Dannell Ellerbe is having the best season of his four-year career and has become a central figure in the middle of the Ravens defense.
The progression has come at a perfect time, as Ellerbe has stepped into a starting role with a triceps injury sidelining Ray Lewis indefinitely. After showing glimpses of his potential during his first three NFL seasons, Ellerbe has taken his game to a new level.
The biggest reason for the improvement, according to Ellerbe and the coaching staff, is the commitment the fourth-year linebacker has made to understanding the mental side of the game.
"From a professionalism standpoint, he has just made tremendous growth," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He has really become a serious student of the game. He works really hard at it."
Ellerbe leads the Ravens with 3.5 sacks and is third on the team with 52 tackles, which is almost already a career high (55).
The former undrafted linebacker is in the final year of his rookie contract, and admits that the uncertainty looming at the end of the season gave him renewed motivation to make a statement this year.
"I just decided that this is my contract year, this is the year I really need to just step it up, show improvement," Ellerbe said. "I just said that I would take a couple extra minutes, or an hour or two, and just study more, and just study certain things that will help me in my game, and it's panning out for me."
Ellerbe is taking more of an active role in the team meetings, and he's starting to get a better grasp on the game.
But the film study goes beyond the walls of the Ravens' facility, and he's spending more time than ever working on his craft outside of team hours. Ellerbe has been a regular participant in the film sessions that fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain holds in the theater room at his house with a number of other defensive players.
Ellerbe has followed the lead of players like McClain and Lewis, who routinely preach the value of the film room.
"Obviously, he has been working with Ray and Jameel," Harbaugh said. "Those are two very serious guys, and Dannell has really grown as a player that way. To me, that's the biggest improvement."
Ellerbe feels the same way.
"Mentally is where I've grown the most," he said.
The development has show up in his game, as offensive schemes are becoming clearer and the game is slowing down, which has allowed him to play more natural.
He's made splash plays in a variety of roles, and has shown his versatility in pass and run coverage, and also in blitzing situations. Ellerbe is shaking the reputation that he's only a pass-coverage linebacker and displaying that can be an impact player with more time on the field.
"The game is a whole lot slower when you have ideas about what the offense is going to do – formations, what plays they're going to run in certain situations – knowing that and not just relying on your God-given ability, you can make a whole lot more plays," Ellerbe said.
Another difference this season is that Ellerbe has been able to stay healthy. Nagging hamstring injuries limited him to just nine games last year, and he had to play through pain when he was on the field.
He's more in tune with his body this season, making sure to get ice and treatment on any possible issues after games or practice.
He can't afford to miss extended time, and the Ravens need him on the field with Lewis out indefinitely because of torn triceps. The only injuries Ellerbe has had this season are thumb issues, but that hasn't forced him to miss any time and he played the Cleveland game with casts on his hands.
He's been on the field for every defensive snaps since Lewis went down and looks to be getting stronger the more he plays. Despite the thumb ailments, he led the Ravens in tackles Sunday against the Browns and also was the only player to notch a sack.
"He's always had the talent," Harbaugh said. "He has become a really good technician, and he is playing at a high level. He has never not done well when he has been put on the field, and now his role continues to be expanded, and he continues to do well."
While Ellerbe has stepped into more of a key role with the injury to Lewis, he emphasized that he's not looking to take over for the future Hall of Famer. Lewis has set such a high standard during his 17 NFL season, and Ellerbe is more focused on himself than trying to match Lewis' mark.
"People want to make it like I'm trying to fill his shoes. I'm not trying to fill his shoes," Ellerbe said. I'm trying to fill my own shoes. I'm trying to be my own person. He's a great mentor and everything else, but I can't play like Ray Lewis. I have to go out and there play like me and make a name for myself."
As the Ravens head into the second half of the season, Ellerbe's focus on continuing to play at a high level will be a key factor in determining the overall success of the unit.
And in the back of his mind, he knows that a strong finish to the season will also set him up for a big payday in the offseason.
"It's in the back of my mind. But I don't go out there and think, 'Oh this is my contract year, I got to do this, I got to do that,'" Ellerbe said. "I just go out there and play and give it my all and whatever happens, happens.
"Winning is first. The contract stuff, that's not going to happen until after the season is over. I'm trying to get to the Super Bowl and win right now."