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Amid coronavirus scare, Ravens defense has a new challenge: Practice without your best players

At practice Wednesday, the Ravens defense had to improvise. Ten players were absent, including six starters. Two Pro Bowl players were stuck at home. Just one of the five cornerbacks who appeared in Week 1 was available. There were as many inside linebackers from the 53-man roster as there were long snappers: one.

This is what a coronavirus scare in the NFL can look like. After All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey announced Monday that he’d tested positive for COVID-19, seven Ravens players identified as “high-risk” close contacts — outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Tyus Bowser, inside linebackers Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison and L.J. Fort, safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Terrell Bonds — were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday.

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Humphrey has been ruled out of Sunday’s road game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens' seven close contacts will have to miss at least this week’s first three practices while isolating and being tested. Defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jimmy Smith missed Wednesday’s session for noninjury reasons.

Practice is still practice, coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. Except when it’s not.

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“It really won’t be any different at all,” Harbaugh said during a video conference call. “Same number of reps, same process. We’ll just move guys around to different spots. It’ll create some opportunities for a few younger guys. ... So you look at it as an opportunity to create versatility within your defense.”

No other Ravens have reported positive tests, though the median incubation period for the coronavirus is four to five days. Harbaugh said the team’s isolating players would be allowed to participate in a walk-through and fly with the team Saturday, pending their test results.

Humphrey’s absence, by itself, is significant. He’s second on the team in defensive snaps (465) — only starting safety Chuck Clark has more (470) — tied for first in the NFL in forced fumbles (four) and the Ravens' only proven slot cornerback. Even against an Indianapolis Colts passing offense ranked 20th in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, his playmaking ability will be missed.

But the Ravens' most immediate challenge is filling an even bigger vacuum at practice. Their eight sidelined players account for 63.8% of the defense’s snaps, 45.8% of its sacks and 45.4% of its tackles this season. Of the Ravens' five leading tacklers, only one, Clark, was able to enter the practice facility Wednesday.

Virtual meetings and individual workouts will make preparation possible, but it’s unclear how missed practices will affect the Ravens' readiness. None of the NFL’s 32 teams have had to play through a pandemic before.

The Tennessee Titans, who had the league’s first major COVID-19 outbreak, crushed the Buffalo Bills in Week 5, 42-16, despite having only three practices in 16 days. The New England Patriots had just one light practice, one padded practice and one walk-through in between their Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and their Week 6 game against Denver. The Broncos won, 18-12.

“Sometimes, they don’t practice all week and they come out and they play the best games of their careers,” Harbaugh said. "Other guys struggle. They might miss something. It’s really impossible to predict that. I don’t spend a lot of time being anxious about that because it’s really kind of a waste of time. ...

“You just take it as you find it that way, and we’ll make the best of it.”

Whatever fine-tuning the Ravens might lose this week, they could make up for with added depth. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who made his Ravens debut in a loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, figures to get more practice repetitions as an edge rusher in the unit’s complex scheme. Second-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson can build on his strong performance Sunday.

With Queen, Fort and Harrison quarantining, Chris Board is all alone at inside linebacker this week. That should give practice squad call-up and special teams contributor Kristian Welch an opportunity to expand his role.

The Ravens might need the most help in their secondary, where Humphrey, Bonds and Elliott are out, Smith has been banged up and injured cornerback Anthony Averett likely will miss at least another month. Practice squad cornerbacks Khalil Dorsey and Nate Hairston and safeties Geno Stone and Nigel Warrior could see time with the defense’s first- or second-string units this week.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge, honestly,” said Clark, explaining that the Ravens have had “rough patches” worse than this in his career. "From the outside looking in, it might seem as if it’s a challenge, but here, in this sport, any sport, it’s the next-man-up-type thing. So it’s honestly an opportunity for the younger guys and other guys that are just not starters right now to be able to even get out there.

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“So the communication is all the same. We’ve been doing that, working on that, in weeks prior, too, just in case something like this were to happen. That’s just what this 2020 season is. We know that, any given week, you could be down a key player or key players.”

The Ravens haven’t been too lucky in recent weeks. Running back Mark Ingram II suffered a sprained ankle in Week 6 that’s kept him out of action. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley will undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle. Now the team is dealing with its first coronavirus case.

As quarterback Lamar Jackson said Wednesday, “It can happen to anyone.” The Ravens' challenge this week is getting everyone prepared — the players who can practice and the players who can’t.

“We love to have our brothers out there in practice and getting ready for a game with us,” Jackson said after practice. “But unfortunately we can’t, because of the COVID. That’s the only reason practice was different. But besides that, practice was great. And I can’t wait for our guys to get back.”

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