When you think about it on a basic level, the Ravens could have been in big trouble Thursday night with Ray Lewis on the sidelines.
They were facing a 49ers team with a strong running game and a tough offensive line. They were missing both Lewis and fellow inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe because of injuries. They needed to turn to first-year linebacker Albert McClellan - a guy who had never played inside linebacker - and Jameel McClain, who was forced to take over the defensive headset and communicate the plays to the rest of the defense.
And with those two former undrafted free agents manning the inside ‘backer spots, the Ravens didn’t miss a beat.
In his first career start, McClellan made four tackles and filled gaps effectively from the weak-side linebacker spot, while McClain tied for a team high with eight tackles and handled Lewis’ normal duties from the “Mike” spot.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the performance by McClellan, who was on the Ravens’ practice squad just last season. This year, the Marshall product quietly made the 53-man roster out of camp, has emerged as a top special teams player and now proved that he can hold his own in a starting role, even at a position at which he had no prior experience.
“I think Albert played very solidly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “That was something that really we had no idea how he was going to play, in all honesty. He’s never really played inside linebacker ever in his career. At Marshall, he moved around and played different positions. He was outside ‘backer, inside ‘backer, nose guard, defensive tackle - he played it all there. I think it shows you what kind of a football player he is.
“He’s been working really hard with (linebackers coach) Dean Pees over the course of the last six or seven weeks after we kind of focused on inside linebacker for him. The way he played is pretty remarkable. We’re proud of the way he played. That builds depth for us in there.”
Not to be overlooked in this is the play of McClain, who moved over from his normal position at the weak-side linebacker position (or the “Will”) and took over Lewis’ middle linebacker role and the on-field leadership responsibilities that come with it.
The goal there was to put McClellan in a more comfortable spot and make it so he didn’t need to wear the player headset and get the defense set up. McClain took on those duties, and was able to smoothly communicate with the defensive linemen and defensive backs alike, and get everyone on the same page.
“I think everybody has a chance now to see kind of what we’ve been seeing over the course of the last couple of years,” Harbaugh said of McClain. “Jameel played the way he’s been playing for the last two years, really. He’s not playing any differently. I think he gets a little bit better every week. He’s a serious student of the game. He’s talented, he’s physical, he learns from Ray, he learns from coach Pees. He’s one of the better inside linebackers in football right now.”
There were a lot of questions about how the Ravens’ linebacking corps would perform in Lewis’ absence, but with veteran ‘backers Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs holding it down on the outside and McClain and McClellan stepping up on the inside, we’ve seen that this group can still get the job done without their inspirational leader and 12-time Pro Bowler on the field.
“We all can play ball, and that’s what we’re showing,” McClain said. “A lot of people have seen the growth in the linebackers, and have seen that we can step it up too. Now that we get Ray and Dannell back, it’s going to get dangerous.”