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Patriots 23, Ravens 20
4. It's time to give serious thought to drafting a linebacker in the first round.
We knew all week that the Patriots were going to try to create mismatches with their hurry-up offense, and that there was a good chance they'd find a weak link in the Ravens defense and exploit it. There was a real assumption it was going to be Bernard Pollard, but it actually turned out to be Dannell Ellerbe, pictured. He was burned repeatedly by Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens tried to hide him in different coverages, but it was just too difficult to give him help on every play.
Ray Lewis said after the game he was absolutely planning to return next year, and that's a good thing. He still has some football left in him. I thought Lewis was totally ineffective as a blitzer on Sunday, but he played surprisingly well in pass coverage. He cut off angles, helped confuse Brady early, and he punished people when they did catch the ball in front of him. But he can't outrun or out-think the calender forever. What happens if he misses time next year with injuries?
It's time to get serious about finding a young and talented linebacker who can play alongside Lewis for a season (or two) and then take over when he does hang up his cleats. Jameel McClain has developed into a solid starter, but the Ravens need better athletes at that position. Undrafted free agents like Ellerbe and McClain make for a great story, but there is a reason Ray Lewis was drafted in the first round. I'm sure the Ravens will claim they're going to stick with their philosophy of "Best Player Available." But internally, the discussion needs to take place. When do you use a high draft pick to address that position? Because they haven't in years.
Defense is obviously still important in the playoffs, but teams are throwing the ball more and more in the regular season, and linebackers who can get back in coverage are more important than they've ever been. Next year, the Ravens will have to face Ben Roethlisberger twice, Andy Dalton twice, and also play against Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Mike Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Matt Schaub. Those are a lot of bullets to dodge.
January 22, 2012