Leaner linebackers may become the new trend in the pass-focused NFL

The glare hasn’t gone anywhere. Even in training camp practices, Ray Lewis’ scowl, which has almost dared opposing teams to run his way for nearly two decades in the NFL, remains omnipresent. But the long-time face of the Ravens’ vaunted defense has a different look this summer.

A lean Lewis reported to training camp last week and acknowledged he is probably the lightest that he’s been since he arrived in Baltimore as a rookie in 1996, burdened by questions about whether he was too small to hold up at middle linebacker.

Sixteen years, 2,586 tackles and 13 Pro Bowl invites later, those questions are again being asked of Lewis who put himself through a rigorous offseason workout program he says has him weighing less than 240 pounds.

Lewis has played much of his career between 250 and 260 pounds.

“It is a passing game,” said Lewis, who has declined to reveal his exact weight. Lewis weighed 235 pounds in his rookie season. “It’s a quick game [that] they want. Offenses want to really exploit 30-40 points a weekend. It’s about creating mismatches, I think.”

Did Lewis lose too much weight, leaving him susceptible to on-rushing guards and punishing running backs? Or is this just the latest example of Lewis evolving with the NFL, and figuring out yet another way to prolong a future Hall of Fame career?

The consensus among current and former players and coaches, and NFL evaluators is that Lewis, at age 37, has once again adapted to a changed game. They say the days of the 250 or 260-pound middle linebackers are coming to an end in favor of smaller and quicker players who can better match up with tight ends and ball carriers coming out of the backfield.

“I think it will become a trend,” said Larry Coyer, a former defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts. “It’s changed in college football and [teams] are playing tag football with the spread offenses. They are playing with different types of athletes than they used to play with. The Ohio States, Michigans, Nebraskas, Oklahomas, they were going to pound you. But they don’t do that anymore. They are spread offenses. [The NFL] is getting the athletes that are available to them: fast, skilled, smaller and more athletic guys.”

Daniel Jeremiah scouted the NFL for the past eight seasons, including a stint with the Ravens. He isn’t sure if other veteran NFL linebackers will follow the lead of Lewis and fellow Ravens’ inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who also shed some weight this offseason. But after watching the college game closely over the years, he can easily project where the pro game is headed.

“In the college game over the last eight years, linebackers have gotten smaller and smaller as a result of all the spread offenses that you see,” said Jeremiah, now an analyst for NFL.com. “There aren’t any 250-pound linebackers to draft. The last three or four years, the league has really started to get packed with these linebackers that are between 230 and 240. It seems to kind of be about the most you can get on a linebacker.”

There are obviously some exceptions. Chicago Bears perennial Pro Bowl selection Brian Urlacher is listed at 258 pounds, while Houston Texans’ young standout inside linebacker Brian Cushing is 260. But more and more, league analysts are noting some of the better middle linebackers weighing in the 240 to 250 range.

That list includes the San Francisco 49ers’ Patrick Willis (240), the Washington Redskins’ London Fletcher (245) and the Cleveland Browns’ D’Qwell Jackson (240).

“Like we all know, it’s becoming more of a passing league so the goal is to stay out there as long as you can and still stay strong and get all of those things done,” said McClain who said he’s down to around 240. “But everybody wants to pass the ball; everybody wants to go no-huddle. The 255, 260-pound linebacker, I know those days are disappearing slowly, but surely.”

If you need proof that the league is becoming pass happy, consider the following: there were 345 more passing touchdowns scored than rushing ones in 2011. There were 121 300-yard passing performances. Ten different quarterbacks passed for more than 4,000 yards compared to six during the 2008 season. Sixteen quarterbacks threw the ball over 500 times, a plateau eclipsed by 10 signal callers during 2008.

The New York Giants won the Super Bowl despite having the 32nd-ranked rushing attack during the regular season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who used to be identified by their physical running game, had more than 100 more passing attempts than rushing ones. Simply put, teams that just hand the ball off and try to run the ball down the throats of their opposition are few and far between, and Lewis and other linebackers have taken notice and adjusted their styles.

“I think Ray hit the nail on the head when he said that the game has evolved,” said Jeremiah. “[Fullbacks like] Lorenzo Neal, they don’t really exist anymore. You’re talking about a league where people are throwing it all three downs. If you’re going to be in there at linebacker, you’ve got to be able to cover tight ends and backs. You got to be able to run with them. I think [Lewis] feels like dropping the weight will help him there and I tend to agree with him.”

Jeremiah did acknowledge that there will probably be a “little effect” in how Lewis stops the run. The Ravens take pride in the fact that they’ve never allowed more than 3.9 yards per carry, and a big reason is Lewis’ presence in the middle. However, the AFC North does have several big backs, including Cleveland Browns’ rookie Trent Richardson (230 pounds), the Cincinnati Bengals’ BenJarvus Green-Ellis (220) and the Steelers’ Isaac Redman (230).

“You’re not going to see him have the same snap,” Jeremiah said. “There’s no way you can if you lose that kind of weight. But I just think he’s seeing that as the lesser of two evils. The way the game is played now, it’s more important that you run and cover.”

Jeremiah also pointed out that in nose tackle Terrence Cody and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, both listed at 340 pounds, the Ravens are as stout as any team in the NFL up front, and those two help keep guards off of Lewis. When they get to him, it wouldn’t matter if Lewis is 360 or 340 pounds, according to former Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions standout linebacker Stan White.

“The days of linebackers taking on linemen head on and stoning them are long gone,” said White, now a radio broadcaster for the Ravens. “The linemen are so big and athletic these days. If a linebacker stands there and has to read and take on people, there’s not too many who can do that on a consistent basis. The linemen are just too big and strong for any linebacker.”

White also pointed out that losing some weight will allow Lewis to continue to be among a rare breed: a three-down NFL linebacker. Lewis has gotten some criticism in the past for his coverage skills and there have been some questions as to whether the coaching staff would ever bring him to the sidelines in obvious passing situations.

“Ray is one of the few guys who stays on the field for all three downs and that’s because he’s a leader, No. 1 ,” White said. “You want him out there because he makes all the other players better and he puts everybody in right positions. He’s good enough to cover people in short areas and now he’s trying to expand that area so they don’t even think about taking him out in those situations.”

And beyond that, having less weight to carry could take pressure off Lewis’ joints and allow him to bounce back quicker. The Ravens said they didn’t encourage Lewis to come into camp lighter. However, Lewis said that a couple of coaches over the years have advised him to cut weight as he got older.

“The lighter you get, the lighter you play,” Lewis said, “and you just feel better.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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