Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Nov 2004
By Michael David Smith
As he so often does, Ray Lewis wore a microphone on Monday Night Football against the Chiefs this season. (I believe it has now been surgically attached.) That microphone caught him complaining that he gets double-teamed on every play.
But ABC cameras showed a few plays when Lewis wasn't doubled. That got me thinking: Does Lewis have a legitimate beef? Does he get doubled inordinately? I watched Lewis on every play of the Ravens' win over the Browns on Sunday night, and would you like to know how many times he was doubled? Guess low. The answer, it turns out, is zero. The Browns didn't double-team Lewis one single time.
That's because the Browns have discovered what I found Sunday night: Lewis isn't what he used to be. He was the best defensive player in the game for a few years, and anyone watching him this season would have to acknowledge that he's not that dominant physical presence anymore. He often avoids contact, preferring to run around blockers when he used to run through them, and thereby taking himself out of position to make plays.
Let me hasten to add that Lewis hasn't fallen far. He still is an above-average inside linebacker, and he's the emotional leader of the league's best defense. But while that defense dominated the Browns' offense on Sunday night, it was other Ravens, not Lewis, who made the plays.
Take the Browns' fifth possession. On first-and-10, Lewis seemed to misread the Browns' offense, leaving a big opening in the middle of the field for a nine-yard completion from Jeff Garcia to tight end Steve Heiden. Then, on second-and-one, the Browns ran directly at Lewis, giving Lee Suggs the ball up the middle. Lewis couldn't tackle Suggs, who ran 17 yards.
Joe Theismann mentioned during the ESPN broadcast that the Browns thought they could run at Lewis. A few years ago, that would have been heresy, but I think the Browns are right. Teams that want to succeed running against the Ravens ought to go right up the middle to exploit the fact that Lewis isn't as physical as he used to be. In fact, the biggest problem with the Browns' play-calling was how few times they attempted to run at Lewis. Too often, the Browns sent their running backs to the outside in an attempt to elude Lewis, and that's a mistake. He's just as fast as ever. Twice the Browns tried to send the running back (once Suggs, once William Green) around the right end, only to have Lewis meet him at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
Remember how great Lewis was against the pass in Super Bowl XXXV? Giants quarterback Kerry Collins couldn't throw a pass anywhere near the middle of the field because Lewis was everywhere. That Ray Lewis is gone. The Browns were effective throwing to tight ends Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea in large part because Lewis didn't make plays in coverage. When he drops into coverage he seems much too passive, willing to allow the completion and then make the tackle, whereas he used to smother receivers and knock passes to the ground.
On Sunday, if Lewis was in coverage and the pass didn't go in his direction, he usually stood in the middle of the field and watched. The Ray Lewis of 2000 would fly all over the field to make plays; this Ray Lewis makes only the plays he has to.
On the Browns' first play of the second half, Heiden got wide open for a deep pass, and Garcia made a perfect throw, only to have Heiden drop it. The announcers chastised Heiden for the drop but neglected to mention that Heiden was Lewis's man. And, of course, on the game-deciding play, Lewis was in coverage on Heiden, who should have caught Garcia's pass for the game-tying touchdown. That Heiden dropped the ball, allowing Ed Reed to intercept the pass and return it for a touchdown, shouldn't absolve Lewis of his lousy coverage on the play.
The Ravens have tried to counter the decline in Lewis's coverage skills by blitzing him more. Lewis blitzed eight times. He never got a sack, but the threat of Lewis blitzing did seem to impact Garcia's decision-making, and on one third down Lewis made just the type of play that makes a big difference but doesn't show up in the statistics: He lined up showing blitz, then dropped into coverage and took away Garcia's hot route, forcing Garcia to hold the ball and giving blitzing safety Will Demps an easy sack.
Some have suggested that Lewis benefits from generous statisticians who pad his tackle statistics, but I'm not convinced about that. Lewis had, by my count, six solo tackles and two assists; NFL.com lists him as having seven solos and one assist. No great discrepancy there.
The problem lies with the tackles Lewis misses. On two second-and-short situations late in the third quarter, the Browns were able to convert because Lewis overpursued and missed the tackle. That's not the Ray Lewis we saw four years ago.
So if Lewis's play has dropped since the Ravens won the Super Bowl, why do they still have the league's best defense? The answer lies in their great personnel moves. In 2001 the Ravens drafted starting cornerback Gary Baxter in the second round and starting linebacker Ed Hartwell in the fourth round. In 2002 the Ravens drafted Reed, probably the game's best strong safety, in the first round and starting defensive end Anthony Weaver in the second round. That year they got lucky when Demps fell into their laps as an undrafted free agent. And in 2003 they drafted Terrell Suggs, one of the league's best pass rushers. Lewis isn't as good as he was in 2000, but the 10 players around him are better.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.