COUNT­ING ON ‘CO-CAP’

Levine ex­celling in highly spe­cial­ized hy­brid role with Ravens

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

An­thony Levine Sr. is Co-Cap. It says so on his Twit­ter pro­file and on the name­plate of the cus­tom­ized jersey he some­times wears to prac­tice. Line­backer Al­bert McClel­lan gave him the nick­name some time ago, a trib­ute to his spe­cial teams over­sight, and it stuck: Co-Cap.

But in a sea­son of rev­e­la­tions for the Ravens’ most hyped mul­ti­hy­phen­ate — de­fen­sive back-line­backer-spe­cial teamer — per­haps the most shock­ing is this: The man of many po­si­tions also has many nick­names.

“He’s Co-Cap,” McClel­lan said Thurs- Sun­day, 4:25 p.m. TV: Ch. 13, 9 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 21⁄ day. “And he’s Lock­down Levine. He’s Is­land Levine. He’s got a bunch of names.”

Co-Cap, McClel­lan would ex­plain, is sim­ply Levine’s most re­cent so­bri­quet. And it has worked: Not only is it catchy and al­lit­er­a­tive, even a lit­tle modest, it also tells a story eas­ily un­der­stood. Levine is a spe­cial teams co-cap­tain.

Now, though, the other nick­names are be­gin­ning to make sense, even if the chronol­ogy does not. His past two games have been per­haps the best of an NFL ca­reer now on the tough side of age 30. He has earned high praise from team­mates and coaches who marvel at his de­vel­op­ment — safety Eric Wed­dle on Wed­nes­day called him “one of the best de­fend­ers we’ve had play­ing this year” — and from num­ber-crunch­ers who value his in­creas­ingly mod­ern skill set. For his play against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus rated Levine as Week 4’s top de­fen­sive player.

The only player the an­a­lyt­ics web­site graded higher was the Los An­ge­les Rams’

Jared Goff. And he had to throw five touch­down passes.

“If the game is on the line, I want [Levine] in the game,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Don “Wink” Martin­dale said Thurs­day. “That’s the best com­pli­ment I can give him. If the game is on the line, I want him in the game. We­want him in the game. When I say ‘we,’ his team­mates want him in there, the coach­ing staff wants him in there, the head coach wants him in there. So that’s the best com­pli­ment you could give a player.”

Levine, 31, is not a sta­ple of the Ravens’ base de­fense — three down line­men, two out­side lineback­ers, two in­side lineback­ers, two cor­ner­backs and two safeties — but cir­cum­stances will in­vari­ably de­mand his on-field pres­ence Sun­day against the Ten­nessee Ti­tans.

NFL teams used three-wide re­ceiver sets on about 60 per­cent of of­fen­sive plays last sea­son, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lyt­ics web­site Foot­ball Out­siders. Lineback­ers are gen­er­ally ill-equipped to cover slot re­ceivers. On the Ravens, cor­ner­back Tavon Young is one re­course. Levine is, too.

“With more wide re­ceivers and more shifty guys out on the field a lot more,” McClel­lan said, “it’s play­ing in his fa­vor.”

So is the Ravens’ highly ranked de­fense. Against the Cleve­land Browns on Sun­day, the Ravens forced 13 down and dis­tances of third-an­dat-least-7. For the sea­son, ac­cord­ing to SB Na­tion, op­pos­ing of­fenses have faced “third-and-long” sit­u­a­tions — 7 yards or greater to go — against the Ravens a woe­ful 64.1 per­cent of the time, sec­ond high­est in the NFL.

In those cases, Har­baugh said, the Ravens “au­to­mat­i­cally” de­ploy their dime pack­age. Six de­fen­sive backs take the field along with Levine, who serves as the one line­backer in the per­son­nel group­ing, trusted to run with a run­ning back or reroute a tight end. It was on a third-and-10 that Levine came up with the game­clinch­ing in­ter­cep­tion against the Steel­ers, re­lo­cat­ing from within a yard of the cen­ter at the snap to 15 yards down­field as quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger searched fruit­lessly for a throw­ing lane.

“I’m glad I came into the league Ravens de­fender An­thony Levine Sr. had a key in­ter­cep­tion in a vic­tory against Pitts­burgh. He plays both line­backer and safety for the Ravens. the time that I came in,” said the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Levine, who has re­ceived the two high­est PFF game grades of his ca­reer the past two weeks. “If I had come in, like 12 or 13 years ago, prob­a­bly would’ve been ugly for me. But man, I’m glad. I’m glad I’m out there. I’m glad I’m able to make plays. I’m glad I can run down and cover tight ends. I can cover run­ning backs, re­ceivers, what­ever.”

When Wed­dle joined the Ravens in 2016, Levine was play­ing only spar­ingly on de­fense. The year be­fore, he’d seen all of 10 de­fen­sive snaps, com­pared with 401 on spe­cial teams. In Wed­dle’s first sea­son in Bal­ti­more, Levine played 110 to­tal snaps on de­fense — as many as he has through five games this sea­son.

Wed­dle said he thought Levine needed to be play­ing more. He asked him why he wasn’t.

“He’s like, ‘I’m a spe­cial teams player,’ ” Wed­dle re­called Levine telling him.

For an un­drafted player out of Ten­nessee State, a his­tor­i­cally black Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion school, spe­cial teams had been Levine’s lifeblood in the NFL. All he’s ever wanted, he said Thurs­day, is re­spect, and through his at­ten­tion to de­tail he’d made him­self into one of the NFL’s most well-re­garded spe­cial teams play­ers.

He said he never pushed for more play­ing time else­where. His role was what it was, through con­trac­tions and ex­pan­sions. But spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Jerry Ros­burg and Har­baugh preached to team mem­bers a mantra of en­cour­age­ment: “The more you can do.”

So Levine, iPad in hand, crammed hard. He tried to dom­i­nate on spe­cial teams. He worked at per­fect­ing what he could do, hope­ful “things will line up when they line up.”

“I think once you get into this game, the longer you’re in it, the more you see, the more con­fi­dent you be­come and the more aware of cer­tain sit­u­a­tions” you are, McClel­lan said. “And you can play those plays out in your head a lot quicker than most peo­ple that haven’t seen those.”

Levine played so many de­fen­sive snaps Sun­day (a sea­son-high 35), and so well (a team-high three passes de­fended for the sec­ond straight game), that Ros­burg and Har­baugh have con­sid­ered lim­it­ing his spe­cial teams in­volve­ment. Levine ac­knowl­edged he’d be sad to lose some of those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. He joked that he’d rather run. He could al­ways get in bet­ter shape.

“Me not be­ing out there on spe­cial teams …” he said, and his voice trailed off briefly, the Ravens’ Co-Cap imag­in­ing a life as some­one else.

JOE ROB­BINS/GETTY IMAGES

An­thony Levine Sr., knock­ing down a pass for the Ravens in the first half against the Browns last Sun­day, plays a va­ri­ety of roles on de­fense. He plays both line­backer and safety as well as be­ing one of the Ravens’ top spe­cial teams per­form­ers.

DON WRIGHT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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