Whether through injury, illness, or suspension, the Ravens' talent at defensive line has been diluted all season. With one key cog or another missing for all but four of the team's 17 games, the group has still collapsed pockets, occupied blockers and held opponents without a 100-yard rusher.
But with the potential return of rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan Saturday, the Ravens could have a full complement of defensive lineman and could use one of their greatest strengths to attack an interior offensive line that has given the AFC East champion New England Patriots problems.
"I just see us getting better," Jernigan said. "At the end of the day, the only thing that makes defensive lines better is depth. You're only as good as the weakest link, so I feel like with me being able to potentially come back, I feel like that's going to put us in a good position to get better."
The unit, despite a rotating cast, has already earned acclaim as one of the team's most consistent position groups. The Ravens run defense was fourth-best in the league, and forced five of the team's 14 fumbles while recovering four.
The only constant has been tackle Brandon Williams, the team's fifth-leading tackler with 48 stops, two forced fumbles, and a half-sack. Williams was a massive factor, along with Haloti Ngata, in collapsing the Pittsburgh Steelers pocket and keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from stepping up and extending plays during the wild-card round.
Other than Williams, who is beginning to earn national acclaim in his second season out of Missouri Southern State, the Ravens have gotten consistent play from players young and old, heralded and overlooked.
Jernigan, who missed a month this season with a meniscus injury, exited the Ravens' Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns with a foot and ankle injury. The 2014 second-round pick played a large role in the defense due to Ngata's absence.
Ngata, who had 32 tackles, a pair of sacks and two interceptions during the regular season, missed the final four games of the regular season after testing positive for Adderall under the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Defensive end Canty Canty missed a month with a wrist infection, then the season finale against Cleveland with an ankle injury. In between, he was active in pursuit and led the Ravens' defensive linemen in tackles against the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and Jacksonville Jaguars.
In his absence, defensive ends Lawrence Guy and DeAngelo Tyson filled in admirably, with Tyson picking up a sack in Week 17 and the two combining for three fumble recoveries in 22 games.
Even outside linebacker Pernell McPhee has taken snaps as a nose tackle in pass rushing situations to spell the regulars, using his rare combination of speed and power against opposing guards.
Only Williams has played over 50 percent of the team's snaps, with Ngata at 49 percent and Canty, Jernigan, and Tyson at 32 percent, 28 percent, and 25.5 percent, respectively.
"It's a great luxury — same thing at outside linebacker, who are really our defensive ends," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "You hope that rather than a guy playing 70 plays in a game, a guy can play 40 and everybody can be fresh at the end of the game. I learned that a long, long, long time ago. You want to be fresh at the end of the half, and you want to be fresh at the end of the game, if you can."
The Ravens' defensive front will match up with a unit that began the season in turmoil, and save for a two-game stretch at the end of the season, recovered well.
New England traded away their equivalent to Marshal Yanda, guard Logan Mankins, a week before the season, employed an in-game rotation early in the season, and started six offensive line combinations over the first eight games.
Most of the shuffling during that stretch came inside, before the Patriots ultimately settled on rookie fourth-round pick Bryan Stork at center with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell flanking him at guard. That combination started for the first time in Week 8 against Chicago and set off a seven-game stretch with the same starting offensive line, during which the Patriots went 6-1 and averaged more than 36 points per game.
But the interior of the line struggled in the last two weeks of the regular season without Connolly, who suffered an ankle injury. With Josh Kline replacing Connolly, the line allowed four sacks, one quarterback hit and six hurries in those games, according to Pro Football Focus. In the previous seven-game stretch, the Patriots' interior line had allowed one sack, according to the website.
Connolly was not listed on the Patriots' injury report Wednesday, indicating he's healthy for Saturday's game. But while the Ravens don't know for sure if they'll get starters or reserves on the offensive line, they know that there's little drop-off between starter and substitute on their own defensive front.
McPhee said having a full stable of players to rotate through the defensive line would be "scary," because when a starter gets substituted, his replacement has different dominant traits.
"When you take one out, you really ain't missing [anything]," McPhee said.