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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Ravens still searching for a great leader like Ray Lewis | COMMENTARY

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The Ravens still miss middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who retired shortly after the team won Super Bowl 47 to end the 2012 season. It’s not just Lewis’ physical presence, but the psychological effect he had to will his team to victory.

If Lewis had been a member of the 2023 Ravens, what a great battle it would have been watching him going against Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game, which the Ravens lost, 17-10, in Baltimore.

Both of those players had “it,” that swagger and charisma that becomes contagious and makes everyone around them better. We saw that for 17 years in Baltimore with Lewis winning two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards and two Super Bowl titles.

We now see that in Mahomes, 28, who has played in four Super Bowls and won three, including two in a row. He is the consummate professional and has the same aura of invincibility.

The Ravens don’t have that type of player on the roster — not yet anyway. Middle linebacker Roquan Smith has the potential, but he has only been in Baltimore for 1 1/2 years and is still learning the culture, identity and work ethic of this franchise.

This type of machismo usually comes from a quarterback, but Lamar Jackson doesn’t exude that type of confidence. The great ones, such as Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, John Elway and Joe Montana, never had to talk about being “locked in” or focused. That was a normal assumption.

Those players could carry a team, but Jackson needs superior talent around him. He emerged somewhat as a leader on his way to a second NFL Most Valuable Player Award this past season, but only on the offensive side.

The same is true with Smith. He understands the signature of this franchise is defense. His teammates soak up his words both on and off the field, and he has become the player who consistently delivers the pregame speech, or “boomalacher.”

The Ravens need someone who transcends both offense and defense. Lewis had been on the roster for six years before he became the unquestioned team leader. He watched and learned from the big men who played in front of him, such as tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams and ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary.

That’s not to say he wasn’t the top defensive player in the league, but Lewis knew his place. And his teammates, such as offensive tackle Orlando Brown Sr., put him in it when Lewis got too big too soon.

Ravens Training
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, left, and inside linebacker Roquan Smith walk off the practice field together. Jackson compared Smith to Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.
Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, left, and inside linebacker Roquan Smith walk off the practice field together. (Kim Hairston/Staff)

Since the team moved to Baltimore from Cleveland in 1996, only two players have been the complete face of this organization. One was Lewis, and the other was tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played on the 2000 Super Bowl championship team.

No player, with the possible exception of Minnesota Vikings defensive end John Randle, talked more trash than Sharpe, but he also had possibly the greatest defense in NFL history backing him up. Sharpe would buzz and rattle his teammates and even the opposing team (remember him calling Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress “Plexiglass”?), but he didn’t care.

Lewis had a similar charm. There were times in games when he would go over and get running back Jamal Lewis amped up, telling him it was “time for the Lewis brothers to take over the game.” That was a pretty imposing pair with Ray at 240 pounds and Jamal at 245.

Ray Lewis could energize M&T Bank Stadium with his “squirrel dance,” complete with picking up dirt and grass. He would challenge his teammates to defend late-game drives. His pregame speeches were priceless, especially the famed, “Where would you rather be right now than right here playing this game?”

He delivered it like clockwork for almost every big game. He was the soul of the Ravens, quoting scripture (“no weapon formed against you shall prosper”) to laying hands on a teammate in prayer like he did with receiver Jacoby Jones before Jones returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl 47.

Veteran players such as offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebackers Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott and even quarterback Joe Flacco would stand in the back of the pregame huddles because they had seen or heard the routine several times. But young or new players on the roster such as Jones, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and defensive tackle Arthur Jones would eat it up and think they were invincible.

That was all part of the will and strength of Ray Lewis, not just his presence on the field. The Ravens miss that ingredient, especially late in games and in the postseason.

Steve Young had it, and so did Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. There have been defensive leaders who’ve had it as well, such as former Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene and New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.

There is only one Ray Lewis, and he can never be replaced. But the Ravens need to find a similar leader who can push this team over the top. Maybe it’s Smith, or maybe it’s a draft pick.

But there’s a hole and void in leadership that Lewis left and hasn’t been replaced in nearly a decade.

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