Over the past decade, no team has had more defensive success than the Baltimore Ravens, yet this season saw that once-proud defense fall to 17nth in the league. What changed in just one year? Emotion. That emotion is the reason the return of Ray Lewis helped propel a struggling defense into a Super Bowl-caliber unit.
At no point during the regular season did the Ravens have Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis on the field at the same time. Suggs and Lewis are the emotional leaders for that defense, always inspiring teammates with their brash but powerful remarks and refusal to give up.
With that dynamic duo separated for the entire season, the Ravens predictably struggled. The defense looked flat, at one point allowing at least 200 yards rushing in three consecutive games. A once proud defense was done.
The loss of Lewis compounded the issue. True, he was no longer the elite linebacker who revolutionized the position, but he still ensured his teammates gave 100 percent effort at all times. Lewis was basically a coach on the field, and his absence made that defense lose what was left of its sharpness.
Nose tackles Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu were pushed around on every play, opposing ball-carriers shed tackles like they were swatting flies and there seemed to be no end in sight.
Then, a light at the end of the tunnel. Lewis, once considered a long-shot to play again in 2012, would return. We didn't know when this would happen or even how good he would be, but Lewis was going to be back in 2012.
There were rumors that he would return by the Ravens' Week 15 clash with the Denver Broncos, but he remained on IR. Similar rumors swirled the next week against the New York Giants. Again, Lewis remained sidelined.
Finally, the report came: Lewis would be taken off injured reserve. He would play in the playoffs.
By this time, though, the damage had been done. The Ravens had gone 5-5 without Lewis, and they fell from a likely first-round bye team to a straggler limping into the playoffs. How much difference could an aging, diminished linebacker really make?
Turns out, a lot. When Lewis announced that he would retire at the end of the season, the floodgates opened. His return went from a nice story to the lighting of an emotional fire that would fuel the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
Where many saw an old fool dancing around like a faded star, the Ravens saw something different. In Lewis' last dance, the Ravens saw a warrior doing his final tribal dance before fighting for the last time. The team rushed him on his return to get a glimpse of that last dance.
There would be no doubt that this defense would be a different unit after that.
The numbers were startling. A defense that gave up 5.2 yards per play during the regular season locked down three of the top offenses in the NFL, giving up just 4.9 yards per play in the playoffs.
The difference in the clutch was even more noticeable.
The Ravens' defense suffered its lowest point in Washington, where the unit blew a 14-point lead to eventually lose the game in overtime. With a chance to win the game by stopping a Washington two-point conversion, the Ravens surrendered an easy conversion on a draw by backup quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The next week seemed to be the nail in the coffin. The defense surrendered 34 points while Knowshon Moreno had a career game with 115 yards on the ground.
To rebound, the team needed Lewis. Rebound it did.
The Ravens sacked Andrew Luck three times in the Wild Card Round and pressured him many more. Unable to get into a rhythm, Luck struggled, and the Ravens won. Ray Lewis had 12 tackles.
The next week, Corey Graham came up with two game-defining interceptions, one an early pick-six and the other to set the Ravens up in Broncos' territory in overtime. Lewis had 17 tackles, and this time the Ravens held Moreno to just 3.2 yards per carry before he was injured.
Finally, the Ravens had a chance to face a Patriots' offense that put up 30 points in their Week 3 matchup. One play defines the game for this defense: Cary Williams' game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter. Down 15, Tom Brady forced the ball to Brandon Lloyd, but Williams got the right position and came down with the pick to guarantee the win. Lewis had 14 tackles.
On an individual level, Lewis made his presence felt. Analysts were hard on him, but he cannot help that blockers got to him with near impunity. The fact is, 43 tackles in three games is impressive.
On a team level, though, is where Lewis really shined. There was a new level of focus in that defense, especially in the red zone. Despite surrendering 415 yards per game, the Ravens gave up just four offensive touchdowns in their three playoff games.
Further, the defense has been more opportunistic. The Ravens have accumulated five interceptions and four forced fumbles, resulting in a plus-five turnover margin in three games.
Turnovers are a measure of aggression. Red-zone defense is a measure of focus. The Ravens have had both thanks to the return of Lewis.
Veterans, rookies, offensive and defensive players alike all respond to Lewis. He is the leader. Michael Silver of Yahoosports.com quotes former Ravens tackle Tony Pashos, who gushed over Lewis' leadership:
When I hear about the great ones like [Boston Celtics legend] Bill Russell, they say that he made everyone around him better. That's Ray. If you could wrap up all the qualities of all the Hall of Famers, he's got 'em all. And those five to 10 minutes in the locker room before we charged through that tunnel? I'm getting goosebumps even talking about it. It was like he bottled up everything that the sport embodies.
Former Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, a true leader in his own right, echoed those comments in a commentary for The New York Times:
He respected the game so much that he felt he owed it to himself and to his team to play at full tilt as long as he was on the field. When watching films of our games, I would be amazed to see him still running at full speed with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, a time when other linebackers had slowed considerably from the game’s start.
Even Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice and other current leaders for the Ravens had to praise Lewis' overarching leadership skills:
Who could have believed that the Ravens, owners of a 1-4 record in their final five games, would be in the Super Bowl? They couldn't have done it without Lewis. He has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he is the most special leader in NFL history.