ATLANTA – Ray Lewis remains an intimidating, hard-hitting force despite his advanced age for an NFL middle linebacker.
The Baltimore Ravens’ defensive star entered Thursday night’s game against the Atlanta Falcons as the leading tackler with 72 stops to go with one sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“I’ve never stopped loving it,” Lewis said during an NFL Network interview with Deion Sanders prior to kickoff. “I’ve never been the fastest or the biggest or strongest, so my thing was always work. And that’s still to this day.”
Lewis, 35, remains the Ravens’ inspirational leader, giving speeches to his teammates and demanding they play up to his high standard.
“I don’t blame coaches for anything that a player controls,” Lewis said. “It’s hard to blame a coach for effort. I can have anything there is, but when you’re talking about pure effort and I turn on the film and I see somebody not running to the ball or somebody not taking the hit. That’s the coach’s fault? No, that’s on me. If I’m the leader of that team, that’s on me.”
The former Super Bowl MVP has led the Ravens in tackles in 12 of his 14 seasons, posting at least 150 tackles at least 11 times.
Lewis has recorded seven career 20-tackle games.
“He’s the leader, we know that,” former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. “He’s the vocal leader, but he’s also a leader by example and production.”
The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been named to 11 Pro Bowls.
“I played against Ray earlier in his career,” former NFL running back Marshall Faulk said. “He has lost a step, but mentally he’s gained two on the field. He’s smarter. He knows where to go. He can change plays.”
INJURY UPDATE: Lewis limped off the field in the first quarter with a sprained right foot.
Initially characterized as questionable to return, Lewis went back on the field in the next defensive series and didn’t appear to be favoring his right foot.
He ran toward the ball, albeit arriving late and dove over the top to get a piece of the tackle. Lewis remained in the game and appeared to do a solid job against Falcons running back Michael “The Burner” Turner.
BLIND SIDE: Quinton Aaron, the massive actor who portrayed Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher during the award-winning film, “The Blind Side,” was on the Ravens’ sideline before kickoff.
Oher wasn’t a big fan of the movie, taking issue with how the football portion of his inspirational life story as a homeless teenager who was adopted by a wealthy family was adapted for the movie.
Oher didn’t like how he was portrayed as someone who initially knew nothing about organized football.
INACTIVES: The Ravens deactivated safeties Ken Hamlin and Tom Zbikowski (bruised right heel), linebacker Jason Phillips, offensive tackle Scott Kooistra, defensive tackles Arthur Jones and Lamar Divens, nose guard Brandon McKinney and tight end Dennis Pitta.
This is the second game that Pitta has missed. He was sidelined against the Miami Dolphins with a concussion. However, he wasn’t listed on the injury report this week.
This marks the second consecutive game that McKinney was deactivated. He started four games earlier this season, but has fallen out of favor after not making hardly any plays when he was in the lineup. McKinney has just six tackles for the season.
Meanwhile, the Falcons scratched quarterback John Parker Wilson, cornerback Dominique Franks, rookie outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds, offensive guard Mike Johnson, tight end Justin Peelle, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Trey Lewis.
Stephen Nicholas started in place of Weatherspoon, the Falcons’ first-round draft pick who’s dealing with a knee injury.
LINEUP CHANGE: As expected, the Ravens started Josh Wilson at cornerback in place of Fabian Washington. Benched in each of the previous two games, Washington lost his job for poor tackling and shoddy technique in press coverage as he yielded three touchdown passes to the Buffalo Bills’ Lee Evans.
Washington wasn’t on the bench for long, though. By the second quarter, he was playing in the base defense after replacing Lardarius Webb. Washington appeared to play well, guarding receivers closely.
THE COMMISH: Lewis has expressed a popular belief among defensive players, saying the NFL is overreacting to illegal hits with a series of hefty fines.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that Lewis makes a strong point, but the league isn’t going to retreat from this point of emphasis because of concerns about player safety.
“I have great respect for Ray Lewis and the way he plays the game,” Goodell said. “He plays the game tough and within the rules and I speak to him frequently about these issues. I would tell you that we’re not automatically fining anybody. We look at this very closely. We are focused on certain techniques which we think could be dangerous in the game.
“This is not unusual in our history in the NFL. We have made changes going back to the ‘70s, ‘60s, and back further than that. To make the game safer, whether it’s the head slaps or chop blocks, you take out things that can lead to an injury and have an increased risk of that injury. And we’ll continue to do that. We’re not going to relent on making sure the game is as safe as possible.”
However, the NFL isn’t inclined toward ejecting players for illegal hits at this time.
“We think it’s too much to put on the officials,” Goodell said. “They have the authority to be able to do it, they have for several years. We’re not making any changes to that, but we really think this needs to be studied.
“We need to look at the individual film that we get both from broadcast and coaching video, and look at it closely to make sure that we understand what the player was doing, exactly what technique he was using, and did he have another option to hit the player and then rip away.”
CBA STATUS: Goodell said that management and the players’ union need to make more progress in their negotiations regarding a new collective bargaining agreement.
“I think there needs to be more of a sense of urgency,” Goodell said. “There are discussions going on. I think they have to be more productive, though. It’s not just about whether you’re having meetings, it’s about productivity.
“We need to reach an agreement that will allow the players to continue to have success, to allow the teams to continue to have success, and to make the game better and bring more football to more fans.”
The NFL owners have opted out of the current agreement. At this point, a lockout looms for the 2011 season.
“A lot of negotiations wait until the 11:59 mark, and I think that’s a mistake in this case,” Goodell said. “I think uncertainty is bad for the game, I think it’s bad for the players, I think it’s bad for the fans.
“I think we need to reach an agreement sooner rather than later because it starts to hurt and impact the game and the fans. I think that’s why we need to get this done sooner rather than later.”
SHOWBIZ: The Falcons used a video message from actor Samuel L. Jackson to get the crowd hyped up before the opening kickoff. Plus, WWE wrestlers Shawn Michaels and Triple H were on hand at the 50-yard line to get people excited and promote the latest Wrestlemania.
RING OF HONOR: Legendary cornerback Deion Sanders was inducted into the Falcons’ Ring of Honor at halftime. Sanders concluded his illustrious career with the Ravens.
“I’m happy and I’m elated,” Sanders said. “It means a lot.”
GAME CAPTAINS: Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Tavares Gooden and offensive tackle Michael Oher represented the Ravens in the opening coin toss.