Ravens' linebacker competition heating up

The last time Dannell Ellerbe played in a football game that actually counted he was lined up across the line of scrimmage from Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Peyton Manning. During the Baltimore Ravens' AFC divisional playoff loss last winter, the undrafted rookie linebacker recorded a team-high 10 tackles.

Months removed from finishing the season with five consecutive starts, Ellerbe ranked first on the depth chart during minicamps.

However, Ellerbe had lost that status by the time the Ravens arrived at training camp in Westminster. Jameel McClain opened camp with the first-team defense and started the first preseason contest.

"I was surprised," said Ellerbe, adding that he wasn't given an explanation for why he was no longer starting. "I just used it to fuel my fire. It's just going to help me get better."

Heading into tonight's preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, Ellerbe, McClain and Tavares Gooden remain locked in a three-man battle for the starting inside linebacker job opposite All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

And there are growing indications that this shapes up as a pivotal game in that competition. During the Ravens' 17-12 victory over the Carolina Panthers to open the preseason, McClain seemed to falter when he was rudely slammed to the ground by fullback Tony Fiametta on an isolation play. Being blocked out of the play opened a huge hole in the middle of the defense. McClain seems to have loosened his grip on the position, and the Ravens may opt to start Ellerbe or play him extensively this week. It's unclear if Gooden, who flashed his speed with a sack last week, will be able to play or if he'll be limited due to a neck injury he suffered against Carolina that affected him in practice this week.

None of the three young linebackers separated themselves from the pack against the Panthers. "Those guys, as we've said, they've been rotating and playing and competing all the way through camp," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked if this game was especially important in terms of evaluating Ellerbe. "So, this is a continuation of that. I think the competition has been good, and they've all played well. So, we'll just have to see how it shakes out."

Ellerbe registered 41 tackles last season. His top performance came in the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders when he intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble.

He totaled 16 tackles in two playoff starts against the Colts and the New England Patriots. By the end of last season, the former University of Georgia standout didn't look out of place with one of the best defenses in the league. After admittedly getting too heavy during the offseason when he tipped the scales at 260 pounds, Ellerbe say he's back down to 240 pounds now.

"I'm about the same weight as last year now," Ellerbe said. "I'm a little bit quicker." The weight gain seemed to shake the organization's confidence in Ellerbe, who also battled a sprained medial collateral ligament last season.

At times during camp, Ellerbe has ranked behind McClain and Gooden.

"I'm kind of used to that," Ellerbe said. "I came in doing the same thing last year. So, it's nothing new to me. So, hopefully, one day, I'll be able to have the job to myself. .. "It's always good to go out there and compete and to have a competition to bring out the best in everyone. I'm just going to go out there and give my best."

What does he want to prove?

"That it wasn't a fluke last year," Ellerbe said. "That whatever I did last year, I can produce more and do more this year." To do that, Ellerbe will need to prove that he can be as consistent as McClain and as adept in pass coverage as Gooden.

Ellerbe might be the hardest hitter of the three. Gooden is clearly the fastest. And McClain has the best pass–rushing technique and has a strong work ethic and instincts.

Gooden has suggested a committee approach to the ‘Jack' inside linebacker position in order to maximize all three players' abilities.

"Why not play all of us?" Gooden said. "You don't want to just burn out one guy. It helps our team depth that all of us can play, and I'm talking about play well when we're in there. We're going to ball out. Everybody is just holding up our own."

Gooden is of the belief that whoever wins the job will complement Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"Everybody knows this is Ray's defense, and we're all pieces to the puzzle," Gooden said. "He's the master plan, and all of us fit around him to do that."

As a rookie, McClain set a franchise record with two safeties. He blocked a punt and posted 2 1/2/ sacks.

Last season, he had a career-high 29 tackles on defense with 33 special-teams tackles and a forced fumble.

Now, he's trying to hold off Ellerbe and Gooden. "I've always been an underdog," McClain said earlier in camp. "I always fight for everything that I get. It's my job to hold onto it, and it's my job to prove I belong there. Keep working hard, that's all I'm being told. I bring intensity to this defense. I'm not downing the competitors. It's a good competition with a lot of good players.

"If I'm their choice, I'm going to bring everything I have with 110 percent every play. I won't be happy until it's all said and done, not until I'm running out there with my name being called with the defense."

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH Editor's note: Beat writer Aaron Wilson gives his take on what to keep an eye on during the Baltimore Ravens' preseason game tonight against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field:

1. How will cornerback Fabian Washington fare in his first game back?

Tonight marks the first time Washington will play in a game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee nine months ago. He was held out of the first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers as a precautionary measure. Washington has looked fluid and fast during practices and is slated to start. He'll play roughly a quarter. What will be worth observing is how he reacts to receivers' patterns, how he handles any contact situations and if there's some hesitancy as he cuts on the natural grass surface. Besides Washington, Chris Carr is coming back from a hamstring injury. It will be interesting to see how the secondary does against new Redskins franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb.

2. Will the offensive line hold together?

The Ravens had a lot of trouble keeping the Panthers away from quarterback Joe Flacco, including left offensive tackle Michael Oher. They allowed six sacks for the game. Right tackle Oniel Cousins could be sidelined tonight due to mild concussion symptoms, including a headache. Tony Moll has been preparing to start, and rookie Ramon Harewood and Joe Reitz could see a lot of playing time as well. Jared Gaither is out indefinitely due to back problems. The Redskins feature a strong pass rush, including the explosive Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter. "They've got some first-rate pass rushers, so I'm looking forward to seeing how our guys hold up," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We've worked very hard at it, We always do, but this week it's been an emphasis."

3. What's going on with the kicking competition? Billy Cundiff clearly outperformed newcomer Shayne Graham during training camp, but had a rough practice Wednesday with three misses out of five tries. Graham missed a 50-yard field goal against the Panthers last week. Graham is still regarded as the frontrunner, but could lose that status if he doesn't begin to display some consistency on longer-range field goals. Cundiff didn't attempt any field goals against Carolina, making two extra points. 4. What's going on with rookie wide receiver David Reed?

Reed impressed the coaching staff during minicamps, but hasn't been consistent in camp and has dropped several passes. That has endangered his prospects of making the team. While Reed has faltered, Demetrius Williams has finally displayed that he can stack together a series of good practices. Reed's kick return ability isn't so explosive that he's safe from being let go during the final major roster cutdown. Reed is talented, but he has to produce to convince the coaching staff to hold onto him. 5. Who's not going to play?

Besides Gaither and Cousins, the following players are either out or questionable tonight: tight end Davon Drew (hamstring), guard-center David Hale (bruised tailbone), guard Daniel Sanders (shoulder), offensive tackle Stefan Rodgers (shoulder), safety Marcus Paschal (quadriceps) and linebacker Tavares Gooden (neck). Despite missing time this week, center Matt Birk (neck), fullback Le'Ron McClain (back), tight end Ed Dickson (groin), linebacker Prescott Burgess (migraine) and wide receiver Mark Clayton (ankle) are expected to play.

The following players remain on the physically unable to perform list and are ineligible to play: safety Ed Reed (hip), linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (quadriceps), cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) and running back Matt Lawrence (knee)

Ravens Insider Top Stories