Ravens have survived without injured Ray Lewis, but they’re better with him in middle of defense

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ray Lewis usually helps the Baltimore Ravens win by yelling in the huddle, setting the defense and chasing down the guy with the football.

Lately, the 12-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker has been forced to play the role of cheerleader and sideline coach.

And he’s getting pretty darn tired of it.

The 36-year-old Lewis has missed Baltimore’s past two games with an injured right toe. He was held out of practice Wednesday, but hopes to be back in action Sunday when the Ravens (8-3) face the Cleveland Browns (4-7).

“There is not even a question, I want to be out there with my teammates,” Lewis said. “As a leader it is hard to watch your team go out there and compete, but I can’t be selfish. I didn’t want to push it and play if I wasn’t 100 percent.”

So, while the Ravens were battling against Cincinnati and San Francisco, Lewis watched from the sideline. Before this injury, he started in 57 straight games and was factor in just about every one of them.

“Even though I wasn’t physically out there the last two games, I was with my teammates the whole time cheering them on and in their ears every time I saw something that might help,” Lewis said. “I’m doing everything I can to get back and help this team get where we want to go.”

The Ravens proved they can win without Lewis by defeating the Bengals and 49ers, but Baltimore is clearly better with him in the middle of the defense.

“Even pregame, he motivates us and gives us what we need,” Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “I think we just need to get him back as quickly as we can. His presence is definitely missed.”

Without Lewis in the huddle, Jameel McClain has done a fine job of calling plays and setting the defense. McClain even had eight tackles against the 49ers, tied with Bernard Pollard for the team lead.

But he’s no Lewis, and isn’t embarrassed to say so.

“Nobody can be Ray Lewis’ replacement. Ray Lewis is someone phenomenal,” McClain said.

Still, the Ravens have performed remarkably well with McClain in the middle, and his performance as Lewis’ backup has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“I’ve always trusted Jameel,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I think he’s getting an opportunity to show you all exactly who he is and what he can do. But we always knew what he can do.”

McClain has played well, but he’s not alone. The Baltimore defense is comprised mostly of veterans who understand that injuries are part of the game, and virtually everyone on the unit stepped up against San Francisco, including Cory Redding (2½ sacks), Suggs (three sacks) and Haloti Ngata (two sacks).

“When one of your brothers goes down, you just have to rally around him, pick him up and let him know, ‘We’re still going to ride, man,’” Redding said. “We’re still going to go out there and do our thing, and play hard. Nothing’s going to change. Yes, we miss you. We want you back on the field like crazy. But you know what? We’re still fighting the mission at hand. We cannot dwell on the situation. If someone is not in the game, you can’t say, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ You have to keep your eyes on the prize, keep pressing forward.”

If all goes well for Lewis this week, he will return Sunday in a game the Ravens need to win to stay atop the AFC North. The Browns wouldn’t be surprised at all if No. 52 is back in uniform for the first time since Nov. 13 in Seattle.

“I’m thinking he’s going to play,” Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. “I know he’s a competitor and he wants to be out there and help the team, so my guess is he’ll play. They have talent and leadership at all levels of the defense, but he’s obviously the leader of the linebacking corps there. I’m sure with him in the lineup, it helps them be better. We’re anticipating he’ll be in there.”

And if Lewis isn’t ready, the Ravens will again hand over the reins to McClain.

“Without Ray in the huddle we still have to go about the same business as scheduled,” Redding said. “Seeing Ray for so many years, Jameel knows what to do. He studies, he prepares, he’s always where he’s supposed to be and makes plays. That builds confidence among the rest of us, knowing that even though Ray isn’t in the game, we still have Jameel to come out and lead us.”

With an assist from Lewis on the sideline.

“Ray is still pretty much out there,” Suggs said. “He’s not playing, but we’re still getting the calls, making adjustments on what he sees. It’s still standard operating procedure.”

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