By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
9:23 PM EDT, October 11, 2012
A helmet to the chest from Kansas City Chiefs center Ryan Lilja rudely greeted Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a punishing blow reinforced by Lilja shoving the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year to the ground.
Lewis suffered similar rough treatment from Chiefs guards Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah, each seemingly taking glee at crashing into the respected 13-time Pro Bowl selection.
Unable to shed blocks or consistently chase down backs in the open field, Lewis was repeatedly left grasping at air as Chiefs star runner Jamaal Charles sprinted around him to pile up 140 yards during the Ravens' 9-6 victory last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Like an aging heavyweight boxer who refuses to accept defeat, Lewis dusted himself off and played a major role in eventually halting Charles' runs and limiting him to 15 yards on 10 carries after halftime.
It was an ugly performance overall for Lewis in Kansas City, though, raising concerns about whether the 37-year-old has declined significantly five games into his 17th NFL season.
"He's outmanned at the point of attack," said retired Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams, Lewis' former teammate. "He's not as physical. You see a lot of Ray on the ground, on his back. He gets overpowered and stuck to blocks.
"You can't expect a guy to not lose a couple of steps with all the wear and tear on his body. You're not accustomed to seeing Ray have so many problems. It's glaring, it looks really bad."
Late in the fourth quarter, Lewis crushed Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray with a tackle for a loss.
It was one of Lewis' game-high 10 stops, but it was his only tackle that wasn't downfield.
"Obviously, Ray is like a quarterback and when things don't go well, people will point at him," former Indianapolis Colts coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview. "People are getting up on Ray and blocking him. He's not the same player he was 10 years ago. When I was coaching, I told the guys, 'If we don't block Ray Lewis, he will make every tackle.'
"He had big guys in front of him and he didn't have to take on a lot of blocks. That's not his strength. It's tougher now for him. It's a young man's game. It's hard for me to believe it was 2003 and I was coaching him in the Pro Bowl. Is he the same player now as he was at 27? No, but he still brings a lot to the table. I would be surprised if they don't get this run defense squared away."
Although Lewis leads the team with 43 tackles and has contributed a sack, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery, the Ravens have fallen on difficult times defensively.
The NFL's third-ranked defense from last season has dipped to 24th in total defense, 20th against the run and is tied for 22nd in pass defense.
In particular, Lewis has had trouble stopping physical isolation plays directly at him and zone-stretch sweeps, as well as keeping up with faster running backs like Charles. Cleveland Browns rookie Trent Richardson dashed away from him on a red-zone touchdown run.
"Ray still has the instincts, but he's not playing downhill," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout who's now an NFL Network analyst. "He's on the ground more than I've ever seen him. He's playing laterally on his heels. He doesn't strike the same and can't get off blocks.
"I can remember five years ago watching him flailing and people pronouncing him as done. Having been around the guy, I'm not comfortable saying that. I would just cover him up with linemen and let him just read, run and hit. He can still tackle."
At this point, Lewis appears to be getting the job done with guile and guts as much as his former trademark athleticism.
"When you lose your skill set a little bit, what you can do is be the smartest player on the field," former Washington Redskins safety and current NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. "No wasted movement, no false steps, read your keys, but you can still be exposed in the open field. Ray is a Hall-of-Fame player, one of the faces to the NFL. Players look up to him.
"At the same time, if you can't get there, if you can't get that burst, if you can't open your hips and go, it will show up on tape. Losing weight was a smart idea for him. It will be interesting to see if people go after him since this last game if he's showing he's lacking some ability to work sideline to sideline."
The Ravens are bereft of NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who's on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a partially torn right Achilles tendon. His absence has affected the defense a lot as far as stopping the run and the pass.
In the past, the mere presence of Lewis, an emotional leader known for his elaborate pregame dance and inspirational fire-and-brimstone speeches, would be enough for the defense to maintain its traditional gold standard.
So far this year, that hasn't been the case.
Yet Lewis hasn't lost an ounce of respect in the Ravens' locker room, where he remains a powerful force.
"He's playing unbelievable," outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. "Yeah, he might've been faster a couple years ago, but he's still dominating the game. He's done something not many players have been able to do. The fact that he's doing what he's doing at his age is incredible. I can't say enough about the way the guy prepares and plays the game.
"Obviously, there comes a point in time when everybody has to quit playing time game. Nobody can play forever, but nobody has done it the way he's done. I'm just amazed at what he's done. His career is a motivator for everybody."
Lewis led the Ravens last season with 95 tackles despite missing four games with a painful toe injury.
He's on pace for 137 tackles this season.
"He's still one of the best," All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach said. "He takes care of himself, he takes care of his body. He comes in day in and day out and puts some nice work together."
For his career, Lewis has 2,629 tackles, 41 1/2 sacks, 31 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries. He has led the Ravens in tackles 14 times and recorded at least 130 tackles 13 times.
