Injuries are a major part of any NFL season, but the addition of the coronavirus pandemic has made overall team depth as important as game planning.
The Ravens have largely been able to avoid both injuries and the virus thus far, and their depth has been outstanding. They might be as deep as any team in the NFL.
With games being rescheduled because of COVID-19, the Ravens are in better shape than most teams. Of course, that would change if quarterback Lamar Jackson had to miss substantial time.
But take Sunday’s 30-28 win over the Philadelphia Eagles for example. The Ravens were without two starting defensive linemen in tackle Brandon Williams (placed on reserve/COVID-19 list) and end Derek Wolfe (neck/concussion). That would be trouble for most teams.
But the Ravens started Justin Ellis at one tackle position alongside veteran Calais Campbell and rotated in rookies Broderick Washington and Justin Madubuike.
Ellis had only one tackle but interrupted several running plays with penetration in the backfield during his 33 snaps. Madubuike had two tackles on 25 snaps, and Washington played 20 snaps.
The Ravens also used Jihad Ward as a defensive end/outside linebacker. He played 20 snaps, 28% of the defensive plays, and finished with two tackles, one sack and one quarterback hit. Philadelphia had 194 rushing yards, but included in that total is a 74-yard run by Miles Sanders.
“It was one of those things where you hate to see it happen, but you know it’s always a possibility,” Campbell said of Williams, who coach John Harbaugh confirmed Monday has not tested positive for COVID-19. “I know he’s going through the whole process. You feel bad for him and his family, but you know that he’s just trying to work to get back.
“We have young guys who you’ve got to talk to them and tell them, ‘Hey, this is your opportunity. Step up and play the game the best you can. Let’s go out here and have some fun and play football.’ But it was definitely one of those things where it’s like, ‘Oh, man.' You hate to see it, but you know it’s always a possibility with this current climate we’re in."
The play of the reserve defensive linemen and the lack of a drop-off in talent overall is a tribute to the front office’s ability to draft and sign quality players. The Ravens had two other starters go down with injuries in Sunday’s game in running back Mark Ingram II and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips, but because Ingram was already part of a platoon, rookie J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards were adequate replacements. Patrick Mekari, who started five games last season at center, stepped in for Phillips.
The Ravens struggled offensively Sunday, but that wasn’t because of the absence of starters. The unit has been inconsistent all season, but their weaknesses weren’t glaring as the Ravens still finished with 355 yards of total offense, including 182 rushing.
“It’s always tough to see somebody like Mark go down, even if it’s not even too serious, because I want to see him succeed and do great things,” said Dobbins, who finished with 28 yards on nine carries. “Going out there, I felt like I was ready for it, and I feel like my teammates helped me. So, it was good to get thrown in the fire at this moment, but we have to do better.”
The Ravens' plug-in approach has worked all season. When left tackle Ronnie Stanley was out with an injury earlier in the season, the Ravens inserted D.J. Fluker, a free agent out of Seattle who signed a one-year deal in the offseason. He isn’t as athletic or as good of a pass blocker as Stanley is, but he’s serviceable. The Ravens cut disgruntled Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III before the season and his replacement DeShon Elliott, a sixth-round pick out of Texas, is fifth on the team in tackles with 25, including two sacks.
“He’s just getting his opportunity to shine,” fellow safety Chuck Clark said of Elliott. “He sat around on the bench for two years — same situation as me — and once we finally got out there and showed that we can play, it’s like, we’re out here to take it and run with it, and that’s what we tell each other just about every game. And I’m so happy for him that he’s even able to be out there. He’s healthy, being able to make plays, get turnovers and just show his spirit out there on the field — and his emotions.”
The quality depth has given the Ravens options. Veteran Jimmy Smith isn’t a starting cornerback anymore, but he has become an unsung hero of the defense because he can still match up with receivers on the outside or in the slot and cover the tight end. Reserve outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, now in his fourth year, has played well in a rotation with starters Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee.
The Ravens need to get rookie receiver Devin Duvernay more involved in the offense, and that will happen eventually because of Duvernay’s speed. Duvernay, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown earlier this season, set up a 37-yard touchdown run by Jackson on Sunday with a 37-yard kickoff return.
The Ravens have depth. In an unpredictable season, it’s great to be in that position.
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“That’s just the NFL right now,” Clark said. “That’s the game. With the way the things are going with COVID-19, it’s kind of like you almost don’t know who’s going to be playing this week, what teams are going to be playing, which players are going to be playing.”