There is nothing scarier than seeing the starting quarterback lying on the turf. Except, perhaps, the bell-cow rookie running back headed for the tunnel. Or the Hall-of-Fame linebacker surrounded by worried trainers on the sideline.
Injuries are a part of every NFL Sunday, but Week 6 saw a handful of injuries that could have a long-term impact on the playoff race. Here are some of the biggest injuries, and their likely effect:
Ray Lewis, Ravens
Injury/Prognosis: Torn triceps, out for season.
It’s difficult for fans to think clearly about Lewis. On the one hand, there’s his persona as the Eternal Champion, Spirit of Vengeance, Howling Exemplar of Berserker Aggression, who represents the very essence of the Ravens and takes their soul with them when he hits the injured reserve. On the other hand, there is a player who has been written off by many as “overrated” or “over-the-hill” since about 2005, the last time he suffered a major injury. It’s a testament to how great Lewis was from 1996 to 2004 that he can “decline” for seven years and still be one of the main contributors to a defense-oriented perennial playoff team.
If Lewis was washed up before suffering an injury against the Cowboys, he had a funny way of showing it. Lewis leads the Ravens with 57 total tackles and has played nearly every defensive snap, even third-and-long situations when most old linebackers would give way to fresh legs. Lewis made many important plays this season: a strip sack of Andy Dalton and an open-field shoestring tackle of speedy Andrew Hawkins in the Bengals game, a fumble recovery and several chase-down tackles on LeSean McCoy in the Eagles loss, and a pair of stuffs when the Chiefs were in the red zone during a narrow Ravens win.
But many of Lewis’ 57 tackles this year were “system” tackles, the kind a competent middle linebacker is supposed to make. The average Lewis tackle comes at the end of a 5.5-yard gain this year. That number is inflated by a handful of tackles after downfield receptions, but Cowboys running backs averaged 4.8 yards per carry on plays that Lewis stopped. Experienced backups Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo can clean up five-yard runs as well as Lewis can.
As for the emotional hocus-pocus, the Ravens still have Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs is expected back soon, so it is not like the defense is short on experience or leadership. The Ravens won four games without Lewis last year, including a defensive standoff against the 49ers.
Lardarius Webb, Ravens
Injury/Prognosis: ACL tear, out for season
With Webb injured, Cary Williams will cover top receivers more often, Jimmy Smith moves from a nickel role to the starting lineup, and Corey Graham becomes the nickel corner. Smith is a 6-foot athletic specimen who appears ready for the promotion. Williams is also a bigger cornerback, and the Ravens may miss Webb’s ability to turn and run with quicker receivers, though that may not be an issue for a few weeks.
With Webb out for most of the Cowboys game, Dez Bryant caught 13 passes and scored two touchdowns, but those numbers are misleading. Bryant gained just 95 yards, as both Smith and Williams kept the receiver in front of them and limited him to short gains; Smith even dragged Bryant down for a loss on a screen. While Bryant caught a bunch of five-yard passes, Kevin Ogletree was shut out on four passes (one of them intercepted by Williams), and Miles Austin caught just two passes.
Cornerback depth will be a problem against the Steelers, but the immediate schedule has the Ravens facing the Texans, then a bye, then the Browns and Raiders. Williams or Smith has as much a chance of stopping Andre Johnson as Webb would have had, and the first two opponents after the bye lack deep receiving corps that can spread the Ravens thin and challenge Graham or the dime defenders.
Of course, the losses of Webb and Lewis are two moderate problems that could combine into one severe one. The Texans were going to be favorites in Houston anyway (the Ravens play road games as if they had to walk cross country to reach the stadium), and the Lewis and Webb losses only increase the Texans’ chances in a game that will later have tiebreaker repercussions. After that, the Ravens have a bye and two weaker opponents to beat up on while they come to terms with their new defensive reality.
Brandon Lloyd, Patriots
Injury/Prognosis: Neck, or collarbone, or something. Status unknown.
Impact: Severe, if he is really injured.
As usual, Julian Assange couldn’t get accurate injury information out of the Patriots if you gave him a keycard, Bill Belichick’s computer password and a stethoscope. Lloyd went down hard on his shoulder at the end of the Seahawks game Sunday and appeared to be very injured, but ask Belichick and he will just tell you that Yuri Andropov has a cold.
So let’s assume Lloyd misses a few weeks. No problem for the talent-laden Patriots, right? Not so fast. Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Deion Branch may be capable of dividing up Lloyd’s short-pass production, but Lloyd is the only true deep threat on the Patriots’ roster, and they need him to keep their passing game from becoming a dink-and-dunk factory line that requires 10 completions to drive 80 yards. See the second half of the Seahawks game to learn why that is so dangerous.
