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.