Ray Lewis has had an illustrious career, one that will eventually conclude with a gold Hall of Fame jacket wrapped around his broad shoulders.
He is arguably one of the best—if not the best—linebackers of all time. He is known for his knowledge, work ethic, incredible passion and radiant confidence. It's those traits, along with smart schemes and game plans by his coaches, that have allowed him to positively impact the Ravens defense.
His work ethic is seemingly unparalleled, as he's always working to get better, whether it's pushing his body or his intellect to their limits. Lewis still adds to his football knowledge by taking endless notes like a determined rookie, as pointed out by defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
One of the things that really impressed me...is that when we're in the meeting room, and we're going over an opponent, Ray is sitting in the front row with a notebook and pen taking notes. Here he is, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, in his 17th year, taking notes before we go out to practice. That's why Ray Lewis is such a great player.
The intellectual side of Lewis' game has particularly impacted the Ravens, because it's his sophisticated understanding of how offenses work that allows him to get his defensive mates in the right position before the snap of the ball.
On one play in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round, Peyton Manning did his usual routine of altering plays at the line of scrimmage before going to a hard count. The count was designed to force the Raven defenders to give an inkling of their duties.
Lewis didn't flinch.
His passion and energy have also helped keep the defense going strong amidst injuries to key players like cornerback Lardarius Webb.
He's been injured too, tearing his tricep against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, but came back for the start of the playoffs after intense rehab. In the playoffs, he's proven that he still has some energy left in his tank for one last run, but it's also crystal clear that he's slowed down considerably.
The fiery veteran was once known for his sideline-to-sideline range but not anymore. He lacks the foot speed to consistently track down ball-carriers and his hips have gotten tighter with age. On one play last week against the New England Patriots, he was lined up just outside of the tackle box and was forced to cover a square-in run by Deion Branch.
Even though he was a zone defender, he was forced to cover Branch because the route came across in front him. In an effort to force Branch to adjust his route and throw off the timing with Tom Brady, he opened his hips toward the receiver and tried to cut off the inside.
However, a quick jab with the outside foot by Branch allowed him to freely cut across the middle. Lewis fell behind the receiver as he was attempting to flip his hips and change directions.
In Lewis' defense, he's never had great fluidity like some of the younger linebackers we see today, but it's still clear that he's not what he once was as a pass defender.
Against the run, he's had more success because of his ability to diagnose plays and because of the protection he has received over the years from the Ravens' interior defensive linemen. Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones have done a good job of minimizing the blocks Lewis has had to take on. With Lewis free of zone-blocking guards, he has more time to read and react.
Versus the Broncos in the divisional playoff win, he was able to stuff running back Knowshon Moreno on an inside handoff because he went untouched. The Ravens were playing with an "even" front on this specific play, with Lewis directly behind Jones, who covered up the right guard. As one can see below, Lewis has his hands on his hips, which is an old but key fundamental that is taught to linebackers so it's easier for them to shoot their hands up at the point of contact.
When the ball is snapped, the right guard and tackle perform a combination block on Jones. Their goal was to slide Jones laterally together and then the right tackle would peel off to block Lewis at the last second.
That didn't quite work out however, as Lewis quickly went through his keys and moved past the tackle before he could get his hands on him. Moreno was stuffed in seconds.
At times, he has had to deal with blockers getting their hands on him, despite the protection he gets up front; in most cases, he hasn't handled well this blocking engagement because he's playing smaller than he used to. During the offseason, he slimmed down to what was believed to be between 235 and 240 pounds, which he says is the lightest he's been since coming into the pros.
Despite slimming down and slowing down, Lewis has still been a key contributor to the Ravens defense.
His focus and energy is unmatched and his knowledge of the game is invaluable, consistently getting his defense into the right formations.
The defense has only allowed 49 percent of passes thrown to be completed when sending five or more rushers with Lewis on the field, whereas they give up 65 percent with him off of it (via espn.com). He's also made plays of his own, registering a league-leading 44 tackles in the postseason.
With retirement looming, Lewis will have a chance to make an impact once again at the Super Bowl. For the Ravens sake, they hope it's a lot like his first Super Bowl appearance when Lewis won MVP of Super Bowl 35 in dominating fashion.