When Ray Lewis stands five yards in front of the line of scrimmage before the snap, you can still see the minute details that have helped him become arguably the greatest middle linebacker of all-time.
His arms are bent at the middle, his elbows are sticking out, and his hands rest on his hips. Seventeen years into his glorious career, he’s still using the technique that he learned in year one of pee-wee football. Proper technique and angles used to be a part of the entire package that Lewis possessed in addition to speed, intimidation, physicality, and play-making ability.
Although he’s made a ton of plays over the years with the above, it’s hard to ignore how much he has slowed down physically during the last few seasons. His preparation can only take him so far before offensive masterminds realize that he’s only gotten worse when taking on blockers against the run, and he’s slowed down significantly when it comes to his once great sideline-to-sideline range.
The Ravens coaches, to their credit, have done a solid job of keeping their star’s jersey clean against the run. They’ve managed to keep Lewis free of contact by covering up both offensive guards (“even” front) with their defensive and nose tackles. This has been beneficial for the linebacker because he has to deal with less combination blocks (zone blocking) at the second level, thus giving him time to read his keys and pursue the ball-carrier. An example of this came against the Indianapolis Colts during the Wild Card round.
Lewis was at a depth of five yards from the line of scrimmage against the Colts’ 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) on this play. He was the strong-side inside linebacker and in between the defensive end (Arthur Jones) and tackle (Terrence Cody), who covered up the right guard and tackle. There was little chance of him getting blocked by a lineman in this case because the only two uncovered blockers — the center and first tight end — had other responsibilities.
The center had to work to the second level to block linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and the tight end had to assist the tackle in blocking the end (Jones). With the ball-carrier taking the hand off to Lewis’ side, it would eventually become a one-on-one matchup that the veteran linebacker almost always wins due to his rare read-and-react ability.
As the near blockers worked down the line of scrimmage and away from him, Lewis took subtle steps to his left, staying disciplined while he mimicked the path of rookie running back Vick Ballard. He kept his eyes up, read the flow of the runner, and eventually squared up, sinking his hips as far his old body would let him while lowering his shoulder into a spinning Ballard, pummeling him into the ground for a below league average gain of three yards.
While defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been able to help Lewis still make an impact in run defense, he hasn’t had the same success in pass defense. It’s not without trying, however, as Pees has used Lewis primarily as a zone defender in the middle of the field where he can communicate with his teammates and potentially break up passes. But there’s only so much that Pees can do to cover up Lewis’ lack of range.
As Lewis has gotten older, it’s become painfully obvious that his hips — along with knees and ankles — have stiffened up. He struggles to change direction whenever he’s forced to by crossing routes, and even when he manages to do it, he’s unable to keep pace with the pass catcher.
In the Ravens’ Divisional game against the Denver Broncos, he had issues in coverage and was targeted frequently. As expected, he didn’t fare so well. Lewis’ lack of flexibility and speed was exposed, and it especially stood out on one play.
The Ravens defenders were hovering over the line of scrimmage in an exotic blitz package that saw Lewis start off from the left B-gap (the area between the guard and tackle) and move to the right B-gap before dropping into the middle of the field. The scheme didn’t seem to ask a lot of the 37-year-old because it was a simple zone drop, but it would become difficult as each second passed by.
Standing in between the hashes, Lewis was suddenly faced with a crosser who would force him to quickly break down in space, take a proper angle, and ensure that there were no yards after the catch gained. That was a tough task.
Lewis broke his stride and started attacking downhill. It appeared that he was going to be able to take a good angle that would (ideally) separate the pass-catcher from the ball and cause an incomplete pass. That didn’t quite happen because he struggled to open his hips up and meet the ball at its destination.
And as a result, the crosser caught the ball and Lewis struggled to stay in proximity after the catch.
There’s no doubt that Lewis is one of the greatest to ever set foot on the gridiron. His qualities have outweighed his few inadequacies over the years, particularly his outstanding leadership and preparation.
But as he’s aged, those inadequacies — specifically, his pass defense — have held him back from being as effective of a player as he once was. When quarterbacks always say they must know where No. 52 is before the snap, it’s not because they fear him — it’s because they want to attack him.