Eisenberg: Game Will Be Decided By Ray Lewis


This is a Ray Lewis story that isn't about deer antler spray or revisiting Atlanta or how he is inspiring his teammates.

It isn't about the Saturday Night Live spoof or the "last ride" or whether he might dance his way out of the tunnel Sunday.

With all due respect to those myriad other ways he has made his way into the headlines this week, this is a Ray Lewis story about … sorry … football.

As you may know, this clattering week of hype and chatter does, in fact, culminate with (whew) a game, one in which Lewis will play a crucial role. You could even say the outcome of Sunday's Super Bowl between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers rests on his shoulders in a way.

Here's my thinking: As stout as the 49ers are on defense, they aren't going to stop the Ravens' offense cold – not on a fast, indoor track with Joe Flacco on such a roll. The Ravens are going to put up some points. The big question is whether their defense can slow down quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' high-test pistol offense often enough to enable the Ravens to prevail. That's where Lewis comes in.

He might no longer be a punishing, sideline-to-sideline force at age 37, but he remains the Ravens' chief defensive signal-caller, mandated to read and react, set the alignment and, in some cases, tell his teammates where to line up.

That's where this game could be decided.

I certainly came away with that conclusion after hearing what Lewis said Wednesday when asked about the pistol.

"They're doing a good job with it," he said. "But when you do watch the film, a lot of the people who've played against it didn't communicate at all. One thing we do, we communicate very well."

That's actually quite a statement. In just a few sentences, Lewis threw the defenses of both the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons under the bus for failing to play together as the 49ers punctured them for a combined 73 points in the NFC playoffs, and then he insinuated the Ravens would thrive where the others fell short.

His teammates backed him up, by the way.

"I saw the same things on film. I saw a lot of guessing (from the 49ers' opposition)," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said Thursday. "We're going to try to do a better job with that."

On every play in the pistol, the Ravens have to prepare for Kaepernick to do one of four things with the ball – hand it to a running back on a quick dive, keep it and run himself, pitch it to a back going wide or throw it. That means the Ravens basically have to talk among themselves before every play and decide who is taking responsibility for each of those options.

"It all happens before the snap," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said.

"Communication is just huge, really the key for us," Ngata said. "You have to understand who has the ball, have your eyes on the right person, not be looking in the wrong place. Otherwise, you're guessing."

Of course, there's going to be more to it than just lining up in the right place and knowing who is responsible for what.

"You still have to execute," Pees said. "You can be prepared and know exactly what to do, but you still have to fend off the blocks, make the tackles, play the game. We won't know how any of that plays out until Sunday night."

True, but there's a chess-match component to this matchup that plays into the Ravens' hands with Lewis, a film-study legend. He probably plays the chess match as effectively as ever these days, even as he prepares to retire; it's not the brain that fades, after all, it's the legs.

"He's just amazing at spotting things, both on film and during games," Ngata said.

Ed Reed helps out with the back-end alignments and signals, and Pees is the eye in the sky, but it all comes down to the man in the middle.

Lewis wouldn't want it any other way, and frankly, neither would the Ravens.

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