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Senior NFL Columnist

Lewis gets all the love, but breakout Ellerbe is the better linebacker

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Baltimore Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe learned an important lesson in his first couple of seasons in the NFL.

You can't make plays from the doghouse.

"It feels good to be loose in the yard again," Ellerbe said this week.

Loose in the yard means making as many plays as any of the big-name Ravens defenders, including the guy playing next to him by the name of Ray Lewis. Ellerbe, now in his fourth season, has developed into a 243-pound hitting machine who throws his body around as much as any linebacker in the game.

Lewis might get most of the attention when the Ravens play the New England Patriots Sunday in the AFC championship game, but Ellerbe is the better of the two inside linebackers. Lewis gets credit for tackles when he jumps on piles. Ellerbe actually makes tackles.

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Ellerbe plays a violent, fast, attacking style of linebacker that is about to make him a rich man. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and should be one of the top players available on the market and could be the best inside/middle linebacker.

Not bad for a guy who was on the bench two years ago.

Ellerbe went undrafted coming out of Georgia because he missed time with a knee injury and there were also some off-the-field questions. The Ravens signed him as an undrafted rookie and he started three games during the 2009 regular season and two in the playoffs.

Then came the problems. He came to camp in 2010 out of shape, reportedly weighing 266 pounds. And then he had an interception return for a score in the preseason that he ended with a showboating incident that infuriated coach John Harbaugh, leading to a verbal assault from the coach when he came back the sideline.

Hello, doghouse.

"That interception had something to do with the doghouse, but not all of it," Ellerbe said.

Ellerbe was late for a team flight. The coaches chided him for not paying enough attention in meetings. He was also reportedly late for a game.

"A lot of that was just a young guy needing to mature," Ellerbe said. "And I've done that."

Injuries slowed him in 2011, and he came into 2012 behind Jameel McClain next to Lewis. But he has started for most of the season, in part because Lewis went down, and he's a big reason why the defense has played better in the playoffs. Ellerbe missed three games with an ankle injury late in the season, and the Ravens lost all three games. That is not lost on people inside the organization.

In a four-game span in late October and early November, Ellerbe had 43 tackles. He finished the regular season with 92 tackles and four ½ sacks. He's also improved greatly as a coverage player.

During these playoffs, he's really flashed. One play that really stood out was in the Ravens' victory over Colts when he exploded through the hole and dropped Vick Ballard for no gain. He sure looked like a young Ray Lewis on that play.

"TFLs are big," Ellerbe said. "They get you noticed."

His play is what's getting him noticed now. Lewis is stealing the spotlight with his return to the field and his retirement announcement, but Ellerbe knows these high-profile games are big for him, too.

One thing he also wants people to know is the right way to say his name.

"It's Dan-L," he said. "It's been wrong my whole life. It's been Darnell. And Donnell. My high-school coach called me Danielle."

Like the girls name?

"Yeah, like that," Ellerbe said.

Ellerbe has 18 tackles in the two playoff games, nine in each. The nine he got last week were truly impressive when you consider he played the game with a bad cold, also has asthma and was playing in frigid weather and at altitude.

"By the grace of God I made it through," Ellerbe said.

When you've waited for your chance, there was no way you're coming off the field. Playing next to Lewis brings attention to his position. And the wise ones who watch the game closely know that it's Ellerbe who is now the better player.

"Appreciate it," he said when I told him that. "I wish you were saying that when he was in his prime."

Slow down, Dannell. Lewis is arguably the greatest middle linebacker ever. In his 17th season, he's not the same player. But you wouldn't know it by the love he receives all over the media. Ellerbe has a long way to get to that level, but he's making progress.

This week, I want you to watch the game closely. Keep an eye on No. 59 of the Ravens with the long hair flowing out of his helmet. You won't be able to miss him. He's the attacking, violent linebacker who throws his body around with little regard for the consequences.

Dannell Ellerbe is loose in the yard again. And his bite is every bit as nasty as his bark.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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