When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning goes under center Sunday, starts barking out calls and then takes one final glance across the line of scrimmage, what he sees will bear very little resemblance to any Ravens defense he has ever faced.
For the past decade as a member of the Indianapolis Colts, Manning took apart some of the Ravens' most dominant defenses. Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Manning and his 10-3 Broncos will oppose one of the Ravens' most vulnerable ones.
Injuries have forced the Ravens to rely on standout special teams players as defensive starters, thrust normally little-used players into big roles and given guys who were either at home or on the practice squad just weeks ago opportunities to aid in the playoff push.
"I don't think I've ever had so many [players] out for long periods of time and all at the same time," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "It's been interesting."
Pees, who has been forced to juggle his personnel throughout his first season as Ravens defensive coordinator, clearly hasn't lost his sense of humor even in the midst of preparing for Manning and Denver's explosive offense. Asked Thursday who will wear the headset in his helmet and relay the play calls to the rest of the defense, Pees grinned and said, "Next question," before breaking out into laughter. "No, Josh Bynes probably, or whoever will be in there at inside linebacker. I hate to say Josh, because it's only Thursday, so it's hard to tell."
Bynes, signed as an undrafted free agent last year, has never started a game in his NFL career and was on the practice squad just eight weeks ago. Yet Sunday, he could find himself matching wits with Manning, a colossal challenge for even the most experienced and accomplished player. Such is the state of the Ravens' linebacker corps, a group that has come to symbolize the team's recent injury woes and defensive struggles.
Inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the longtime face and voice of the Ravens defense, has been out since Week 6 with a torn right triceps and wasn't activated for Sunday's game. Lewis' replacement, Jameel McClain, has already been declared out with a neck injury.
Weak-side linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who had elevated his play in Lewis' absence, is in danger of missing his third straight game with an ankle injury. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose season has been marred first by a torn Achilles and now by a torn biceps, is also a game-time decision.
"I've been here for four years and it's never been this bad," said linebacker Paul Kruger, who leads the Ravens with eight sacks despite missing one game with a bad back. "It's a tough thing to go through. We are a very talented team with a lot of potential, but to have those guys go down at any time of the year, especially this late in the season, it just really [stinks]."
The Ravens' defense ranks 24th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (375.9). It ranks 25th against the run (129.3 yards per game) and 23rd against the pass (246.6). Coach John Harbaugh and Pees have never used injuries as an excuse for the team's uncharacteristically poor defensive play, acknowledging that other factors have contributed.
There have been instances of poor tackling, lapses in communication and ill-timed breakdowns. The pass rush has been inconsistent and the coverage, at times, has been poor. But some of those issues might be partially explained by the number of Ravens defensive players in the training room during the week rather than on the practice field.
"It's been tough," Harbaugh said. "It's as many injuries as we've probably ever had on defense here in the last five years, and I'm really proud of the guys. The guys have stepped up."
Only four defensive players — McClain and defensive backs Cary Williams, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard — have started all 13 games for the Ravens. That number will probably decrease by two as McClain is out today and Pollard likely won't play because of a chest injury.
"It's always tough when guys get hurt, but this is the NFL," said Reed, who has played much of the season with a labrum tear in his shoulder. "Guys get paid to be professionals, so you expect that guys will come in and do a good job. It's tough because your communication and everything has to change a little bit more. It puts more on guys like myself, which comes with the territory."
Longtime teammates Lewis and Suggs have each missed seven games this season and still have yet to be on the field at the same time. The Ravens' top cornerback, Lardarius Webb, was lost for the season in Week 6 with a serious left knee injury, and his replacement, Jimmy Smith, has missed five consecutive games with a sports hernia.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has missed just one game, but shoulder and knee injuries have contributed to his looking ordinary at times. Second-year defensive end Pernell McPhee, who was second on the team last year with 6.5 sacks, has just a half-sack this year, and he has played just nine games because of injuries.
Given more opportunity, Kruger and defensive end Arthur Jones have played well, and cornerback Corey Graham, signed this past offseason primarily for his work on special teams, has solidified the secondary. However, the injuries have left the Ravens thin and vulnerable in other areas.
Two weeks ago, the Ravens let journeyman third-string quarterback Charlie Batch drive the Pittsburgh Steelers down the field for the game-winning field goal as time expired. Last week, Washington Redskins rookie backup Kirk Cousins took over for an injured Robert Griffin III and threw a touchdown pass and then ran in the 2-point conversion to tie the game with under a minute to play. The Redskins then won it in overtime, dealing the Ravens their second straight loss and putting even more importance on today's showdown with the Broncos, who have already clinched the AFC West.
On Cousins' 11-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, veteran cornerback Chris Johnson, who was out of football four weeks earlier until the secondary-needy Ravens called, was beaten.
"There's a lot of talk about the backup quarterback thing. It isn't so much those guys, it's us," Pees said.
"It had nothing to do with Batch or with Kirk Cousins. Any college quarterback could have thrown Kirk Cousins' touchdown pass. It's us executing the defense, and it was no rare defense. The injury factor had no bearing on that play. I know it may have been a new guy, but we still have to make that play. We can't use that as an excuse going forward."
Still, after watching Batch and Cousins deny them wins, it's fair to wonder how the Ravens will be able to slow Manning today, and then his younger brother, Eli, next weekend when the New York Giants visit M&T Bank Stadium.
The Broncos are second in the league in points per game (28.8) and Peyton Manning, after missing last season with a career-threatening neck injury, is second in the league in touchdown passes (30) and completion rate (68.3). His teams have beaten the Ravens in eight straight matchups dating to the 2002 season, but neither that — nor the rash of injuries the Ravens are dealing with — mean anything to the veteran quarterback.
"Every team deals with injuries. It's just the 'Next man up' mentality. I know Baltimore has that, and I know we've had that here," Manning said. "Ray Lewis is a guy that we all know is hard to replace, but you've seen it in Baltimore in years past. They have always had young talent and guys ready to step in. They are still very aggressive on defense no matter who's in there."
Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times