During the final defensive snap of Super Bowl XLVII, my eyes were glued on only one man – #52 Ray Lewis.
It would be the last play of a storied 17-year NFL career, and was a bittersweet moment for all Baltimore Ravens’ fans. The Lombardi was almost in our team’s possession, yet a legacy was about to come to an end. While we’d all love to see Ray Lewis continue to play and inspire both the team and fans on Sundays, Ray’s last ride couldn’t have ended at a better time.
Since the Ravens’ inception in 1996, Baltimore could always rely on an above-average performance from the middle linebacker position. Ray Lewis redefined the position and excelled there for his entire career despite battling through injury and hardships. While Lewis’s play did start to decline over the last few years, his knowledge and wisdom were enough to give him an edge over nearly every player on the football field.
After suffering a triceps injury in week six of the 2012 season, it was reported that Ray Lewis would be out for the season and many expected him to retire. Despite the severity of the injury, Lewis told the Ravens’ staff to leave him off of injured reserve as he would return later that season. Living up to his word, #52 returned just in time for the playoffs, providing his team with an emotional wave that motivated them throughout their spectacular playoff run that culminated with a Super Bowl victory.
Although Ray Lewis appeared to have a large impact on the stat sheet with 51 combined postseason tackles, the future Hall-of-Famer was much more of a liability that we’d like to admit. It appeared that injuries and age had finally gotten the better of the seemingly ageless wonder as Ray Lewis became the biggest weakness of the Ravens’ defense.
Ray Lewis hurt the Ravens the most when it came to covering opposing tight ends and slot receivers. Prior to the beginning of the season, Lewis announced that he shed some weight in order to stay quick and keep up in pass coverage. However, this proved to be a big mistake as Ray was still unable to cover receivers and was now a bigger liability in the running game due to his lighter frame.
All of these problems were made apparent during the Super Bowl as Ray Lewis missed several tackles on running backs in the hole, and was abused by 49ers’ tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. NFL Turning Point on NBC Sports Network and Sound FX on NFL Network, shows that feature sound bites from players and coaches on the field, revealed how much of a weakness Ray Lewis had become for the Ravens’ defense.
“We can’t let Ray be matched up on 85 or 15 all day when we’re playing quarters,” John Harbaugh said over his headset.
It was made clear that the 49ers were targeting Ray Lewis as quarterback Colin Kaepernick frequently targeted backside crossing routes that forced Lewis to cover either Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree.
After one catch, Vernon Davis got in the face of Ray Lewis and yelled, “It’s gonna be a long day for you!” Lewis responded by firmly shoving Davis away as other Ravens pushed Davis back to his huddle. On the side line, Vernon Davis was talking to one of his coaches about Ray Lewis. “He can’t match up. I don’t care what route I got.”
While they did occasionally take advantage of this mismatch, the 49ers surprisingly continued to stick with the non-existent running game and looked to throw the ball outside despite the huge gap in the middle of the field. The 49ers’ play calling was questioned by many after the game and there’s reason to believe that the game would have been closer in the beginning, had they kept going over the middle.
While it’s a bit troubling to think that we’ll never see Ray Lewis on the field again, it was definitely the right decision for him to retire this season.
The time has come when Ray’s knowledge of the game and motivation just aren’t enough to make up for his decaying performance on the field.
Luckily for both Ray Lewis and Ravens’ fans, we got to witness him leaving the game in proper fashion – with the Lombardi trophy in his hands.