OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s all but confirmed that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will make his return to the field for the first round of the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, but trying to project the role he’ll play remains a bit of a mystery.
Only 11 weeks removed from surgery to repair a torn right triceps suffered against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14, Lewis has accelerated a recovery process that typically takes a minimum of four months. Of course, his announcement Wednesday stating his intention to retire after the season further complicated how defensive coordinator Dean Pees might like to handle his workload in his first game since Week 6.
“I can’t be real specific on how or what he is going to be doing other than the fact that we are more than happy to have him back and just having him out there on the field is an inspiration,” Pees said. “I don’t know how else to explain it other than — he’s going to play.”
Lewis is expected to start next to fellow inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, but how the 37-year-old will handle blockers and full contact remains to be seen. The Ravens haven’t practiced in full pads since earlier in the season and Lewis was limited in his first few weeks since returning to practice on Dec. 5.
It’s possible that Pees and the Ravens will handle Lewis in a similar manner to how they re-acclimated linebacker Terrell Suggs when he returned from an Achilles tendon injury earlier this season. Suggs played just over 50 percent of the defensive snaps against the Houston Texans on Oct. 21 and took several series off during the course of the game.
Young linebacker Josh Bynes, who made three starts with Lewis, Ellerbe, and Jameel McClain all missing time over the last six weeks, will be ready to spell Lewis if needed. However, it’s difficult to envision the veteran asking out of the game knowing it will likely be his final game in Baltimore — or even of his career.
“I don’t think the people that I work with would tell me no [on] Sunday,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a great relationship with each other that I trust them, and they trust me. I’ve worked my butt off to get to this point. There is no reason for me not to be playing on Sunday.”
Crunch time for Flacco
The common theme that emerged following the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Dec. 10 was the need for quarterback Joe Flacco to finish strong over the final weeks of the season before his rookie contract expires.
The Ravens hope Flacco’s performance against the New York Giants in Week 16 is a harbinger of strong performances to come in the postseason. And the quarterback would improve his chances of securing the type of long-term deal he prefers with a deep run through the month of January.
If Baltimore is unable to come to an agreement with Flacco and agent Joe Linta, the organization would be faced with allowing the 27-year-old to hit free agency or using the franchise tag, which is projected to be $14.6 million in 2013. Flacco dismissed the notion of contract negotiations being a major motivator for him to perform well in his fifth trip to the postseason in five years.
“I go out there, and I play football,” Flacco said. “You try to lead this team to victories. That’s what we are trying to do right now. That’s all I’m concerned about is making a playoff run and making the Super Bowl. All that other stuff will take care of itself.”
Flacco appeared to take a quantum leap forward in outperforming New England’s Tom Brady in last season’s AFC Championship game, but his play was as schizophrenic as ever in comparing how he fared at home and on the road during the regular season. He threw 15 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 99.0 passer rating in eight home contests, but Flacco passed for only seven touchdowns to go along with five interceptions and a 74.9 rating on the road.
Those numbers won’t be on his mind starting Sunday when he begins the journey to try to lead the Ravens a step further than he did a year ago. What bearing that has on a new contract remains to be seen.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Flacco said. “It’s not really that big of a deal at the end of the day.”
Flacco better hope it is — for his own sake — as he plays out the final days of his rookie contract.
Ellerbe’s future with Lewis exiting
With Lewis walking away from the game after the season, the Ravens would presumably turn to Ellerbe to take his place — at least in the short-term future — next to McClain at the inside linebacker position.
However, the Ravens will need to re-sign the fourth-year linebacker, who will become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Lewis’ retirement will clear approximately $4.4 million from the projected 2013 salary cap, but it will be interesting to see how much Ellerbe will command in the open market.
“I love Baltimore. I started my career here, I’d love to finish it here,” Ellerbe said. “It’s a business, so it’s not up to me. If it was up to me, I’d be here.”
Possessing better coverage skills than McClain, who inked a three-year, $10.5 million deal to remain in Baltimore after lukewarm interest last offseason, Ellerbe would likely be more appealing to other teams, but his injury history will likely be a factor in keeping his price tag at a reasonable level.
The University of Georgia product missed three straight games with an ankle injury last month and missed seven games with groin and hamstring injuries last season.
In 13 games this season, Ellerbe finished second on the team with 98 tackles and collected 4 1/2 sacks as an effective blitzer from the inside linebacker position.