It took a little while, but Jameel McClain has finally gotten used to the voices buzzing in his head.
After Ray Lewis tore his triceps late in the Week 6 win over the Dallas Cowboys, McClain assumed his role as the Ravens' starting middle linebacker. With the new gig came: two small speakers in his helmet, a green dot the size of a quarter, the responsibility of relaying the play calls transmitted by defensive coordinator Dean Pees to his fellow defenders and making sure each is where they are supposed to be before the snap.
In the frantic 40 seconds between plays, McClain benefits from technology that was provided to offenses in 1994 but not to defenses until four years ago. On Sunday, McClain will have to line the defense up against quarterback Carson Palmer and the rest of the Oakland Raiders offense. McClain enjoys being a big part of the pre-snap chess match between opposing coordinators, though his role can at times be underappreciated.
"The game is tricky. Offenses play games on the other side and coaches try to find the perfect play," said McClain, who signed a new three-year contract this spring. "It's still football. When you get in that [headset], my goal is to make sure that everybody is in the right place and make sure they're lined up the right way."
Since the NFL in 2008 started allowing one defender from each team to wear a helmet wired with speakers, Lewis had been the one tasked with moving the pieces around the field for the chess master, though it wasn't something he first embraced. As the Ravens tinkered with the technology, Lewis and safety Ed Reed played hot potato with the headset before Lewis eventually relented and took over the responsibility full-time.
Today, most teams stick a green dot on the back of a linebacker's helmet. Since they man the middle of the field, it is easier for them to communicate with both the defensive line and secondary. In a loud environment — especially at M&T Bank Stadium where "Seven Nation Army" blares over the sound system and the home fans try to distract the opposing offense — it is unlikely that a nose tackle could hear a free safety screaming.
As soon as a play ends and the 40-second play clock starts , Pees quickly assesses the situation, presses a button to open up the line of communication with McClain, and passes along the next play. The Ravens then make necessary personnel substitutions and McClain barks out the play to the 10 other defenders, who can also glance at the sideline for hand signals if they have trouble hearing him. But the helmet does not have a microphone, so McClain cannot respond to Pees.
While he still has McClain on the line, Pees might pass along a coaching tidbit — for example, he alerted him when Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs entered Sunday's game — but he tries to keep it simple. Pees, who coordinated the New England Patriots defense from 2006 to 2009 before joining the Ravens, said calling plays has to be done efficiently. Once, Pees said he let a linebackers coach make the calls, but the coach overwhelmed the player.
"He would start talking to his linebacker about linebacker things," Pees said. "So he's now listening to him instead of looking at the formation and the play and getting lined up. So I said, 'Just give him the call and shut up.'"
When the play clock hits 15 seconds, the NFL cuts the line of communication between Pees and McClain, along with sound in the helmet of the opposing quarterback.
McClain has the leeway to make minor adjustments between plays — it's unclear how much compared to Lewis — but the major schematic changes are done between possessions or in the locker room at halftime.
Improved communication was one of many priorities for the Ravens during the bye week, and with McClain again getting comfortable with directing the defense between plays — something he did for four games in 2011 when Lewis was sidelined with a toe injury — they held the Browns to 290 total yards in the 25-15 win. Pees also moved back up to the coaches box for the Browns game in an effort to help speed up the communication between plays.
"It's getting smoother. Jameel is doing a better job of getting the calls to the guys," coach John Harbaugh said. "Of course, just him operating, having to get the call, make the call and play, that's something you take for granted a little bit, but it's a little more on his plate than he's used to, so he's getting better with that."
McClain isn't the only Ravens linebacker making an adjustment. At any given time during a game, only one player from each team is allowed to wear a wired helmet, which has a thin, lightweight speaker the size of a silver dollar near each ear hole and a small battery pack. But Dannell Ellerbe — who was a reserve before taking over McClain's old weakside inside linebacker spot when Lewis got injured — is the backup signal-caller should something happen to McClain. To prepare, Ellerbe also wears a helmet with speakers during practice.
But unlike McClain, Ellerbe isn't as enthused about the possibility of added responsibilities before the snap.
"I would rather have someone else do it so I could catch my breath after the play," the linebacker said .
On game day, each team must designate the two defenders — and up to three quarterbacks — who might don the green dot. The Ravens equipment staff keeps two backup helmets in a crate on the sideline. In the event that McClain left the game, Ellerbe would have to run to the sideline and swap his standard helmet for a wired one whenever there is a break in the action. In the meantime, the Ravens would rely on the old-school hand signals, which Pees and his predecessor, Chuck Pagano, prefer over headset communication anyway.
Hand signals also come in handy when there are issues with the audio transmission. In years past, there have reportedly been claims from other teams about their audio feeds being disrupted by things such as Madonna rehearsing for a concert at a nearby venue or Southwest airline pilots communicating with air traffic control. But the transmissions have been clearer with fewer kinks since the NFL switched from analog to digital this season.
As for the possibility of teams stealing or scrambling the audio signals, the league makes sure that all of the communications are highly encrypted. The league also sends frequency coordinators to every game to make sure that all wireless devices in the stadium are far enough away from the teams' communication systems.
McClain didn't seem too worried about would-be hackers or the added weight on his shoulders now that Lewis is likely lost for the season. He hasn't been fazed by Pees chirping in his ears, either. Now that he has been handed more responsibilities, he gets a thrill out of playing both games — the one before and the one after the snap.