It's looking rather likely that the Baltimore Ravens will get inside linebacker Ray Lewis back on the field this week when the team hosts the Denver Broncos. With the Ravens on a two-game losing streak and just one win away from clinching the AFC North title and a playoff spot, it's important that key players get healthy and contribute to that effort.
Lewis has been out since late October, having torn a triceps, and was placed on injured reserve with designated-to-return status. During his absence, he was replaced first by Dannell Ellerbe and then by a rotation of Albert McClellan, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Josh Bynes after Ellerbe injured his ankle. Though at first glance it appears the Ravens defense will be better with longtime starter Lewis back in the lineup, that may not ultimately be the case.
Lewis' role was primarily to work in run defense and in coverage—of his 453 snaps this season, 216 have come in run defense, 189 in pass coverage and just 48 in pass rush. However, Lewis proved to be somewhat of a liability in the two areas where he made his biggest contributions.
The 214 rushing yards the Ravens gave up to the Kansas City Chiefs in the week before Lewis' injury can be partially ascribed to Lewis' inability to catch speedy backs like Jamaal Charles.
Though the rushing yardage allowed went up immediately after Lewis' injury—227 to the Dallas Cowboys in the game he was injured and 181 the following week against the Houston Texans—the run defense has somewhat stabilized with (mainly) Ellerbe in Lewis' role. Since their Week 8 bye, the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards just three times, a major improvement from the 142 they were averaging per-game prior to the bye, when Lewis was their starter.
Despite the poor numbers against the run, coverage was actually Lewis' biggest weakness. Of the 21 passes thrown to offensive players he was assigned to cover, 15—or 71.4 percent—were caught, including 100 percent of the passes thrown his way in Weeks 3 through 6. Those receptions netted 195 total yards (an average of 13 yards per reception) and 100 yards after the catch.
While Lewis was not responsible for any touchdowns being scored, it doesn't matter—his job was to prevent completions and first downs in the intermediate zone, and despite losing weight in the offseason to improve his speed, he wasn't succeeding.
With the Broncos the Ravens' next opponent, it should be a big test for Lewis. He could be responsible for Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman or even Eric Decker on any particular play—and all of these players are going to be trouble for Lewis, even though the time away from the field may have him feeling a bit more fresh than he would otherwise.
There are two issues at play for Lewis this week that could cause him to stumble. One is the problem he's already been dealing with this season—keeping pace with younger, faster offensive players. The other is his arm—though it has been surgically repaired, it was still a very serious injury, one that could have easily ended his season or, at the very least, prevented him from returning prior to the playoffs. Any residual tightness or pain is going to affect his ability to tackle. A bum arm and a lack of speed won't be much help to the Ravens' defensive bottom line.
The best thing for Lewis this week is to not play every defensive snap. If Ellerbe is ready to return from his injury, he should be rotated in for Lewis, and often. If not, then the committee that took over Ellerbe's snaps should see playing time. While there's no doubt that Lewis is an emotional leader of Baltimore's defense, his on-field skills just aren't what they used to be.
It's not that Lewis has no value to the Ravens—it's just that his value has become more limited and specific. As an every-down linebacker, Lewis may harm more than he helps, especially against a team as offensively dynamic as the Broncos. A limited role for Lewis through the final stretch of the season should only benefit his health and maximize his strengths, helping the Ravens more than if he played every snap.