"C.J. understands what the linebacker position is about," Ray Lewis says of Ravens rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley.
With an expertly timed delayed blitz late in the first quarter Sunday, Ravens rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley shot through a gap in the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line. As quarterback Andrew Luck wound up, Mosley crushed him, popping the football into the air and into the arms of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata for an interception.
It wasn't the only impactful play the first-round draft pick and reigning Butkus Award winner delivered during the Ravens' 20-13 road loss Sunday. When the defense was at its most vulnerable, he chased down screens to prevent running backs from scampering into the open field. He alertly picked off a deflected pass for his first NFL interception, stopping an Indianapolis drive in the red zone.
Mosley's game-high 14 tackles were the second most by a rookie in a game in franchise history, two fewer than legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis' mark against the St. Louis Rams during the Ravens' inaugural season. Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb said the performance was reminiscent of Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
While comparisons are a tad premature — Lewis played in the NFL for 17 years and is a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, while Mosley is just five games into his professional career — Lewis is enamored with the 22-year-old heading into Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"C.J. understands what the linebacker position is about," Lewis, now retired, said in a telephone interview. "Forget mistakes; the kid just finds the football. He has a great knack. He makes the game simple. It's early. You really don't want to put crazy pressure on him.
"Have fun, let's see where the chips fall at the end of the year. [Former Ravens assistants] Jack Del Rio and Marvin Lewis used to tell me, 'Keep doing what you're doing, keep learning.' His upside looks like it could be tremendous. If he doesn't make plays on those screens against Indy, they're out of the gate. He was a ball hawk in college, and he's picking up where he left off."
Big, fast and aggressive at 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, Mosley leads the Ravens with 47 tackles (28 solo), one forced fumble and a fumble recovery, earning strong consideration for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Mosley has become accustomed to comparisons to Lewis since the Ravens drafted him 17th overall in May.
"When I first came in, I always said I wasn't going to come in trying to be the next Ray Lewis," Mosley said. "I have to be me and play the way I play, but just to be mentioned with him is a great honor. I looked up to him for a long time when I was growing up watching football. …
"I just go to the saying we always had at Alabama, and that's 'Do your job.' I'm supposed to run to the ball, supposed to make tackles, supposed to defend players in the passing game."
As a precocious rookie, Mosley rapidly is absorbing the nuances of the NFL. He's the league's only player with at least 40 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. He also leads all rookies in tackles.
"C.J. is the definition of the modern linebacker," said Phil Savage, a former Ravens and Cleveland Browns executive and now the director of the Senior Bowl all-star game. "He's got the instincts and the athletic ability to run sideline to sideline. He's an ideal fit for the Ravens' scheme. He can stay on the field for every down."
Mosley leads all NFL linebackers with five passes defended.
"He makes very few mistakes," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's playing good football, he's a really good tackler, He's done a nice job of coverage, but he's not going to rest on any past performance."
Studious, with a low-key personality, Mosley has been humble amid his accomplishments and is quick to point out his miscues. He missed at least three tackles against Indianapolis, allowing a touchdown pass to tight end Dwayne Allen.
"When you have losses, you always have to point out what you need to get better at," Mosley said. "One is missing tackles, a few I could have made, and especially in the passing game, some plays I could have been in a better position. It's all about getting my eyes to my player faster or getting to my right drops."
Mosley has a track record of quick success at higher levels. As a true freshman at Alabama, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns and was named a freshman All-American.
Mosley doesn't seem surprised to be leading a veteran-laden defense in tackles.
"I don't want to say I thought about that, but I knew the kind of player I was and I knew that's why the Ravens drafted me: to make plays and run around on the field," Mosley said. "That's the kind of linebacker I am. I wouldn't say too much has surprised me. I try to take everything in and stay levelheaded with everything."
Growing up in Theodore, Ala., Mosley was a Parade Magazine All-American who had over 500 tackles in his high school career. He chose the Crimson Tide over scholarship offers from Florida State, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
"I knew what C.J. could do from when we were at 'Bama," said outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Mosley's former Crimson Tide teammate. "He's come here and shown the rest of the world what he can do. He's going to be one of the all-time greats."
Mosley still is hoping to improve how he sheds blocks against larger blockers. That likely will come with more physical maturity and time in the weight room.
"He is going to make progress every week," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "He's just a very instinctive, intelligent football player. He just understands football. He still has to get bigger and stronger as he keeps going to take on blockers, but there are just some things that you can't coach and teach, and he has some of that."
Savage was with the Ravens' scouting department when they drafted Lewis in 1996 out of Miami. Although Lewis and Mosley have much different off-the-field personalities, Savage said they share common ground as linebackers.
"C.J. is different from Ray in the fact that he won't be as flamboyant, not as loud, not as inspirational in what he says, but he does have things in common with Ray," Savage said. "They both have that instinctive feel. C.J. studies a ton of game tape and has a lot of similarity to Ray with how he's really into the game the way Ray was."