Could Ray Lewis’ return actually hurt Ravens defense?

Are the Ravens actually better with Ray Lewis relegated to cheerleading on the sidelines?

Through the first 16 years of franchise history, asking that question would be asinine but frankly, year 17 has been different.

The defensive gold standard that the Ravens set the precedent for hasn’t existed this season, and that can be said about both the unit as a whole and about Lewis himself. In the midst of their struggles, the team has surprisingly drastically improved in Lewis’ absence.

“Ugly” has been a word to describe many facets of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and one of those glaring occurrences came when the Dallas Cowboys rushed for 227 yards, the most the Ravens have ever allowed. This performance came on the heels of a 214-yard ground performance by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Despite wins in both games, the injury bug bit hard, as it appeared the Ravens would lose both Lardarius Webb and Lewis for the season when each went down against Dallas.

Lewis tore his triceps, causing him to be placed on Injured Reserve with a new designation to return. At the time, the Ravens defense found themselves ranked 26th overall, allowing an average of 396.7 yards per game.

The good news was that despite some of their historically low rankings, they were able to achieve a 5-1 record during that span. One statistic to focus on was the Ravens only allowed an average of 19.7 points per game – 11th best in the league.

In Lewis’ first missed game, skeptics were presented with a Thanksgiving feast as the Ravens were carved like turkeys 43-13 at the hands of the Houston Texans. At the time, Lewis’ absence looked to be significant and hopes of winning the AFC North began to fade.

Luckily for the Ravens, they had time to regroup over the bye week and the additional time defensive coordinator Dean Pees and head coach John Harbaugh spent to address their issues paid off. The return of 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs didn’t hurt either.

Since the bye week, the Ravens are allowing an NFL-low 14.5 points per game, and have gone 4-0. Since the bye week, the defense is allowing 71.5 yards fewer per game than when Lewis was playing and even though they were already 7th best in the NFL in Red Zone defense, they haven’t allowed a touchdown in ten attempts in the Red Zone since the bye.

When asked how the team replaces Lewis, Harbaugh said, “You replace him with 53 guys.”

Even though all 53 men won’t be playing linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe has made the most of his opportunity, despite currently playing with two broken thumbs and suffering a foot/ankle injury this past Sunday.

Ellerbe is currently second on the team in tackles (81, trailing safety Bernard Pollard by an assisted tackle) and sacks (4.5, behind Paul Kruger’s 5.5).

When Lewis was healthy, Jameel McClain started all six games next to Lewis and Ellerbe would typically replace McClain in passing situations.

Given the high level of play Ellerbe has shown while Lewis rehabs, taking him off the field for any down would be a mistake. It’s strange to say it, but statistics show that Ellerbe and McClain have achieved more at linebacker as a unit than when each of them rotated with Lewis.

Lewis’ new role as a cheerleader may be the best place for him at this point in his career if he continues to play as he did in the beginning of the season. Motivation is a talent Father Time can’t take from Lewis and it’s something the team may need him for more than anything else.

This may be a case where the old “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” adage applies to the Ravens defense.

There is no doubt the Ravens will welcome Lewis back with open arms once it’s deemed he can play again. Even though statistics clearly show the team is better without him in 2012, keeping him off the field just seems like the wrong move.

Maybe it’s the prior 16 years of habit clouding my vision?

The players and coaching staff have echoed it many times – the only important stat is wins, and currently the Ravens have the second-most in the AFC with nine.

Lewis will see the field again this season and once he steps back on it’ll be near impossible to pry him off. One would hope that if his play continues to deterioriate that he’d be unselfish and do the best thing for the team but if he doesn’t, do you want to be the one to tell Lewis to take a seat?

I think not.

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