On the eve of the Ravens' must-win Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns, cornerback Anthony Levine asked coach John Harbaugh for a few moments in front of the team. The longtime special teams player and respected member of the Ravens locker room had two messages.
First, that belief was all it would take for the Ravens to hold up their end of the two-part scenario that ultimately got them into the playoffs. Second, that the injuries and key absences on both sides of the ball that put that playoff berth in jeopardy weren't enough to keep the team from great success.
He had seen both in Green Bay in 2010, when as a rookie on the practice squad the Packers overcame 15 players going on injured reserve to win the Super Bowl as the sixth seed. Now in his fifth NFL season, Levine is key to what could be a parallel story.
"It takes everybody, from the practice squad to the active guys," Levine said. "This was the exact same thing [as in Green Bay]. I've been in a situation where it has happened, and everything has worked out."
Levine's emergence as a cog in the Ravens defense is one of many examples in which players elevated to greater roles have propelled the team to a spot among the AFC's final four teams. With 19 players on injured reserve and several other long-term absences, opportunities were created for players such as Levine, practice-squad acquisitions such as cornerback Rashaan Melvin, and a slew of rookies to play meaningful roles on a playoff team.
"When you look across the league, that's usually the trend, especially when you get to this part of the year: playoff football," safety Jeromy Miles said. "The roster looks completely different than it looked at the beginning of the year, so you always have to be ready. Whether you're getting no reps a week or all the reps that week, you should just be ready because you never know."
Nowhere has that been more true than in the secondary, where six players are on injured reserve and a dozen cornerbacks have been on the active roster. Seven cornerbacks started games, and five different safeties have played significant snaps. Levine converted from safety to cornerback midseason out of necessity.
After cornerback Asa Jackson suffered a knee injury in Week 15, Melvin, who six weeks earlier was signed off the Miami Dolphins practice squad, took over at cornerback. Levine, who started three games in November, settled into a nickel cornerback role.
As Levine enjoys the most productive stretch of his career, he knows more than anyone that even the back end of the roster contributes in January. He personally thanked practice squad wide receiver Aldrick Robinson for preparing him to cover Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton so well.
Defensive back isn't the only position that's required some shuffling of the depth chart.
A trio of rookie contributors — third-round tight end Crockett Gillmore, fifth-round guard-center John Urschel, and undrafted tackle James Hurst — have all seen larger roles than expected this season because of injuries.
Gillmore entered the season as the team's third tight end and barely played the first two games of the season before starting tight end Dennis Pitta suffered a season-ending hip injury in Week 3.
Gillmore wasn't asked to replace Pitta — his 10 catches in 15 regular season games were six fewer than Pitta's three-game total — but his catches have been big of late. His 21-yard touchdown Saturday in Pittsburgh clinched the game for the Ravens, and his role expanded to the point that he drew praise from Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia ahead of Saturday's playoff game.
He found early on that practice was the only way to prepare for those moments.
"You know your role, and if you could contribute in practice, then you might get an opportunity in the game," Gillmore said. "But you're going to have to do it, day-in and day-out. That was my attitude coming, just do everything I could to make those plays in practice and as the season's gone on, you get a little bit more and a little bit more. That's how you get your opportunities, and then you've got to make those plays."
On the offensive line, Urschel and Hurst both started the wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh as the Ravens were missing two starting offensive linemen, tackles Rick Wagner and Eugene Monroe. Urschel had started two games in the regular season and appeared in several more. Hurst started at left tackle for four games when Monroe was out with a knee injury.
When the two close friends returned to reserve roles in Week 8, they knew it didn't mean their season was over. They continued to work, and met individually with offensive line coach Juan Castillo early in the morning once a week to hasten their development.
"It's not verbalized, but I don't think it's something that has to be said," Urschel said. "I prepare every single week like I'm going to play. When you're a swing guy, both guard and center, you never know whether you're going to play three snaps or whether you're going to play 60. That's just part of the position, and that's something I really embrace."
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said the team has a lot of confidence in both Hurst and Urschel, and that "good things have happened" when the two play.
Coach John Harbaugh said the trio has been able to translate limited roles during the regular season into postseason success because of their preparation and the football acumen they brought to Baltimore.
"It says a lot about who they are as people," Harbaugh said. "They're not going to be overwhelmed by a situation. They're smart. Smart guys usually don't get overwhelmed by circumstances, and those guys are smart guys. They work hard. They're very confident, but they're not cocky. They're humble. They work hard."