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Next generation of Ravens linebackers showing they can fill in for Ray Lewis

It was one of the few times all afternoon a Cleveland Browns player had the football with space and blockers in front of him.

On the Browns' second drive of the game, running back Chris Ogbonnaya caught Colt McCoy's screen pass and had an offensive lineman immediately to his left and nothing but green grass to his right. But before he could even get back to the line of scrimmage, Ogbonnaya was wrestled to the ground by Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who had not even been in the picture a split second earlier.

It was the kind of play that the linebacker Ellerbe is replacing — 12-time Pro Bowl selection Ray Lewis — has made countless times over his brilliant 16-year career. It was also the kind of play that most expected the Ravens' defense, specially their young linebacking corps, to miss out on with Lewis on the sideline nursing a toe injury.

As Ellerbe and fellow linebacker Jameel McClain demonstrated in combining for 14 tackles in Sunday's 24-10 victory over the Browns, that clearly hasn't been the case. With Lewis missing three consecutive games for the first time since 2005, the Ravens defense has not dropped off in victories over the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers and Browns.

"I think those guys have really stepped up," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "It's been really encouraging in that sense. The young linebackers all the way to Albert McClellan, and you're talking obviously about Jameel and Dannell, they've played at a really high level. That's really encouraging and it's a tribute to them, the coaches and to Ray as far as bringing those guys along. That's been a positive for us."

Lewis is expected to be a game-time decision again Sunday with the winless Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium, though according to one team source, the Ravens are targeting the Dec.18 game against the San Diego Chargers for Lewis' return.

It, however, is not out of the question that Lewis decides that he's sat long enough and needs to return. The middle linebacker was bouncing all over the field during pre-game warmups with the rest of the linebackers Sunday.

Though he hasn't played since the Ravens' Nov.13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and didn't practice at all in the week leading up to the Browns' game, Lewis is improving and the team has arranged for him to wear orthodics in his cleat to take some of the pressure off his toe. It's similar to the one made for left guard Ben Grubbs, who hurt his toe in the season-opener and wound up missing six games. Harbaugh did say that Lewis and Grubbs have two different injuries.

"We're hopeful," Harbaugh said. "I would love to give you a definitive answer. … We're going to try to win the game against the Colts. That's going to be our challenge and we want to go in there full strength. Obviously, a healthy Ray Lewis playing at the caliber he's capable of playing at helps us beat the Colts. Is he going to be ready to do that? We don't know. He says he's going to be ready to do that. He's got some orthodics that may give him a chance to do that. We'll just have to see how that goes this week. We've been trying the last couple of weeks. We have probably been somewhat cautious. We want to make sure he doesn't re-injure it."

In the three games since their leading tackler has become their most vocal cheerleader, the Ravens have allowed 40 total points, and 60 percent of them came in the 31-24 victory over the Bengals on Nov. 20. Since he's been out, they've had 14 sacks, forced five turnovers, held teams to 295 yards per game and limited them to 252 total rushing yards, including 3.7 yards per carry.

They have done it with McClain, a fourth-year player and second-year starter, inheriting Lewis' role of relaying defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's calls to the huddle. Ellerbe, a third-year pro who had started four games before this season, has started two of the three games and missed the other with an injury. McClellan, a second-year player and undrafted free agent out of Marshall, filled in for Ellerbe and finished with four tackles. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, selected for the Pro Bowl three times because of his special team prowess, has also stepped into a bigger role on defense in Lewis' absence.

"We would love for him to be playing right now, but that goes back to what I was saying about being a professional," said Ravens safety Ed Reed. "The next guy, he has to understand that for one, you have to prepare as a starter on our defense. We don't ask for nothing less around here. Everybody has to be ready to play at any given time because you never know when somebody is going to go down. When I was out last year, [Tom Zbikowski] stepped up and we won games. And that's the same thing that has to happen now if Ray's not going to play this week or the week after. Guys have to understand that they have to be professionals and hold their job down. At the end of the day, this is a job, too."

Lewis is 36 years old and the pounding that he has put his body through over the years has only intensified the annual questions on how long he'll extend his career. Life after Lewis, a subject the Ravens don't talk too much about because the future Hall of Famer continues to play at an extremely high level, has always been a scary concept for a large segment of Ravens' fans.

Lewis may routinely defy Father Time, but general manager and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta and their staffs have continued to locate and bring in young defensive talent to the organization.

McClain was a rookie free agent out of Syracuse. In the three games Lewis has missed, McClain has 24 tackles, while Ellerbe, also signed as a rookie free agent the year after McClain, has 10 in two games.

It goes beyond the linebackers, and of course, established stars Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, who are 29 and 27 years old respectively. Rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee, a fifth-round pick in April, had two more sacks Sunday and now has six on the season, which puts him ahead of the Colts' terrific pass-rushing duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Linebacker Paul Kruger, a second-round pick in 2009, had one stretch earlier this season where he had at least a half sack in four straight games.

"We've got some young hunters. We've got some killers up front, so they were getting after it," veteran linebacker Jarret Johnson said after Sunday's game.

Of the Ravens' three top cornerbacks, Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb are both 26 years old and in their first season as full-time starters, while Jimmy Smith is a 23-year rookie who has essentially only played in seven NFL games after he sustained an ankle injury while covering the opening kickoff in Week One against the Steelers. Smith had an interception Sunday, giving him two in the past three games, while Webb returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown.

"If you are going to be successful for sure in football with the way it's set up, even more so now with the new salary cap structure, you got to have contributions from young players and really from rookies also," Harbaugh said. "You are focused on the task at hand, but I'm always excited about the future of our football team. I think we do a great job drafting and acquiring free agents. We do a great job of developing players. Our coaches do a great job of that. And we do a great job in the weight room with guys. I'm excited about the long-term of the Ravens, no doubt. But I'm more excited about Sunday."

Running back Ray Rice was the undisputed star of Sunday's victory, rushing for a career-high 204 yards and a touchdown. But even he took the time after the game to pay homage to what the young defense has done while his close friend Lewis has been on the sidelines.

"Getting this one without No.52 is even more of a blessing," Rice said. "He gets to watch a young defense, a young linebacking corps and see everybody making plays."

Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this article.

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