When Eric Weddle first arrived in Baltimore in 2016, he watched film of his new defense and was perplexed that he didn’t see Anthony Levine on the field more. So he approached Levine and asked why.
“I play special teams,” Levine told Weddle. “He said, ‘Nah, you’re too good to just play special teams.’”
Two years later, after becoming a Weddle protégé, it’s clear that Levine means much more to the Ravens.
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale and Weddle lavished praise on Levine this week after he was all over the field in Cleveland. The week before, Levine had a game-sealing interception in Pittsburgh. He’s notched six pass breakups and 11 tackles the past two weeks.
“If the game is on the line, I want him in the game,” Martindale said. “That’s the best compliment I can give him.”
“He’s been amazing for us – one of the best defenders we’ve had playing this year,” Weddle added.
Levine’s says he’s not playing any better than before; it’s just about being put in the right position. “Everything is just lining up,” he said.
A lot of it is that Levine is simply getting more snaps. He’s played 110 defensive snaps this season – 31.4 of the defense’s total. Last year, he played 24.1 percent, the year before was 15.9 percent, and in 2015 he played just 2.5 percent.
The reason is because the coaches trust Levine, and because of evolving NFL offenses. Levine plays in the Ravens’ sub and dime packages. Those units have seen the field a lot this year because pass-happy opponents have been in a lot of second- and third-and-longs and are thus deploying more wide receivers and tight ends. Running backs nowadays are used more as receivers than big-bullying bulldozers.
That has made hybrid defenders like the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Levine more in-demand. In such situations, the Ravens remove an inside linebacker and insert their Swiss Amy knife, Levine.
“When Levine’s in there, we’re a better defense,” Weddle said. “He can do so much for us. He can play the run, he can match up with tight ends, he can match up with scat running backs that maybe some of our linebackers have trouble covering. He can lock them down.”
But what makes Levine’s story so cool isn’t just that he’s playing well and helping the Ravens’ top-ranked defense become more multiple. It isn’t just about the interception in Pittsburgh, or nearly getting what could’ve been another game-winning pick in overtime in Cleveland (he’s still kicking himself for not making the tough play).
What’s unique about Levine’s story is that he’s emerging so late in his career – year nine. It’s a testament to the fact that players do get better with hard work and practice.
Levine was undrafted out of Tennessee State in 2010. He spent two years on the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad before he came to Baltimore and was eventually promoted to a 53-man roster for the first time on November 17, 2012 – just in time to become a Super Bowl champion for the second time. Green Bay won it in Levine’s rookie season, but he didn’t feel like he was part of that team.
Now, as reporters crowded around Levine’s locker, the boisterous veteran was suddenly kind of bashful.
“I’m glad I have the respect of my coaches and my teammates – that’s the most important thing to me,” Levine said. “Even when I was just playing special teams, all my teammates knew I could go in and play on defense.”
Standing on the other side of the locker room, veteran linebacker and special teamer Albert McClellan smiled. “It’s awesome. He deserves it,” McClellan said. “You work hard your whole life to be in the spotlight, so you have to embrace it when you get it.”
But here’s the Catch-22. Levine’s defensive emergence could mean fewer snaps on special teams – his first love. He takes immense pride in his nickname, “Co-Cap,” which was given to him as the co-captain of the Ravens’ special teams unit with McClellan.
When told that coaches said he may be taken off special teams some to keep him fresher on defense, Levine said, “Man, I have to get in shape.”
“I’m always going to be a special teamer at heart. I love it,” Levine said. “That’s given me my longevity so far in the league.
“I believe that I am one of the best special teams players in the league. I like to go out there and try to dominate the game on special teams as much as I can. Me not being out there on special teams … shoot, it’s been a while since you haven’t seen me out on special teams, right? That would be different.”