a much easier play.
As Pro Football Focus saw it, Lewis performed far better in the win over the Broncos than against the Colts. Of his 94 snaps against the Colts, 50 were in pass coverage, 31 against the run and 13 in pass rush, and he received negative grades in all three, with his coverage lacking the most. Of the nine times he was targeted, six were caught by their intended receiver, for 80 yards and 12 yards after the catch.
Not surprisingly, that poor performance in coverage made Lewis a target for Peyton Manning on Saturday. While Lewis' run-stopping ability vastly improved in the divisional meeting (going from a -2 rating from Pro Football Focus to a positive grade of 3.7), again in 94 snaps, he notched another negative grade in coverage.
Of the nine receivers Manning threw to in the loss, seven of them were targeted when matched up against Lewis. He was thrown to eight times, with all passes hitting their intended receiver for a total of 97 yards and 49 yards after the catch. Though tossing passes to coverage linebackers doesn't typically result in touchdowns, the yardage Lewis allowed on Saturday did indeed keep Denver drives alive.
In both games, time of possession heavily favored the Ravens' opponents. The Colts held the ball for 37:32 and ran 87 plays, to 22:28 and 56 plays for the Ravens, while the Broncos had a similar time and play advantage until the game went into overtime, where Baltimore had more possessions. Ultimately, the Broncos had 87 total plays and 40:06 in time of possession, while the Ravens had 74 plays and held the ball for 36:36.
That lopsided possession time helped contribute to why Lewis led not only his Ravens teammates but also all opposing defenders in total tackles, with 13 against the Colts and 17 against the Broncos. But the inflation in tackling numbers that came from Baltimore's defense spending so much time on the field doesn't serve to diminish how much Lewis contributed. Even though his coverage skills were lacking, he's notched just one missed tackle through those two games. When he's able to get to his man, Lewis clearly does.
However, the most compelling evidence that Lewis has not made it harder for his team in their two playoffs wins is that he's played every defensive snap. Lewis is a legend, a future Hall of Famer, but he's also on the edge of retirement and playing through a very serious injury that is not yet healed.
Though there's no chance that he could have been activated from injured reserve and not contributed in some way to this playoff run, if he was anything less than able to help the Ravens win, John Harbaugh wouldn't have him in there for every defensive down. He'd split time, he'd take plays off—something. But no, there's not yet been a single Lewis-less snap for the Ravens in the postseason.
This is playoff football, after all. Teams need to put their best players on the field for as much time as possible, not protect the feelings of their biggest names. If Lewis wasn't capable of making positive contributions over the past two weeks, Harbaugh wouldn't have had him on the field every down, and Lewis would likely understand that completely. He's played every snap for a reason beyond "being Ray Lewis."
Though Lewis has continued to struggle in coverage, his improvements against the run since the Colts game, as well as his tackling numbers, prove that he's helped the Ravens more than he's been a liability. More than just being a motivating figurehead for this playoff run, he's contributed to their defense playing at a higher level than they have for the majority of the regular season. No, he's not the player he used to be, but he's done nothing to harm his team's chances of winning as of yet.
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