Is Ray Lewis' performance slipping in Year 17?

There's no question Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has had a Hall of Fame career, one that has somehow continued into his 17th NFL season.

Lewis was the second selection in franchise history in 1996. He was a Super Bowl champion in 2000 and could go down as the best middle linebacker to ever play the game.

But at age 37, is his time nearing an end? Is his skill set diminishing to the point where his performance on the field could negatively effect the Ravens each game?'s Pete Prisco evaluated the game film from Baltimore's 9-6 win over Kansas City and came to the conclusion that Lewis isn't the same player, though noting there are a lot of other deficiencies on the defense.

"Inside linebacker Ray Lewis is a big part of the problem, but he's not the only part," Prisco wrote. "The down linemen are getting blocked. The linebackers are getting mauled at times, including Lewis. And the safeties aren't tackling like they should on some long runs."

Prisco's assessment is correct from the Kansas City game, as the defensive line failed to occupy blocks consistently against the Chiefs. For a 3-4 base defense to be successful, the three down linemen need to force blockers to pay more attention to them with double teams, freeing up the linebackers to attack backs at line of scrimmage.

In the first half against Kansas City, Baltimore lost most of its one-on-one battles, freeing up Kansas City offensive linemen to move into the next level and block players such as Lewis, making his performance look worse than it possibly was.

"We're not playing good technique up front," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "A lot of times you can say whatever you want about the linebackers. It isn't going to matter if a guy comes off and has him sealed. I don't care who it is. It could be Dick Butkus, it ain't going to make a difference."

When Lewis was in his prime, he had a great ability to shed blocks and get to running backs quickly. So far this season, he's been blocked more and has been caught chasing more often than not.

Then again, that should be expected when you're talking about a 37-year-old middle linebacker playing a game against men who average an age 10 years younger than him. Factor in the speed of the game getting faster each year, and it's a lot for Lewis to keep up with.

But Lewis, being the veteran and playbook junkie he is, remains one of the smarter football minds in this league. Teammates rave about his knowledge and his ability to keep them in position to make plays based on what he sees before the snap.

Outside linebacker Paul Kruger said Lewis' knowledge of the game makes up for any athleticism that lessens with age.

"For a lot of guys, (the mental aspect) is 90 percent of the game," Kruger said. "Everybody out here is talented, everybody's fast. Everybody's strong. The guys who figure it out are the ones who are making the plays. If you look at what he's doing right now, he's leading the team in tackles. He's playing unbelievable. Yeah, he might've been faster a couple of years ago, but he's still dominating the game. I give Ray all the credit in the world. He's done something not many players have been able to do."

It's been stated that Lewis' weight loss -- he's under 240 pounds for the first time in his career -- could have caused his run support to diminish. Pees hasn't seen Lewis' weight loss being a factor at all this season, as Pees seemed to place some blame on Baltimore's struggles on the defensive line.

"If the offensive line is coming off the front and getting to the second level to the linebackers, then we're not in a good system here," Pees said.

Despite the noticeable difference in Lewis' game compared to the days when he dominated offenses, he's still finding ways to get to the football. He leads Baltimore in tackles with 43 through five games this year.

It should also be noted that against the Chiefs, when it mattered most in the middle of the fourth quarter, Lewis executed a perfect run fit to stop running back Cyrus Gray from gaining any ground at the Baltimore 14-yard line. This forced Kansas City into second-and-11, and ultimately forced the Chiefs to kick a field goal instead of scoring a go-ahead touchdown.

"I see the same guy," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose team plays Lewis and the Ravens on Sunday. "I see a guy who is the emotional leader of that defense and the emotional leader of that football team. They all look to him. I see a guy who makes a ton of plays once the play starts. He makes a lot of tackles, is around the football a lot. He is the same guy that we have been seeing here for the last (17) or so years."

What's transpired on the field has put Lewis in an interesting position, talking about himself with the media. It's been a long time since he's been asked about his own performance, since it's been understood that he's one of the best to ever play the position.

Sure, there are elements to Lewis' game missing in 2012 that was prominent from 2000-2010. But that doesn't necessarily also mean Lewis is at the end of his line just yet.

"I think for us to be where we are right now as a team, it's probably more important than anything individually," Lewis said. "You look around the league and you always hear these personal stats by guys, and their teams are 1-4 or their teams are 1-3. So, I throw things out the window. The blessing is there is not an accolade or record I don't have. None of that impresses me. What impresses me is having my team ready to play every week to come out and get a ‘W.'"

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