When the news hit that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was lost for the rest of the season with a torn triceps muscle, it hit hard – as hard as any hit Lewis has delivered during his remarkable 17-year NFL career. It wasn’t just potentially catastrophic news for the Ravens. It felt more like the end of an era.
That’s because for most of the last 17 seasons, Lewis has been the NFL’s dominant defensive presence. He may not have always been the best defensive player – though the 13-time Pro Bowler was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year three times – but he was always in the conversation. He was the player offensive coordinators and opposing coordinators seemed to worry about more than, and sometimes all their game-planning didn’t help.
Lewis, for all his years, was a 6-1, 250-pound, tightly wound bundle of energy and power with a unique ability to explode through anything. He was fiery, intense and seemingly limitless in his ability hit fearlessly at high speed. He defined an era of Ravens football, including the 2000 team that was one of the best defensive teams in NFL history.
Lewis, in many ways, redefined the word ‘Bad’.
He may still continue his NFL career, even though he’s 37 with more mileage on his body than most, and maybe he’ll even be close to the same incredible force. But sometime on the horizon, either soon or sooner, he’ll be forever ceding the title of Baddest Man in the NFL.
What defender will follow him and claim that title? Who are the defensive players that keep quarterbacks up at night most? Finding the next Ray Lewis may be an impossible task, but here are five ‘bad’ defenders you might want to watch …
49ers LB Patrick Willis – The 49ers appear to be the latest holders of the title of “NFL’s best defense” and Willis has emerged as their leader. He may not be as scary as Lewis was in his prime, but that has more to do with aura than ability. Willis has incredible side-to-side speed, seemingly covering the whole field for what likely is the NFL’s quickest linebacking corps. Already a five-time Pro Bowler, he doesn’t talk and act as wildly as Lewis often did. He’s not as big a hitter. And with the 49ers not needing to turn him loose in the pass rush, he’s not racking up high numbers of sacks. But he quietly has become the player on that defense that offensive coordinators try to avoid.
Packers LB Clay Matthews – The eight sacks he has through six games this season re-established Matthews as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers, if not the premier pass rushing linebacker. He has the “bad” reputation, thanks to his 23 ½ sacks during his first two seasons, and he looks the part with his long blond hair and wild-looking eyes. His explosion to the pass rusher, though, is what makes him dangerous. As a stalker, standing behind the line of scrimmage, he can come at the quarterback from anywhere and once he gets going he’s coming quick. Defensive ends have become the pass rushing stars over the last decade, but Matthews could be the start of a rush-linebacker revival.
Broncos LB Von Miller – If Patrick Willis is the closest thing to Ray Lewis in the league right now, Miller might be the closest thing to Lawrence Taylor. No, he’s not in that class yet, but with 11 ½ sacks last season and six already this season he’s demonstrated a remarkable quickness and explosion through offensive lines. When he comes at quarterbacks, he comes fast and when he’s on it feels like his pass rush is relentless. He’s “only” 6-3, 237, but size doesn’t matter as much as speed does in this new era of explosive passing attacks. Miller has what it takes to disrupt passing games, either by rushing forward or dropping back.
Texans DE J.J. Watt –There may not be a defensive lineman anywhere in the league that quarterbacks want to see less right now than the lengthy Watt who is turning pass deflections at the line of scrimmage into an art form. He’s 6-5, 295, but he looks like a 7-footer at the line, especially when he stretches his massive arms upward. He also seems to have a knack for where the pass is going, too. And oh, by the way, he’s become impossible to block. The athletic lineman already has 9 ½ sacks through six games to go with his eight deflections. And to think, he’s only in his second NFL season.
Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul – He is not off to the best start, but there’s no doubt he’s the most dangerous component of the Giants’ still-dangerous pass rush. It’s not just the fact that he can get to the quarterback, sometimes seemingly with ease (16 ½ sacks last season), it’s the many ways he can get there. He can bull-rush bigger tackles one on one and he’s too quick with moves for most of them to handle him alone. He’s also ridiculously athletic, enabling him to shed blockers and play the run or to leap and bat passes. The most frightening part? He’s in his third NFL season, but he’s still only 23 years old, and since he barely had a high school and college career he’s still really just beginning to learn the game. If the arrow continues to point up for “JPP”, his ceiling could turn out to be unnaturally high.
—By RALPH VACCHIANO