Given all the glorious memories, the individual accolades, the passion he has exuded, and his significance to his team, his city and the game he has sacrificed his body and long-term health for since joining the Ravens in 1996, it’s understandable why so much of the focus over the past 48 hours has been the loss of Ray Lewis.
This is a living legend we are talking about -- a linebacker whose bust should have been bronzed by now.
But as far as the team’s Super Bowl hopes go, the most significant strand of tissue shredded Sunday was not the right triceps of Lewis, but the anterior cruciate ligament in the left knee of cornerback Lardarius Webb.
Both players are lost for the season, so it’s not like the Ravens get to choose one over the other. And both are substantial losses to a toothless defense that already ranks 26th against the run and 22nd against the pass (though they are 11th in scoring defense).
But in terms of performance, their career arcs had already intersected. With Lewis perhaps past the twilight of a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career, Webb’s arc was skyrocketing. He hadn’t been beat for a touchdown in nearly two years and opponents had started to avoid him. The Ravens locked him up with a five-year, $50 million contract extension. And with national media hype building, he would have made the Pro Bowl this season.
In five full games this season plus the limited snaps before he tore his ACL during the first quarter of Sunday's 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Webb had been targeted by quarterbacks just 24 times, according to Pro Football Focus. In Week 2, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick didn't even bother throwing his way once. On those 24 targets, Webb allowed just 11 receptions for 111 yards -- a ridiculous average of 4.6 yards per attempt.
For comparison sake, let’s look at some of his fellow top-flight cornerbacks. Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets, who tore his ACL three weeks ago, allowed 5.5 yards per attempt in 2011. Chicago’s Chris Tillman is allowing 5.1 yards per attempt this season. St. Louis’ Cortland Finnegan is allowing 6.0. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson is at 6.1. Philadelphia’s Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are at 8.0 and 6.4, respectively.
When it comes to cornerbacks who have played at least 75 percent of their team's defensive snaps, Webb ranked fifth in percentage of targets completed (45.8 percent) and he ranked fourth in opponent quarterback rating (42.2, which is nearly 25 points lower than Matt Cassel’s rating). He also made nine interceptions, including three in two games in last year's playoffs, since the start of the 2011 season, which put him among the league leaders in that category.
Webb was also a plus tackler, a threat to blitz and a dangerous returner, though the Ravens wisely limited his opportunities there.
Considering how often teams throw the ball -- much more than the days when Lewis was twice the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year -- you can argue that Webb was their most valuable defender.
It’s impossible to quantify the intangibles that Lewis brought to the table -- his leadership, his experience and his near-flawless football mind that usually put the Baltimore defense in the right position before the snap of the ball, much like what quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady do with their respective offenses.
But the post-snap tangibles Webb supplied in the 53 1/3 yards between the sidelines can be measured. And the results show that he had become a premier player at a premium position in the NFL.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times