Eisenberg: Absent Lewis Shows Window Isn't Closing

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Still, the thinking is, at the very least, understandable. No one can dispute that the Ravens are better with their iconic future Hall of Famers still playing at a Pro Bowl-level -- Lewis, 36, roaming the field making tackles, and Reed, 33, roaming the back end of the secondary, forcing quarterbacks to throw elsewhere simply by being there.

But it is interesting to view this "window" concept through the prism of these past three weeks, isn't it? The Ravens have ripped off three wins in a row with Lewis on the sidelines because of a toe injury. They should make it four Sunday if Lewis sits out against the winless Colts.

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The defense struggled in its first game without Lewis against Cincinnati on Nov. 20, but has since played magnificently, allowing just one garbage-time touchdown in 120 minutes while piling up 12 sacks against San Francisco and Cleveland.

An inevitability the Ravens have long dreaded – Life Without Ray – has surprisingly descended on them, yet turned out to be, well, fine.

Oh, sure, Lewis is still around to make a difference, even on the sideline in gym clothes, coaching the defense and pumping up everyone with his towel-waving leadership. If you don't think that matters, you don't understand the sway he holds in the locker room.

If and when he eventually moves on to the next phase of his life – my prediction is TV work – the Ravens will certainly miss that as well as his matchless on-field play.

Still, if these last three games are any indication, Life Without Ray is not necessarily the window-slamming dead end so many envision.

For starters, Reed is still around. He is younger than Lewis and seemingly less constricted by his various injuries this season, although they surely persist. There is no telling when he might decide enough is enough, but it appears he has several years left if he chooses.

But the biggest reason to be encouraged about the defense's future is what exists behind the two stars. Terrell Suggs has become a leader with his double-digit sacks and throw-down statements. Haloti Ngata has signed a long-term deal to anchor the interior. Neither is 30. There's your core.

Meanwhile, a whole group of young guys is flowering right before your eyes. They're all over the place, suddenly, forming the outline of the Ravens' Generation Next defense.

Lardarius Webb, fully recovered from a knee injury, is playing about as hungrily and well as any cornerback in the league. He doesn't have the hype yet, but it's coming if he keeps this up.

Across from him, rookie Jimmy Smith is already jumping routes even though he has barely played because of an early-season ankle sprain. His time also is coming.

Up front, Paul Kruger has stepped up in his third season, and rookie Pernell McPhee is looking like a major find; a fifth-round pick who can't stop getting to quarterbacks, he might end up cracking Ozzie Newsome's list of top ten shrewdest moves.

Most importantly, inside linebackers Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, and Albert McClellan have been, well, let's say it -- almost as effective as Lewis.

"Those guys have really stepped up, so it's been really encouraging in that sense," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "The young linebackers have played at a really high level … I think it's a tribute to them, to the coaches and to Ray, as far as bringing those young guys along."

Let's not go too far and say the Ravens are just as fine without Lewis as with him. They're going to need him in January. Big time.

But they're far from lost without him, either now or, seemingly, in the long run.

John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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