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Ravens defense stays strong vs. Colts despite coronavirus scare, injuries: ‘Everything just clicked naturally’

Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters talks about the team challenge of his interception against the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts rookie running back Jonathan Taylor took a shotgun handoff in the first quarter and bounced to the outside, barreling into Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters.

Peters stood his ground as rookie linebacker Malik Harrison pushed from behind, trying to bring Taylor down. Peters continued to scrape and grab at the football before he separated it from Taylor, just like Ravens defenders practice throughout the week.

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The ball bounced right into the hands of safety Chuck Clark, who weaved down the sideline and hurdled tumbling quarterback Philip Rivers en route to a 65-yard return for a touchdown.

Despite playing without three starters — and with a handful of players who didn’t practice this week because of a mandated self-isolation period — the Ravens defense continued its strong play, forcing two turnovers and scoring their 12th touchdown since the 2018 season in a 24-10 win.

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The Ravens’ week began with a Monday morning tweet from cornerback Marlon Humphrey announcing that he tested positive for COVID-19, potentially fateful news for a secondary that had already taken its share of hits through the first seven games of the season.

Humphrey was quickly ruled out for the Colts game and the Ravens waited for the results of contact tracing conducted with the NFL. The following day, seven additional players, including starters Matthew Judon, DeShon Elliott and L.J. Fort, were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after being deemed high-risk close contacts to Humphrey in the previous days.

Each player was forced into a five-day self-isolation period, meaning that if they continued to be asymptomatic and test negative, they would be able to return in time for a Saturday walk-through and Sunday’s game.

With the exception of Fort (finger injury), all returned and played extensively in the victory.

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In the days leading to the game, coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that he was unsure how players would respond to a week of virtual meetings and little-to-no on-field preparation. To make matters worse, defensive end Calais Campbell suffered a calf strain on the third play from scrimmage and didn’t return to the game.

But it was no matter; Derek Wolfe, Justin Ellis and rookie Justin Madubuike filled in just fine as the Ravens settled after some early issues with outside runs and misdirection, holding Indianapolis to 138 yards in the second half.

“There are just a lot of things, a lot of checkmarks there that deserve a lot of credit,” Harbaugh said.

Peters credited the players in self-isolation for honing in on film study while away from the team facility, while Harbaugh lauded Don “Wink” Martindale for calling one of his best games as defensive coordinator.

“I still stand on that I don’t think it was challenging,” Clark said. “It just, like I said during the week, we just didn’t have some players out there at practice, but we got them back on Saturday for the walk-through. Everything just clicked naturally. And then just out there getting through the first couple of drives, getting the wind right, but I don’t think it was challenging, honestly.”

General manager Eric DeCosta’s 2019 midseason trade for Peters proved even more brilliant on a day in which the Ravens were missing their top cornerback but still fielded one of the best playmaking corners in the NFL.

After running back Gus Edwards' third-quarter fumble inside the Colts' 10-yard line was recovered by Indianapolis, Peters intercepted Rivers one play later on a deep sideline pass that was originally ruled incomplete and then overturned, somewhat controversially, after Harbaugh’s challenge.

The Ravens scored on the ensuing drive to take a 14-10 lead.

“This team, this defense is the best defense in the NFL at causing fumbles. They are the best," Colts coach Frank Reich said. “We talked about it all week, that there was going to be premium on ball security, in particular on fumbles that they are better at than anybody. Then Marcus Peters, he’s the best interceptor guy in the NFL, has been for years. They played to their strength and made two big plays.”

The Ravens have worked over the years to build an interchangeable, multiple defense that can withstand the brunt of injuries — and in this case, absences forced by COVID-19. That was ever more prevalent Sunday, whether it was Madubuike taking on a larger role, Jimmy Smith returning to his natural outside corner position or cornerback Terrell Bonds holding his own at the nickel position after the Colts targeted him early.

“I think the biggest thing is that we all took it as, ‘Somebody just has to step up.’ We can’t complain,” Peters said. “We understand the situation that we’re dealt with right now. We know that things are going to be up and down throughout this whole year. So, we just have to find a way to adapt and overcome these types of situations.

"We saw when the guys went down during the game. … Like I said, guys just stepped up, and that’s what we need over here; next man up and keep playing Raven football, and we’ll be all right.”

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