Injuries can turn a really good team into an average one, or an average team into a bad one. They're an unavoidable part of the game, and no team can control how or when they occur. Teams can, however, control how they react to and handle each injury.
The Baltimore Ravens are one squad that bears watching this week as it deals with season-ending injuries to veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis and starting cornerback Lardarius Webb. Baltimore is a good team -- a first-place team, sitting atop the AFC North with a 5-1 record -- but the injuries to Lewis and Webb can dramatically alter the Ravens' season if they don't react to them well.
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As a person, a leader and a true professional, Lewis leaves a big hole. However, as a 37-year-old player, Lewis won't be as hard for the Ravens to replace. They'll be able to find another player to run and make tackles, one who can even give their base defense more speed. Dannell Ellerbe, in fact, is a good player who can make plays and help improve the base defense; he won't hurt the team. He's young and athletic, and Lewis was not playing young and athletic.
It's true that Father Time might have finally gotten the best of Lewis on the field. However -- and this is a huge "however" -- he still had a rare ability to help others and prepare the defense. The amount of attention to detail Lewis showed before games and the emotional leadership he provided will be impossible for any one player to replicate. Sometimes in the NFL, the work that is done before kickoff is more important than the work done during the game. Lewis made everyone prepare; he made everyone accountable; he made everyone work hard. Now, without him in the room, the Ravens' meetings might be a bit more lax. A new leader must step up quickly for the Ravens -- someone from their front seven who can demand and push the other players to perform at their best.
Webb is going to be difficult, if not impossible, for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome to replace. Newsome has a good corner in Jimmy Smith who can fill in for Webb in Baltimore's base unit, but he does not have anyone to take Webb's place in the nickel, which is where Webb was a blue-chip player. Webb might have been the best slot corner in football, in terms of covering and attacking the pocket. He was tough, a willing tackler who could fit perfectly on the nickel runs. NFL teams are having staggering success running the ball against nickel defenses, and Webb was a boon for the Ravens when it came to handling this trend. No one on Baltimore's roster can fill that void. Expect to see opposing offenses use more three-receiver sets on any down against the Ravens, in part because doing so forces Baltimore to play its third corner, and in part because the Ravens cannot pressure the passer.
All is not doom and gloom for the Ravens. They're still a good team. Their offense just needs to step up. They need to start games faster and establish leads more quickly, thus allowing the defense to play from ahead. In terms of scoring so far this season, the Ravens have been average in the first quarter and much better in the second, tying for seventh in the NFL in first-half point differential. Now, though, it's critical for the offense to set the pace, set the tempo and build the lead. After years of being carried by the defense, it's time for the offense to return the favor.
In that respect, a changing of the guard was taking place in Baltimore even before Webb and Lewis were hurt. The Ravens' offense had already begun to take on a bigger role. Now, the reality of their situation has to set in; the offense must drive this team, on and off the field, starting immediately. With Lewis out, quarterback Joe Flacco or running back Ray Rice must step up and become the team's new leader. The torch must be passed. The best way to honor Lewis is for his teammates to follow the incredible path he created.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved that the Cleveland Browns finally won a game. I was really happy for Browns fans everywhere after Cleveland beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-24. Those fans have been suffering for so long, and they deserve a winner. With new owner Jimmy Haslam officially taking over Tuesday after his approval by the NFL, better days might be ahead for the city of Cleveland.
I loved how Peyton Manning mounted yet another comeback Monday night against the San Diego Chargers. Of course, San Diego did help Manning's cause by coughing up the ball and allowing the Denver Broncos to take over the game. But that doesn't diminish the impact of Manning's "never say die" attitude. The Broncos are not as good on defense as many might have thought they'd be, but with Manning under center, no game is ever out of reach.
I loved how the New York Giants continued to use the "no one believes in us" mantra to motivate themselves to play their best. I knew the Giants were a good team, but I never thought they could dominate the San Francisco 49ers like they did on Sunday. After that display, head coach Tom Coughlin might have to find a new motivational tool, because no one (including me) is going to underestimate the G-Men ever again.
THINGS I HATED
I hated Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett's game management in Baltimore. The Cowboys had a chance to beat the Ravens after successfully executing an onside kick and getting the ball back on their 46-yard line with 30 seconds and one timeout left. After a pass-interference penalty moved them up 20 yards and stopped the clock, Garrett did not do much to get any closer before choosing to try for a field goal, making the same mistake he made last season against the Arizona Cardinals. And just like last season in Arizona, kicker Dan Bailey's very long (51 yards) attempt failed, and the 'Boys lost. This defeat is not on quarterback Tony Romo; it's all on Garrett, and I hated it.
I hated that the New England Patriots blew another fourth-quarter lead, this time against the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots have lost three games this season by a combined four points. In the past, they've been good at putting close games away in the fourth quarter, but this season, they're failing to execute at crunch time. On Sunday, quarterback Tom Brady was great, until the final moments of the first half, when he blew a scoring opportunity by incurring an intentional-grounding penalty, echoing a mistake he made in Super Bowl XLVI. From that point on, Brady struggled and the Seahawks made all the critical plays.
I hated how Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggled against the Browns' defense. There are times when I watch Dalton that I wonder whether the Bengals have their long-term answer at the position. Dalton is good but not great, and he often isn't good enough. This was the case on Sunday. When plays go according to plan, Dalton looks fine, but when things break down -- which they do with regularity -- he struggles to make something happen. Dalton must play better. After watching the Bengals play the past two weeks, I'm not convinced they're a playoff-caliber team.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn was just average against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it seems clear to me that the Chiefs have to look for their quarterback of the future. They can keep playing Quinn in the hopes that he'll improve, but they'll likely have to turn to the draft to find a franchise quarterback -- if they can.
» I wasn't sure why the Philadelphia Eagles changed their defensive strategy toward the end of their loss to the Detroit Lions, using Brandon Hughes to cover the tight end instead of Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles' defense played well for most of the game, but when they needed a pressure or a sack, the unit failed to deliver. Maybe this is why Juan Castillo is no longer the defensive coordinator in Philly.
» Seattle's Russell Wilson made key throws and played well Sunday, which he had to do after the Pats took away the run game. Wilson's arm was great, but his feet killed New England.
» Speaking of quarterbacks having success against the Patriots, their secondary cannot make any plays on the ball down the field. Unless New England fixes this problem, opposing offenses will continue to throw it up against them, and they'll continue to make plays.
» After Sunday night's 42-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers, it's obvious that if the Houston Texans aren't able to control the pace of a game -- which means getting an early lead -- they're not the same team. Houston's defense is at its best when playing from in front, and the Texans are better offensively when they can run play-action passes rather than having to drop back.