COUNTING ON ‘CO-CAP’
Levine excelling in highly specialized hybrid role with Ravens
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.
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.