Never has one man done more for a team than Ray Lewis has done for the Baltimore Ravens.
Since his arrival in Baltimore in the 1996 NFL Draft, Forbes have stated that Lewis′ tenure in the city has likely accounted for a $100-125 million increase in the franchise′s value, which according to a 2012 survey, sits at a very respectable $1.16 billion.
The experienced linebacker has missed the majority of the season after suffering a torn triceps injury in the Ravens′ Week 6 clash with the Dallas Cowboys. For most this would be a season-ending injury, but it should be evident to all NFL fans by now that Lewis is not just your average football player.
His dramatic return at the beginning of the playoffs, coupled with the momentous announcement that this would be his ˜last ride′ has been suggested by many to be the key reason behind Baltimore′s timely return to form.
It is hard to imagine anything more motivating for his teammates than helping Lewis go out on the best possible note. At this point of the season, one solitary mistake can mean the end of the journey, and to borrow a phrase from Bill Belichick, the Head Coach of the Ravens upcoming AFC Championship opponents, the New England Patriots, ˜Do your job′.
Let me put it another way. Would you want to be the person culpable for the end of Lewis′ last ride? The kind of determination, focus and concentration that this breeds can be just as important, if not more so, than any of the intangibles we regularly judge football players by.
Beyond the emotional and mental contributions that the return of Lewis brings the team, let us not forget, he can still play.
The traditional strength of the Ravens has always been their unforgiving defense, but unfortunately for the Baltimore fans, this has not been the case for much of the season, with the unit being far from dominant.
There are several reasons for this, not least so the fact that defensive standouts Terrell Suggs and Lewis were not on the field together at any point this season until Baltimore′s win over the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Throw into the mix the fact that both Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed have been playing hurt all season and the disruption that losing Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano undoubtedly caused, it is perhaps not too surprising that the Ravens defense has faltered.
This all changed two weeks ago however when Baltimore won their Wild Card round match against the Colts. The defense has finally started to get healthy with Suggs and Lewis both on the field together, as well as players such as Paul Kruger and Corey Graham continuing the form they were showing in the second half of the regular season. The Ravens′ defense is beginning to look vintage once more.
One factor which has been critical for Baltimore in both of their playoff victories so far has been the performance of their new-look offensive line. If the revival in the Ravens′ form could be attributed to one person, and one person alone (and that person cannot be named Ray Lewis), it could be Bryant McKinnie.
Michael Oher is a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackle. It is just that he is a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle, not the left tackle position he has been playing at all season. Given time at the position I′m sure he would flourish, but the form and fitness that McKinnie has found has allowed the veteran to retake his spot at left tackle, pushing Oher back to his favored right tackle position. This in turn has pushed rookie Kelechi Osemele from his position at tackle to guard, and the young man from Iowa State has proven to be just as impressive in his new position as he was in his last.
This re-jigged offensive line has performed outstandingly, giving up just two sacks in their last two games (which includes facing the powerful defensive front of the Denver Broncos). If there is one pertinent criticism of the quarterback Joe Flacco, it is his lack of pocket awareness, and the improvements that the offensive line have made in pass protection have helped Flacco throw for five touchdowns and no interceptions in those two games.
Should Baltimore go on to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in a rematch of last year′s AFC Championship game, undoubtedly the vast majority of the praise will go to Lewis and the impact his return has had on the team. Given that he even now has me believing in fate, I will probably be adding my voice to that praise, but that being said, keep your eyes on the Ravens′ offensive line this Sunday, they are primed to continue their good form and I think a big night for Flacco could be on the cards.
Image Courtesy : Baltimore Ravens