CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Injuries have stretched the Ravens' defense thin for much of their lost season, and yesterday it was the linebacking corps' turn to feel the pinch.
By the time the Ravens received the opening kickoff of yesterday's 27-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Ericsson Stadium, they were basically down to three linebackers. They also were left with no choice but to switch from the 3-4 defense they adopted two months ago -- after losing three starters on the defensive line -- back to their original 4-3 alignment.
The Ravens had to reshuffle their plans after rookie inside linebacker Ray Lewis aggravated his hip pointer during pre-game warm-ups. Lewis became a late scratch and the Ravens rolled the dice with the linebacking trio of Eddie Sutter and outside linebackers Keith Goganious and Mike Croel.
"It changed our plans," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said of Lewis' injury. "Ray didn't take any snaps all week in practice, but we felt confident all week that he would play today. We planned to play the 3-4. When he didn't feel like he could go, we had to adjust.
"At least we didn't have any false hope. Luckily, we were somewhat prepared."
Sutter, Croel and Goganious acquitted themselves fairly well. They helped stuff the Panthers' running game, which produced just 2.9 yards a carry. Carolina running back Anthony Johnson's longest run was 9 yards.
Sutter and Croel shared the team lead with eight tackles. Goganious added six tackles. Sutter and Croel each deflected a pass. But it wasn't the same without Lewis on the field.
Lewis leads the team with 129 tackles, and the Ravens also missed his emotional fire and his quickness. Sutter had trouble covering Wesley Walls, Carolina's Pro Bowl tight end, who caught six passes for a team-high 81 yards.
With Lewis out, the Ravens were one injury away from throwing rookie linebacker Dexter Daniels into the fray. Daniels has played on special teams exclusively. The same goes for rookie Sedric Clark, who has been with the team for six weeks.
Although the linebackers mostly hung tough, they were backpedaling a bit on the Panthers' game-clinching, 12-play drive midway through the fourth quarter. Johnson carried six times for 25 yards between the tackles on that march.
"We weren't tired. Fatigue was not much of a factor," Croel said. "Losing Ray was a letdown. He's such a good player, and he helps out quite a bit. But you can't let that bother you, because you've still got to go out there and play."
Said Sutter: "Injuries have been a problem all year, but there's nothing you can do about them. In this business, it's a matter of being ready all the time. I was ready to play today. I had no idea this morning [that Lewis wouldn't play], but I was prepared."
When the Ravens lost defensive end Rob Burnett and tackle Dan Footman against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 13 -- and were already without end Anthony Pleasant -- they went to a three-man front. Yesterday, Footman and Pleasant played outside in their four-man front, with Mike Frederick and James Jones anchoring the middle.
While the line gradually has gotten healthier, the Ravens have seen their linebackers drop in droves lately.
Jerrol Williams (knee) has not played since Nov. 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Mike Caldwell is probably done for the year after reinjuring his knee two weeks ago. The Ravens, who did not record a sack of Kerry Collins, dearly missed Caldwell's pass-rushing skills yesterday.
Lewis said he tried to stay in the game by sharing observations with coaches and teammates. But watching the Ravens squander a 13-10 halftime lead from his sideline perch made for a tough afternoon.
"It's always tough to see your boys struggling, knowing that they're giving their all and there's nothing you can do to help them," said Lewis, who indicated he will play next week in the season finale against the Houston Oilers.
"I think Eddie did pretty good," he said. "I was giving it [the hip pointer] rest all week, and I was going to see how it felt today. Sometimes you want to try to push it to the next step, but you just can't."
Pub Date: 12/16/96