When the season began, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe wasn't an integral cog of the Ravens defense.
But Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers underscored how important Ellerbe has become in the past month or so with Ray Lewis sidelined.
The Ravens had issues wrapping up on tackles in the run game, lacked pass rush on quarterback Charlie Batch and had some coverage issues over the middle. Ellerbe could have helped in all three aspects.
"[Having Ellerbe out] changes things a lot," said outside linebacker Albert McClellan, who stepped in along with veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo.
"He's been a huge, huge part of this defense. He's all over the field. He can cover, he can run with the best of them, he can hit with the best of them. Losing Dannell is a big loss for the defense."
Ellerbe was sidelined throughout practice last week with ankle, knee and finger injuries. He's been playing with two broken thumbs, and previously with a toe ailment.
That wasn't enough to knock him out of a game until Sunday versus Pittsburgh. Head Coach John Harbaugh said Ellerbe was a game-time decision and left the door open on a potential return this weekend.
"Dannell Ellerbe is continuing to work, and we anticipate he's got a chance to get back this week [against the Redskins]," Harbaugh said Monday. "We were hopeful for this past game, but it just didn't work out."
Ellerbe is the team's second-leading tackler (81 tackles) despite missing Sunday's game and not starting for the first six contests. He's also second on the team in sacks (4.5), trailing only outside linebacker Paul Kruger.
While sitting out of practice, Ellerbe was helping McClellan with his film study and his adjustment to inside linebacker. Second-year inside linebacker Josh Bynes, who had one tackle versus the Steelers, also chipped in.
Harbaugh said McClellan, who was in mostly during run situations and finished with five tackles, did a "solid" job replacing Ellerbe. But it's not McClellan's natural position.
"It's a huge difference playing outside linebacker and inside linebacker," McClellan said. "The comfort zone for me is a little strange."
The Ravens let a couple runs leak out after seemingly having them bottled up. Jonathan Dwyer went up the middle then bounced outside for a 14-yard run in the first half, then on his 16-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Isaac Redman bounced out for a 24-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
Ellerbe and his sure tackling could have perhaps helped stop those runs. Harbaugh was happy with the unit's number of tackles for loss (eight), however.
"I thought the run defense was really good," Harbaugh said.
The Ravens only sacked Batch twice and hit him six times. The sacks came from defensive end Art Jones and Kruger.
Baltimore also left big holes in the middle of its secondary, and some analysts thought that it could be because the linebackers weren't dropping far enough in coverage. Steelers tight end Heath Miller logged five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
Harbaugh, however, said that fake screens drew defenders off their man-to-man coverage.
Overall, the Ravens would like to see Ellerbe back as soon as possible. Lewis has not yet returned to practice and isn't eligible to play until Dec. 16 at the earliest.
"It's a team, so people have to step up and do things Ellerbe was doing," McClellan said. "But we're ready for him to come back."