Offseason Additions Playing Key Roles

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The Ravens could have made excuses when numerous starters went down for an extended period of time earlier this season, but they didn't.

Defensively, nose guard Kelly Gregg was lost for the year after two surgeries on his knee, while safety Dawan Landry (neck) and cornerbacks Chris McAlister (knee) and Samari Rolle (neck) have missed a combined 14 games.

On the other side of the football, right guard Marshal Yanda (knee) and wideout Demetrius Williams (ankle) were also placed on Injured Reserve, while Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee's knee and ankle have kept him out of three contests.

All the Ravens have done in response is jump out to a 5-3 record with clutch contributions from backups who are offering first-string performances.

At this point, the number of games missed by starters is not close to the 77 missed in last year's 5-11 campaign. But even if the tally begins to approach that amount, the Ravens don't believe the same disastrous results will occur.

"I think our depth is a lot better than it was last year," said wideout Derrick Mason when asked if he was surprised at Baltimore's current standing. "We have some guys down, but we have some guys that are able to step up and make plays on this team.

"[They] play a big role in what we're trying to do as an offense and a defense and special teams. I'm not surprised. I'm just surprised that our record is not better than the 5-3 record that we have now."

Whether through free agency, trades, or the draft, the Ravens added to that depth in any way possible.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the defensive backfield, which has been ravaged for a large part of the season.

Baltimore traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for cornerback Fabian Washington – a first-rounder in 2005 – and brought in veteran cornerback Frank Walker and safety Jim Leonhard through free agency.

The trio of new Ravens have contributed 68 tackles and 14 passes defensed between them, while the pass defense is only giving up 182.1 yards per game, good for fourth in the league.

When Rolle and McAlister were in and out of the lineup throughout the tail end of 2007, inexperienced players like Willie Gaston and David Pittman filled the gaps.

"I think guys understand that anything can happen in the season," Mason noted. "If you look back to last season, who would've ever thought that we would be down to our third or fourth corner on both sides?"

Up front, the Ravens knew what they had in talented defensive tackle Justin Bannan, who has stepped in for Gregg without missing a beat. But, trading for Marques Douglas and signing free agent Brandon McKinney, a hulking 324-pound mountain, have solidified the defensive line rotation.

As a result, Baltimore's rush defense is the NFL's best (64.3 yards allowed per game).

Head coach John Harbaugh credited general manager Ozzie Newsome, along with director of pro personnel George Kokinis and assistant director of pro personnel Vince Newsome for the roster's upgrade in able bodies.

"I think our scouting department, Ozzie and George and Vince Newsome did a great job in the offseason of really shoring up our depth – along with the draft, really, because it's come from the draft, and it's come from the pro side," Harbaugh said. "We've got some depth in the secondary, and they've been playing all year like starters, as starters. That's what you hope those guys can do."

The draft, which is overseen by Newsome and director of college scouting Eric DeCosta, bought in running back Ray Rice to spell McGahee, and the rookie out of Rutgers has been a revelation.

In last week's 37-27 win over the Cleveland Browns, Rice notched 154 rushing yards, including a 60-yard romp that set up a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. It was the seventh-longest run in franchise history

Additionally, Rice added three catches for 22 yards as McGahee, nursing a sore ankle, mentored his young teammate from the sidelines.

Rice's explosion was another occurrence that didn't surprise anyone.

"We've known what Ray is and what Ray is going to be," said fellow rookie Joe Flacco. "We've known that from the summer. He gets in there and he shows the quickness, and he has the ability to make the first guy miss. That was huge for us on Sunday."

Yanda's position has been filled for the moment by 2006 draft pick Chris Chester, who continues to improve, while Williams' recent absence means more opportunities for other playmakers.

Now, Baltimore is preparing for the Houston Texans with the strong possibility of getting Rolle and McGahee back on the field, which will simply add to the list of potential starters in the locker room.

Because McAlister is seeing a doctor in Canada for another opinion on his knee – according to Harbaugh – and team medical officials are monitoring test results of Landry's spinal cord concussion, those former substitutes will continue to have a critical role.

"The most important position on the team is the guy that backs up the starter," Mason said. "He has to be able to – if he's not getting a lot of reps – he has to prepare himself mentally as if he was the starter.

"I think the coaches have done a good job of preparing guys to play if they need to play. The backups have done a great job at making sure when they come in [that] there's not a let-off."

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