The Patriots have not been a deep-passing team since the end of Randy Moss’ usefulness, but they still need the threat of the deep pass to open up the field for their short passing attack. Tom Brady has attempted just 14 passes that have traveled 25 or more yards in the air this year. Four of those passes went to Lloyd, who caught two for 27 and 25 yards. Five went to Welker, who caught two: a 25-yarder against the Cardinals and a 46-yard touchdown on Sunday. Gronkowski is 1-of-3, and Daniel Fells -- Daniel Fells -- is 1-of-2. This is not the Packers’ receiving corps, with four guys who can attack vertically. This is two guys who can attack vertically (Lloyd and Gronk) and a few others who can sneak past the defense.
“Sneaking past” is exactly what Fells did on his 31-yard catch against the Seahawks. The tight end slipped down the left sideline after a play-action pass. Watch the replay, and you can see the Seahawks’ defenders spreading out and reacting to a receiver running a deep route on the opposite side of the field from Fells. They are more worried about the backside bomb to this receiver than a long reception by Fells. The coach’s film was not yet available at press time, but the mystery receiver is probably Lloyd, the guy who takes the lid off the defense so Brady has more space to work his short-passing magic.
Kevin Kolb, Cardinals
Injury/Prognosis: Ribs, status uncertain for Week 7
Let’s be frank: The Cardinals are winning despite their quarterbacks, not because of them. John Skelton beat Kolb for the starting job in the preseason, and Kolb’s rib injury (he experienced soreness on Monday, but X-rays revealed nothing) makes it easier for Ken Whisenhunt to put Skelton back in the lineup while delaying any “controversy” questions.
Kolb’s raw numbers and quarterback rating have been solid this season (eight touchdowns, three interceptions, an 86.1 rating), but there is a crucial statistic that does not factor into most quarterback rating systems: sacks. Quarterbacks are at least as responsible for their own sacks as their offensive linemen are, and anyone who has seen Kolb dash to the right sideline at the first sign of peril knows that he gets into big trouble when the pocket collapses or the first read is not available.
Kolb has been sacked on a whopping 11.6 percent of his drop backs since joining the Cardinals, and the problem has gotten worse, not better, this season: 27 sacks in 183 pass attempts have resulted in 149 lost yards, two fumbles and a safety. Skelton is sacked on seven percent of his drops, which is still too high, but well below Kolb’s percentage.
The Cardinals face Jared Allen and the Vikings next week and have three games left against the Seahawks and 49ers defenses. Which quarterback would you rather start against these pass rushes?
* * *
Injury Quick Hitters
Maurkice Pouncey, MCL, and Marcus Gilbert, foot, Steelers: Pouncey will likely miss a few weeks; the Steelers are just happy he did not suffer an ACL tear. Gilbert was seen hobbling around team headquarters in a padded boot on Monday. The Steelers averaged fewer than three yards per rushing attempt with their center and right tackle healthy, and things didn’t get any better with 40 percent of the line injured on Thursday night; take away a scramble, and the Steelers averaged exactly two yards per running play. Doug Legursky is an experienced, capable backup center, but 6-foot-7 rookie tackle Mike Adams looks like a Hall of Famer until the moment the ball is snapped, when he becomes an oversized, inexperienced liability. Worse yet, the Steelers are at the Bengals, host the Redskins and at the Giants over the next three weeks. The offensive line injuries probably caused Thursday night’s loss, and they could easily result in two more.
Trent Richardson, Browns, ribs: Richardson is not expected to miss significant time, so this injury will have minimal impact. Backup Montario Hardesty played well in Richardson’s absence, but the Browns would be in serious trouble if they had to count on Hardesty for any length of time. He averaged just 3.0 yards per carry last year and somehow managed to drop six of the 21 passes thrown to him, though almost all of them were screens. He is a speed-and-hands third-down back with average speed and dubious hands. Luckily, Richardson looks fine.
DeMarco Murray, Cowboys, sprained foot: Murray was diagnosed with a minor sprain on Monday; he may miss next week’s game against the Panthers, but the injury is not otherwise serious. Felix Jones gained 92 yards on 18 carries in Murray’s absence on Sunday before cramping up, and Phillip Tanner filled Tashard Choice and Julius Jones’ old role of looking good in a handful of carries but really just being a touches eater. Jerry Jones loves running back controversies; he enjoys talking endlessly about defining roles (he used to call Marion Barber a “finisher” back) and questioning his coaches’ usage patterns. A Murray-Felix-Tanner platoon will allow him to vamp endlessly about his scouting acumen and offensive philosophies, and when Jerry Jones is happy, the Cowboys are happy.
Bilal Powell, shoulder, and Joe McKnight, ankle, Jets: Powell will miss at least one game. McKnight could be out longer. Both are capable change-up backs for a team that wants to pound the ball up the middle so badly that they used a full-house formation several times on Sunday. With only Jonathan Grimes behind Shonn Greene, the Jets are desperate for someone who can pound the ball. Yes, we are all thinking the exact same thing, but Tony Sparano is probably thinking something completely different.