BALTIMORE — As I watched the Ravens’ 24-10 dismantling of the hapless Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon, the same theme kept sounding in my head.
As strange as it was watching a Baltimore-Indianapolis matchup without quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Ray Lewis lining up on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, it was painfully clear how much more the Colts offense missed Manning than the Ravens defense missed Lewis. Of course, that’s no knock on Lewis, whose impact as an inside linebacker simply cannot match the effect of a team missing its future Hall of Fame quarterback, but it’s a statement you thought you’d never hear given his unquantifiable effect on the Baltimore defense.
Before Indianapolis’ 76-yard touchdown drive that concluded the game — against several backups on the Ravens defense — Baltimore had a chance to set a franchise record for fewest yards allowed as the Colts had just 91 before taking over with 2:18 remaining in the fourth quarter. With Lewis out of action for the Ravens’ last four games, not only has the defense survived but it’s flourished, allowing just 12.5 points and 263.3 yards per game over that span.
In Lewis’ absence, linebacker Terrell Suggs has gone to the head of the pack, posting seven sacks over the Ravens’ last three games. His three-sack performance against Indianapolis matched his single-game high and gave him 13 for the season, setting a new career best for the nine-year veteran.
But ask the boisterous pass rusher if he’s having the best year of his career and you’ll get the humble version of “T-Sizzle” who’s more concerned with winning championships than hearing his name in the Defensive Player of the Year discussions.
“I don’t know,” said Suggs in response to the career-year query. “It only counts if we get to [the Super Bowl in Indianapolis] and the confetti drops. Right now, I think we are all just doing our parts — holding [the] levee until the general gets back. That’s how I honestly think we are playing.”
While the Ravens are certainly looking forward to Lewis’ return — quite possibly next week in San Diego — the lieutenant general is leading the troops with similar success, even if Suggs’ leadership style isn’t quite as obvious as the authoritative 36-year-old linebacker leading the Baltimore defense for the last 16 seasons. Injury or not, it’s becoming more and more apparent we’re seeing a changing of the guard with Suggs subtly taking the reins of the defense as Lewis and safety Ed Reed move closer to the end of their respective careers.
As has been the case several times this season, Suggs took over the game on Sunday, chasing overwhelmed Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky all over the pocket as the Ravens improved to 10-3 to remain tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC North.
“Terrell Suggs was just a game-wrecker,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He was a game-wrecker in the run. He was a game-wrecker in the pass rush. I think he had three caused fumbles. Unfortunately, we didn’t come up with any of them.”
Despite Suggs’ reluctance in discussing the personal accolades, his 2011 season may go down as one of the best in the history of Ravens defenders. His 13 sacks are tied with the number Trevor Pryce collected in 2006 for third in team history, and only defensive end Michael McCrary (14 1/2 in 1998) and linebacker Peter Boulware (15 in 2001) remain ahead of Suggs, who still has three games remaining to set a new franchise mark.
Even if the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker isn’t willing to acknowledge his increasing role as a leader, there’s no question who’s become the best player among a plethora of greats on the Baltimore defense. Lewis may remain the general inspiring his troops with pre-game speeches, but Suggs is the most gifted soldier in the trenches, the guy you want on your side when the stakes are at their highest.
“Don’t be fooled; this is still Ray Lewis’ team,” Suggs said. “He is still the general of this team, and he has a personal relationship with everybody on this team, and it’s showing. As I said, his presence is still very much there.”
Suggs may be right about Lewis’ presence, but the Ravens are just as fortunate to have No. 55 standing right next to him. His performance in Lewis’ absence proves it.
Rice running all over
Following his career-high 204-yard performance against the Cleveland Browns, running back Ray Rice hit triple digits again on Sunday, rushing for 103 yards on 26 carries in the win over Indianapolis.
It was the first time in his four-year career that Rice was able to achieve back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. The 2008 second-round pick has reached the century mark in rushing in three of the Ravens’ last four games after offensive coordinator Cam Cameron came under fire at several points earlier this season for not giving enough carries to the 5-foot-8 running back.
“I guess I have to say I’m pretty fresh right now considering the amount of workload I had in the first half of the season,” Rice said. “I’m not saying I saved my best for the end of the season, but I’m doing a great job of keeping myself fresh. I get a great relief when Ricky Williams is in there. I am just looking forward to being consistent.”
Rice has now compiled 30 games with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage during his career, including 28 since he became the full-time starter in 2009. His 28 games dating back to that season are the most in the NFL.
His 103 yards against the Colts also gave Rice 1,029 yards in 2011, marking the third straight season he’s surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing barrier. Rice joins Jamal Lewis as the second Raven to post at least 1,000 in three straight campaigns. Lewis accomplished the feat from 2002 to 2004.
“It means a lot to me,” Rice said. “Anytime I do something, I give my credit to the offensive line. But to do three straight [1,000-yard seasons], it does say something, consistency-wise. I try to just stay the course.”
After veteran Shayne Graham was on standby all weekend in case Billy Cundiff’s left calf wasn’t ready for action, the Ravens kicker proved able to play on Sunday, making his only field goal attempt, which came from 36 yards near the end of the first quarter.
However, Cundiff experienced some soreness on kickoffs in the first half, prompting Harbaugh to turn to punter Sam Koch in the second half. Fortunately, the Ravens would only need Koch to kick off one time and Cundiff was still available for field goals and extra points.
The move was considered more precautionary with the Ravens holding a 14-point lead at halftime.
“It was important for [Cundiff] to be able to kick,” Harbaugh said, “but he started feeling [something] on the kickoffs as we progressed in the first half, so we went with Sam in the second half on kickoffs.”
Odds & ends
Wide receiver Torrey Smith tied Jamal Lewis’ rookie record for touchdowns in a season when he posted his sixth score of 2011, an 8-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. … The Ravens accumulated four sacks against Indianapolis, giving them a league-high 45 on the season. With three games remaining, Baltimore is on pace to record 55 sacks in 2011, more than doubling its total of 27 last season. … Opponents have now gone 21 straight games without scoring on their opening drive against the Ravens, the NFL’s longest streak over the past 20 seasons. … Veteran wideout Lee Evans passed the 6,000-yard mark for his career with a 21-yard reception in the third quarter. … The Ravens have now won 17 of their last 18 games at M&T Bank Stadium and are 7-0 at home this year. Baltimore is 26-5 at home in four seasons under Harbaugh.
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