The last time Dannell Ellerbe played in a football game that actually counted he was lined up across the line of scrimmage from Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Peyton Manning.
During the Baltimore Ravens’ AFC divisional playoff loss last winter, the undrafted rookie linebacker recorded a team-high 10 tackles.
Months removed from finishing the season with five consecutive starts, Ellerbe ranked first on the depth chart during minicamps.
However, Ellerbe had lost that status by the time the Ravens arrived at training camp in Westminster. Jameel McClain opened camp with the first-team defense and started the first preseason contest.
“I was surprised,” said Ellerbe, adding that he wasn’t given an explanation for why he was no longer starting. “I just used it to fuel my fire. It’s just going to help me get better.”
Heading into tonight’s preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, Ellerbe, McClain and Tavares Gooden remain locked in a three-man battle for the starting inside linebacker job opposite All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
And there are growing indications that this shapes up as a pivotal game in that competition.
During the Ravens’ 17-12 victory over the Carolina Panthers to open the preseason, McClain seemed to falter when he was rudely slammed to the ground by fullback Tony Fiametta on an isolation play. Being blocked out of the play opened a huge hole in the middle of the defense.
McClain seems to have loosened his grip on the position, and the Ravens may opt to start Ellerbe or play him extensively this week.
It’s unclear if Gooden, who flashed his speed with a sack last week, will be able to play or if he’ll be limited due to a neck injury he suffered against Carolina that affected him in practice this week.
None of the three young linebackers separated themselves from the pack against the Panthers.
“Those guys, as we’ve said, they’ve been rotating and playing and competing all the way through camp,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked if this game was especially important in terms of evaluating Ellerbe. “So, this is a continuation of that. I think the competition has been good, and they’ve all played well. So, we’ll just have to see how it shakes out.”
Ellerbe registered 41 tackles last season. His top performance came in the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders when he intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble.
He totaled 16 tackles in two playoff starts against the Colts and the New England Patriots.
By the end of last season, the former University of Georgia standout didn’t look out of place with one of the best defenses in the league.
After admittedly getting too heavy during the offseason when he tipped the scales at 260 pounds, Ellerbe say he’s back down to 240 pounds now.
“I’m about the same weight as last year now,” Ellerbe said. “I’m a little bit quicker.”
The weight gain seemed to shake the organization’s confidence in Ellerbe, who also battled a sprained medial collateral ligament last season.
At times during camp, Ellerbe has ranked behind McClain and Gooden.
“I’m kind of used to that,” Ellerbe said. “I came in doing the same thing last year. So, it’s nothing new to me. So, hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to have the job to myself. ..
“It’s always good to go out there and compete and to have a competition to bring out the best in everyone. I’m just going to go out there and give my best.”
What does he want to prove?
“That it wasn’t a fluke last year,” Ellerbe said. “That whatever I did last year, I can produce more and do more this year.”
To do that, Ellerbe will need to prove that he can be as consistent as McClain and as adept in pass coverage as Gooden.
Ellerbe might be the hardest hitter of the three. Gooden is clearly the fastest. And McClain has the best pass–rushing technique and has a strong work ethic and instincts.
Gooden has suggested a committee approach to the ‘Jack’ inside linebacker position in order to maximize all three players’ abilities.
“Why not play all of us?” Gooden said. “You don’t want to just burn out one guy. It helps our team depth that all of us can play, and I’m talking about play well when we’re in there. We’re going to ball out. Everybody is just holding up our own.”
Gooden is of the belief that whoever wins the job will complement Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“Everybody knows this is Ray’s defense, and we’re all pieces to the puzzle,” Gooden said. “He’s the master plan, and all of us fit around him to do that.”
As a rookie, McClain set a franchise record with two safeties. He blocked a punt and posted 2 1/2/ sacks.
Last season, he had a career-high 29 tackles on defense with 33 special-teams tackles and a forced fumble.
Now, he’s trying to hold off Ellerbe and Gooden.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” McClain said earlier in camp. “I always fight for everything that I get. It’s my job to hold onto it, and it’s my job to prove I belong there. Keep working hard, that’s all I’m being told. I bring intensity to this defense. I’m not downing the competitors. It’s a good competition with a lot of good players.
“If I’m their choice, I’m going to bring everything I have with 110 percent every play. I won’t be happy until it’s all said and done, not until I’m running out there with my name being called with the defense.”