Through the first three games of the 2012 season, fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has played 65 percent of the Ravens defensive snaps, while starter Jameel McClain has played 45 percent of the time.
Coaches explained this week that the change in playing time is not an indication of McClain losing his grip on the starting role, however. Instead, the two linebackers rotate based on the personnel the opposing offense has on the field. The uptick in playing time for Ellerbe can be attributed to his build for today's pass-first league.
"I think [Ellerbe] might be just a little bit better in the coverage aspect," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said. "Jameel is a very, very good run linebacker, but he does a good job in the pass defense too."
In Sunday's game against the pass-heavy Patriots, Ellerbe played 67 of the 83 defensive snaps and had a key role in limiting the production of tight end Rob Gronkowski. McClain was on the field for 18 defensive plays, according to the statistical website Pro Football Focus.
"What's happening is Ellerbe is playing in the sub package, [McClain] is playing more in the regular Raven package," Pees said. "We played a little bit more sub against New England than we have maybe in the past games."
McClain, 6-foot-1, 245-pounds, is a bruising linebacker who can fill the hole and stuff the run. Ellerbe, 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, has a little more speed to cover tight ends, running backs or wide receivers coming across the middle of the field.
"We all have our own packages and just with the way that the league is now, it's more of a passing league, so I've been on the field more," Ellerbe said. "But if it's a team that likes to run the ball, like Cleveland, then he'll be on the field more."
"I think we have two different games," added McClain. "Ellerbe is quick. He's very shifty. I'm fast. I look at myself as fast and powerful, more of a straight-line type of bruiser. That's kind of my game."
McClain is still the starting inside linebacker and has started all by one game since the 2010 season. He finished second on the team with 84 tackles last season; he has nine so far this year. Ellerbe leads the team with 2.5 sacks and is second with 20 total tackles.
He came up with 1.5 sacks Sunday against the Patriots, including a critical one on the Patriots final possession.
"I feel like I'm doing well, playing within the defense, without too many mental errors," Ellerbe said. "I'm just out there playing good ball."
Last season was frustrating for Ellerbe, who played in only nine games and finished the year with 17 total tackles. He fought through a hamstring injury that occurred in the third game of the season and lingered for the rest of the year.
"Last year was kind of crazy with all the pulls and stuff," Ellerbe said. "I never really had a problem with them until last season, and I guess that was a little setback. Now I'm good, taking care of my body and doing everything to prevent that."
Ellerbe has been healthy so far this year and he's making the most of his opportunities to get on the field. He and McClain are both performing at a high level within their roles, and the Ravens plan to keep the rotation moving forward.
"They are equal guys in a lot of ways," Pees said. "That's why, hopefully, we can keep rotating them and spelling them a little bit. Having given each guy a role on defense I think really kind of helps us."