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Decimated By COVID-19 and Injuries, Ravens Defense Is Playing 'Squid Games'

DB Brandon Stephens
DB Brandon Stephens

If the Ravens' defense seemed shorthanded last week against the Green Bay Packers, well the situation hasn't gotten any better before Sunday's crucial AFC North game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Baltimore's defense currently has just 15 players on the 53-man roster. Two of those players – defensive end Calais Campbell (thigh) and cornerback Tavon Young (concussion) – are dealing with injuries.

That has left Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale grasping for explanations.

"It's like you go from the beginning of the season with our roster to right now; I don't know if we're playing football or the Squid Games," Martindale quipped.

"It's crazy how things have changed so much. Unsettling – I guess that's a way to say it. But it's one of those things that people don't care about your problems. You've got to get guys ready to go play, and that's what we're doing."

The Ravens have nine defensive players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and it touches every level of the unit: safeties Chuck Clark and Geno Stone, cornerbacks Chris Westry and Jimmy Smith, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee, inside linebackers Chris Board and Kristian Welch and defensive lineman Justin Madubuike.

That just piles on to the heap of defenders with season-ending injuries, including cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, safety DeShon Elliott, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker L.J. Fort.

The Ravens are on the brink, and they know they can't afford more losses. At the start of his virtual press conference Thursday, Martindale said he won't be spending Christmas with his granddaughter because of the COVID outbreak sweeping the nation.

"I hope everybody stays safe and healthy and sees everybody that they need to see, if they can see them," Martindale said. "If not, stay safe and celebrate Christmas in January. I know that's what I'm going to do with my granddaughter. She won't know the difference; she's only a year and a half."

Every team has a "next man up" mentality, but even that's being tested for the Ravens. They just barely have enough players.

Still, Martindale won't let that be an excuse. Even with a secondary held together by Band-Aids, the Ravens gave Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers a fight and held All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams to his second-fewest receiving yards (44) of the season last week.

Now Baltimore's defense will look to pull off another magic a similar feat against Cincinnati's loaded offense featuring quarterback Joe Burrow (eighth in passing yards), running back Joe Mixon (second in rushing yards) and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (ninth in receiving yards).

Martindale said the players who have tested positive for COVID-19 are hurting because they may not be able to play in such an important game. But the players that can suit up "are going to have the mentality that we need to have to go play this game."

"Everybody knows the standard when they walk in this building," Martindale said, crediting the front office for filling in with the right kind of players. "We've just got to play catch up with them, and with our system. It's easy to teach – I've told you all that before – and we'll go, and we'll be ready to play."

Being so short-handed presents unique challenges, like players operating on both the scout team for the offense and as part of the defensive game-plan in practice. And, of course, it impacts how Martindale will craft his strategy and call the game. But it's not going to change who the Ravens are, Martindale said.

"To the core, we're an aggressive defense, and with the flexibility of our scheme, I think there's some different things we can do," Martindale said. "We're going to pressure. That's who we are."

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