He's the Ravens' all-tome leading tackler and is the NFL's all-time active career tackle leader ahead of London Fletcher (2,263), Keith Brooking (1,843), Brian Urlacher (1,678) and Mike Peterson (1,600).
"I see the same guy," Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said heading into Sunday's game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. "I see a guy who is the emotional leader of that defense and the emotional leader of that football team. They all look to him.
"I see a guy who makes a ton of plays once the play starts. He makes a lot of tackles, is around the ball a lot. He's the same guy that we have been seeing here."
Lewis' diminished production caught the attention of NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell last year, who noticed he wasn't getting as much depth on pass drops as before.
Despite Lewis getting down to a lean 235 pounds, his lightest weight since he was a rookie during the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996, Cosell said the explosiveness is no longer there.
"I don't think he's nearly as effective in the sub packages anymore," Cosell said. "The guy's unbelievable, as dynamic a human being as anyone you've ever been around. The guy is a first-ballot Hall-of Famer, but he's being blocked like he never has before. He's lost some of his athletic movement.
"He's 37 years old, so none of this is a surprise to anyone in the NFL. His lateral movement skills have deteriorated. He's not the same sideline-to-sideline player as he was. Ray's reaction time isn't quite as fast now."
The Ravens stonewalled Charles in the second half primarily because of more aggressive play from the front seven and a sharp halftime adjustment from defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Pees shifted his defensive linemen further outside to combat the perimeter runs, and he walked up the linebackers to allow them to attack more quickly.
It was an effective gambit.
Pees attributed a lot of the problems in Kansas City to the defensive linemen not keeping blockers occupied and off of Lewis' pads.
"If you watch the film, I wouldn't put a lot of that on No. 52," Pees said. "We did a couple of other things with some fronts that did not help us, and they really hurt the linebackers. If the offensive line is coming off and getting to the second level on the linebackers, we are not in a good system here. We are not playing good technique upfront.
"A lot of times, you can say whatever you want about the linebackers, it isn't going to matter. If the guy is coming off and has him sealed, I don't care who it is. It could be Dick Butkus, it isn't going to make a difference. Watching that film, I didn't see anything with Ray. I know the comment has been made, something about losing weight. It has absolutely nothing to do with his weight. Nothing."
When Lewis was in his heyday, he had big veteran defensive linemen Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Kelly Gregg essentially operating as his bodyguards and clogging up the middle.
It allowed Lewis to flow freely to the football.
In Williams' view, hefty nose guards Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody aren't doing enough to help Lewis out.
"It's not all his fault," Williams said. "Ray has never really been one of those run-stuffing, brutal type linebackers. He's never been real physical at the point of attack, but he could always run and play in every situation. He's not getting any help from the guys up front, Kemoeatu or Cody. They are terrible up front.
"Even in Ray's highest moment when you had Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa and Kelly Gregg, those guys did a lot of the dirty work and kept Ray clean. If Ray doesn't stay clean and in position where he's unblocked, if he's not getting help, then the Ray Lewis we all know and love is not going to work in this system."
Cody acknowledged that from a gap integrity standpoint, it wasn't a strong game bythe interior defensive line against Kansas City.
"It's our responsibility to keep the center off Ray," Cody said. "We didn't do that good this past game."
At this time, the Ravens haven't started grooming a potential future replacement for Lewis. Inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe have had their moments, but neither is close to dominant.
Determining what's next for Lewis and the Ravens' defense is hard to say. Making $4.95 million this season, he's under contract through 2015 with nonguaranteed base salaries of $7.3 million, $5.4 million and $6.5 million over the next three years.
"Can the Ravens win without Ray Lewis right now?" Bowen said. "I don't think so. Until you can win without him, you have to live with the ups and the downs."
Through five games, the Ravens (4-1) are winning primarily because of an offense led by quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice and rank eighth in the NFL in total offense.
Where the defense has remained strong is allowing just 17.8 points per contest to rank seventh in the NFL in scoring defense and Baltimore ranks sixth in the NFL with a plus-six turnover margin with 12 takeaways on six fumble recoveries and six interceptions. However, they're allowing 379.8 yards of total offense per game.
Despite the changes, Lewis remains a vital part of what the Ravens are doing defensively. He never comes off the field.
The Ravens' win-loss record is Lewis' primary focus, not his personal accomplishments as he pursues another Super Bowl ring.
"I don't know the last time I've actually talked about me individually and how I play because I just go out there and do what I do," said Lewis, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV following the 2000 season. "I think for us to be where we are right now as a team, it's probably more important than anything individually. You look around the league and you always hear these personal stats by guys, and their teams are 1-4 or their teams are 1-3.
"So, I throw things out the window. The blessing is there is not an accolade or record I don't have. None of that impresses me. What impresses me is having my team ready to play every week to come out and get a 'W.'"