CINCINNATI — There are two players the Ravens can’t afford to lose, and they lost one Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals on national television at Paul Brown Stadium.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker C.J. Mosley went down with a bone bruise to his left knee on the Bengals’ first drive and had to be carted off the field.
There is no definitive time frame for his return. The Ravens claim the injury is not serious, but a quick-healing player is usually out at least ten days. For most, they are out three to six weeks.
The Ravens guarded his injury like it was the latest weapon invented for one of the Pentagon’s stealth bombers. But there is one thing we do know.
It’s hard for the Ravens to replace Mosley. It was clearly evident Thursday night. They stopped Cincinnati on its first possession of the game, and then the Bengals went on scoring drives of 80, 72 and 78 yards before taking a 14-point lead into the half.
Mosley is to the Ravens defense what quarterback Joe Flacco is to the offense. He isn’t as proven as Flacco, but just as valuable in the sense that he can’t be replaced. Not only is he the best player on defense, but he calls the signals.
He sets the tone but he also put his teammates in the proper position. There were times Thursday night when the Ravens looked lost without him. They couldn’t cover tight ends over the middle. They couldn’t cover running backs in the flats.
They needed a team leader, and their most valuable defensive player, even more than veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, was in the locker room getting looked at by team doctors.
“That’s our defensive leader,” Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce said of Mosley. “It’s big [his loss], that can’t be overstated. We had to fill the gap he left.”
“It was different,” Pierce said of not having Mosley in the huddle. “But the game has to go on. Eric Weddle stepped up and made the calls. At the end of the day, we had a chance to win. The defense has to step up and make a play, and we didn’t.”
Mosley suffered the injury while covering receiver Tyler Boyd on a third-down play across the middle. The fifth-year linebacker and former first-round draft pick out of Alabama seemed to land awkwardly while jumping over Boyd as Boyd lay on the ground after a pass attempt.
It seemed like a minor injury at the time, but what appears to be nothing can become major, especially in the NFL. In 2001, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis walked off the field without a limp after suffering an injury to his knee.
He told reporters he would be back the next day, but didn’t return until the next season. The Ravens couldn’t muster any type of running game without Lewis. The Ravens will have a similar problem without Mosley.
They tried to find replacements Thursday night. They moved third year linebacker Patrick Onwuasor from the weak-side to the middle to replace Mosley.
They inserted rookie Kenny Young, a fourth-round pick out of UCLA, into Onwuasor’s former spot. Both got better as the game went on, especially Young, but Cincinnati just kept finding holes in the middle of the Ravens defense both running and passing the ball.
Plus, both Onwuasor and Young are known more for their speed than being able to shock, shed and get off blocks.
Mosley isn’t a physical monster inside, either, but he has more bulk and experience than any of his possible replacements. The Ravens might decide to re-sign veteran inside linebacker Albert McClellan, who has bailed the Ravens out of jams like this before.
This was a contract year for Mosley. He is in the final year of a deal worth $8.7 million and at his peak having been named to the Pro Bowl three straight years and leading the team in tackles with a career-high 132 last season.
Mosley and the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly are the only NFL defenders to tally 450 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions since 2014.
The Bengals went after the Ravens once Mosley left the game. Despite having a suspect offensive line, especially on the right side, the Bengals have two fine running backs in Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard.
Depending on much time Mosley misses, the Ravens could be without him when they face quarterbacks Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger.
But maybe Mosley is a quick healer. Maybe he comes back sooner than expected. If he doesn’t, Flacco and the offense have to take their game to another level.
The Ravens aren’t the same without him.