Next Man Up

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The Ravens have had several catch phrases over the course of the season, sayings that resurface from every corner of the locker room.

The hottest right now: "Next man up."

With the rash of injuries the Ravens have suffered in recent weeks, Baltimore has been forced to rely on a cast of backups and players previously stuck on the inactive list or bench.

And with the health of several of the Ravens' major pieces still in question, whether Baltimore reaches the playoffs may be decided by players such as Chris Carr, Tom ZbikowskiOniel Cousins and Demetrius Williams.

It's not exactly the gameplan the Ravens drew up.

"Yeah, the injuries are tough, but we've got guys on this team that have been working hard that are part of what we do, that are out there every single day, who just can't wait to get their opportunity to play," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "And then they get their opportunity, and you really hope that they play well. And for the most part, guys have."

The Ravens currently have 13 players on Injured Reserve. Through December of last year, the Ravens had 22 players on Injured Reserve and still reached the AFC Championship in January.

So, as Harbaugh said, it's not like the Ravens haven't been through this before.

This season, injuries have come at critically important positions. The Ravens have gone three straight games without Ed Reed, the leader of the secondary. They've been through two straight games with massive left tackle Jared Gaither on the bench. Last Sunday against the Chicago Bears, their No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington were out.

That's not to mention the loss of linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was evolving into a strong pass-covering linebacker before suffering a knee injury in Week 4. His primary replacement, second-year linebacker Tavares Gooden, has missed a pair of games this year including last week's contest.

But perhaps the biggest blow came last Sunday when rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his anterior cruciate ligament. In a secondary already ailing with starting cornerback Fabian Washington and backup safety Haruki Nakamura on Injured Reserve, Webb had become a pivotal figure.

That leaves Carr, who played mostly nickel this season, as the next man up. It's a expanded role Carr, as do many of the newfound starters, relish.

"I feel like the more time I'm out there the more plays I'm going to make," Carr said. "I'm very confident in my capabilities."

Carr has played well as of late, although he said his best game came in Week 4 against the Patriots when he held talented wideout Wes Welker without a catch. He feels his play has been consistent overall this season but he's just been noticed more the past couple of weeks as he has seen more time outside instead of in the nickel.

Carr was asked if he thought the Steelers would specifically target him at cornerback.

"Hopefully," he said. "If you're a competitor you want the ball to come your way so you can make some plays on the ball."

Carr's moxie is a microcosm of the attitude within the Ravens' locker room heading down their playoff stretch. This group is positive it can get the job done.

Zbikowski has performed particularly well. After being pretty much limited to special teams before Reed went down, Zbikowski has responded with two interceptions and 14 tackles, including a career-high six last Sunday versus Chicago.

Zbikowski said it's tough to constantly wait for an opportunity, but that if a player wants to be in the NFL for long, they must prepare for every game like they are going to be the starter. And then when given the opportunity, "do everything you can to make a play and not let everyone down."

"Whoever is on the field is expected to play," Zbikowski said. "Regardless of if it's a Hall of Famer or first or second-year guy, you're here for a reason. You have enough talent to play, so go out and show it."

Cousins hasn't had many opportunities to showcase his talent. The offensive tackle from UTEP saw action in just five games as a rookie last year and was inactive in 11 of the Ravens' first 12 games. The Ravens have surrendered just two sacks and opened up the run game with Cousins on the line during the past two games.

Before the last two weeks, Williams saw action from scrimmage in nine games, catching a pass in just one of them. Two weeks ago he made a beautiful 34-yard snag against the Lions, then topped that with a 32-yard touchdown grab last week.

Then there are players, like wide receiver Justin Harper, who have been essential in filling out special teams positions. Harper said kickoff and kick return duties are "brand new" to him. But like his peers, he is making the most of his opening.

"I understand my role that I have to be able to play special teams to be in this game," Harper said. "Every opportunity is better than no opportunity."

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