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Jameel McClain thinks Ray Lewis has another 15 years in him.
But someday – no matter how much McClain, the Ravens or the city of Baltimore try to block that inevitability – Lewis will take off his Ravens helmet for the last time.
The Ravens have had a recent taste of what it will be like.
Lewis has missed the last two games with a turf toe injury, his first time missing action since 2007. If he misses a third straight game this Sunday in Cleveland, it will be the most time he’s missed since 2005.
It’s been McClain who has climbed up to Lewis’ throne.
It’s a role he’s been preparing for ever since the start of the season, and it’s one that his teammates see McClain filling years down the road.
“We can have him here for a long time,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said after Lewis missed his first game against the Cincinnati Bengals. “It’s going to be 5-3 later on, not 5-2.”
Asked if he expects McClain to one day replace Lewis, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said we’ll have to see.
“He is doing a good campaign so far,” he said.
Teammates and coaches noticed a difference in McClain as soon as he reported to training camp this summer.
He’s always been a hard worker, a hustle player. But he took his preparation to another level.
In his first meeting with Linebackers Coach Dean Pees this summer, McClain walked in and said, “What do I need to do to get better? What do I need to work on?”
He hasn’t stopped inquiring since.
Pees said there’s not a day that goes by that McClain doesn’t ask him a question. Every time he runs off the field during a game, McClain immediately comes to Pees and says the same thing. “What do you see?”
“He always wants to know this, wants to know that,” Pees said. “He’s very good about not being shy and not letting things go and acting like he shouldn’t ask a question.”
The Ravens have changed from paper playbooks to iPads this season, which has allowed players to more easily study on the move and at home.
McClain said he often falls asleep in bed with his iPad on, watching video of opponents or memorizing the game plan for the week. He did so on Tuesday night.
“I’m lying in bed, why not watch film?” McClain said before explaining why he’s elevated his study habits.
“You’ve got to improve every year. You’ve got to do something to get better in this league. Anything else is complacency.”
McClain is also constantly picking Lewis’ brain. He texts him from his home at night as he’s watching film, asking Lewis if he’s seeing the same things and sometimes getting an entirely new perspective.
McClain doesn’t sit next to Lewis in the linebackers room though.
“No man, Ray sits back there with the cool people,” McClain said. “I’m up there in the front.”
A former undrafted rookie free agent, and the only one to make the Ravens’ roster in 2008, McClain has always had an uphill climb to become a major contributor.
He entered a deep linebacker corps filled with Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, Bart Scott and more. As a rookie, McClain saw mostly special teams action and logged 16 defensive tackles.
Last year, McClain beat out youngster Dannell Ellerbe and veterans Brendon Ayanbadejo and Tavares Gooden for the starting job next to Lewis. He started 15 games and recorded 71 tackles.
Johnson saw McClain’s progression from a young buck into a term he doesn’t use lightly, “a vet.” Johnson sees it in the way McClain acts, both in practice and in games, and in the way he prepares.
“You watch these guys come in and they’re young, kind wild and doing crazy stuff,” Johnson said. “Then you watch them slowly mature and they turn into what Ray is, what Terrell is, what Haloti [Ngata] is.”
Johnson actually sees McClain going along the same path as Scott – minus heading to New York.
Now an anchor in the Jets’ defense and one of the highest-paid linebackers in the game, Scott was a former undrafted free agent in 2002. He was a role player in Baltimore before exploding on the scene when he got his chance when Lewis went down with a hamstring injury in 2005.
McClain On Stepping In For Ray
“Very similar,” Johnson said. “Very physical, relentless type of linebacker. … I would say that down the road that he’s going to be here for a long time.”
Another shared trait McClain has with Scott is they’re both talkers.
It’s part of the reason why coaches gave McClain the mic’d-up helmet with Lewis out. For the past two games, McClain has been in charge of getting the call from Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano and relaying it to his teammates.
While it’s not a difficult task, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“I hadn’t really played with him in a game where he was ‘the man,’ where he led us and got the calls and put us in the right spots,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “That was always Ray.
“In practice we started to feel that confidence with Jameel, and then when we got out there, I was like, ‘We don’t have to worry about that anymore.’”
In the past two games, McClain has been tied for the team-high in tackles. He had nine against Cincinnati and eight against San Francisco. The Ravens held Frank Gore and the 49ers’ potent rushing attack to 74 yards.
During that time, McClain has earned all-important trust.
It’s not as if the Ravens didn’t have that before. As Pees, Head Coach John Harbaugh and Suggs all said, McClain is simply showing the rest of the world what they already knew. But there’s perhaps even more now.
“Those double teams hurt like hell, but I’m going to hold it because I know Jameel is behind me,” Redding said. “We trust him.”
Redding remembered one play from Thursday night’s game against San Francisco in which McClain had a pulling guard, a fullback and another player all on top of him. He was at the bottom of three players, “just fighting.”
It’s plays such as that that get teammates’ attention. It’s a display of sacrifice and grit that has long endeared Lewis to his teammates.
“That’s awesome,” Redding said. “That’s the stuff you put on tape. I’ll go to battle with him any day.”
Redding compared having Lewis out of the lineup as having that trusty blanket being taken away. There was another blanket coming, but he wasn’t sure that one was going to keep him as warm at night.
“Then you realize this blanket is still keeping you warm,” Redding said.
That trust is something McClain said he is “not willing to fall short on.”
But at this point, he’s not thinking about being Lewis’ successor.
“When that time happens, it’s going to be a decision that the organization is going to make,” McClain said. “If I’m the guy, I’m fully preparing. I’m preparing myself day in and day out and learning from all the great players on this team to try to continue the tradition.”