OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewis remains an indomitable presence on the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, even while he waits for the damage to his painful right turf toe to heal.
Offering guidance, tips gleaned from film study and providing motivational fuel, Lewis has stayed involved while sidelined for the past three games.
And life without Lewis on the field hasn’t been intolerable for the Ravens, perhaps offering a preview of what a future without the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year might be like.
The Ravens are undefeated in three games without Lewis, and the defense has benefited heavily from contributions from several young players.
Whether it’s rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee sacking quarterback Colt McCoy twice or cornerback Jimmy Smith intercepting a pass during the Ravens’ 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns, the defense tying a franchise record with nine sacks against the San Francisco 49ers or Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan capably filling in at inside linebacker, the defense hasn’t experienced major problems in Lewis’ absence.
The run defense limited Bengals running back Cedric Benson to 41 yards and two touchdowns, held 49ers star runner Frank Gore to 39 yards and contained Browns power back Peyton Hillis to 45 yards.
"I think those guys have really stepped up, so it’s been really encouraging in that sense," coach John Harbaugh said. The young linebackers, they have played at a really high level. I think it’s a tribute to them, to the coaches and to Ray as far as bringing those young guys along. So, that’s a positive for us."
Ellerbe tied McClain for the team lead with seven tackles apiece.
His most impressive play was diagnosing a screen pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya and running past a convoy of blockers to stamp out a play that was set up for success.
"Yeah, I feel like I played pretty well," Ellerbe said. "After the first half, they didn’t really come at me. It’s always great to fill in for a great like Ray Lewis. The coaches had trust in me."
The biggest issue that the Ravens have faced is in communication issues that have manifested themselves against the pass during the Bengals game where they allowed 483 yards of total offense and against the Browns where an assignment issue between cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Smith led to a late touchdown pass.
An imposing first-round draft pick from Colorado, Smith lined up with the first-team defense at the start of the game as Webb shifted inside to nickel.
He intercepted his second pass in the past three games on a pass intended for wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
"He’s starting to get some interceptions," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, he’s tackling really well."
Both of the Ravens’ top cornerbacks, Webb and Cary Williams, are in their first season as a starting tandem.
Webb ranks third on the team with 48 tackles and leads the Ravens with four interceptions.
Williams has 57 tackles of his own and 13 pass deflections and a forced fumble.
"We’ve got a lot of young players," Harbaugh said. "If you’re going to be successful in football, the way it’s set up and even more so now with the new salary cap structure, you’ve got to have contributions from young plays and really from rookies also."
An unheralded fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi State, McPhee has emerged as a dangerous situational pass rusher along with former second-round pick Paul Kruger.
McPhee has six sacks, ranking second on the team behind Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ 10 sacks.
McCoy was under a lot of duress, sacked three times and leaving the game briefly with a minor knee injury.
"Our defensive line was in his face all night," Webb said. "He didn’t have a chance to get to hike it seemed like. With McPhee playing the way he is playing, a young guy, he’s just been relentless trying to get to the quarterback. He was a great pickup that we got this year."
McPhee has aggressively chopped quarterbacks down the ground, using power, leverage and a quick first step to get inside the backfield.
He’s developing better technique and a wider repertoire of pass rush moves as the season goes on.
"I think I played pretty good," said McPhee, a fifth-round draft pick. "I had a couple good rushes. They kept drawing up a blocking scheme and we got a little pressure. Things are going very good, but I really want to get to double digits and win a championship."
The Ravens aren’t surprised by his emergence since they were enamored of his potential and Southeastern Conference pedigree when they drafted him.
However, even they didn’t envision this much immediate production.
"Pernell is just a football player," Harbaugh said. "He’s got really explosive punch. He’s very strong. He’s only going to get stronger, too, as he gets a little bit bigger and he’s in that weight room even more. He’s got a real knack for pushing guys around and he’s an explosive player."
Lewis, 36, has 12 Pro Bowl selections and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
In his 16th NFL season, Lewis will eventually retire.
And the Ravens are getting a preview late this season of what it will be like to play without him and getting an extended look at their young defensive talent.
"You are focused on the task at hand, but I am always excited about the future of our football team," Harbaugh said. "I think we do a great job of drafting and acquiring free agents, all the ways we have acquired players this year, great job of developing players, our coaches do a great job of that. And we do a great job in the weight room with guys. I am excited about the long term for the Ravens, no doubt, but more excited for Sunday."