Whenever there's an injury, NFL coaches pivot to make it a positive. It's an opportunity for someone else, they say.
In the Ravens' case, those opportunities have been taken advantage of, and it's made Baltimore's already stout defense even stronger down the stretch.
In Sunday's win over the New York Giants, the Ravens got major contributions from several defensive backups, including cornerback Anthony Averett, linebacker Chris Board and rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike.
Averett's contribution was needed the most considering the Ravens were again without starting cornerbacks Marcus Peters (calf) and Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder). Averett played 100 percent of the snaps against the Giants and finished with five tackles and two pass breakups.
"I definitely want to prove myself and my contribution to the team," Averett said. "The team needed me, and I definitely feel like I stepped up, and I'm going to continue to do that."
"I'm really just proud of him and the job he's done," Head Coach John Harbaugh said immediately after Averett spoke. "You can see what a good person he is, and he's a very hard worker. It's good to see him playing so well with his opportunity."
Averett was a 2018 fourth-round pick out of Alabama, where he was teammates with Marlon Humphrey. But while Humphrey and other Ravens 2018 draft picks such as Lamar Jackson, Orlando Brown Jr. and Mark Andrews have become stars, Averett has had to wait for his time to shine in the Ravens' loaded secondary.
He got some defensive playing time last year, including three starts, and was off to a fast start in his limited reps this season until he suffered a slight fracture in his shoulder/collarbone in Philadelphia on Oct. 18. That knocked him out for five games.
"Being out for almost two months, it was definitely tough – just mentally," Averett said. "But I keep my head in the books. And the team, they needed me to step up and start and play this game. You never know how the chips fall, so I was ready, and I feel like I showed I improved these past two games."
It remains to be seen whether Peters and/or Smith will return to action for the regular-season finale, but the Ravens know they can rely on Averett against a talented Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver corps if not.
"We trust him, and we put him out there on an island sometimes, and he comes up big for us," outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. "That's what every level has to do on our defense for us to be a great defense; our D-line has to play well, our linebackers have to communicate, and our defensive backs, they've got to cover. And when he's out there, he's covering people."
Judon is right about the Ravens' defense becoming stronger at every level. At linebacker, the Ravens have been thrilled with the development of first-round rookie Patrick Queen, but Chris Board has been another up-and-comer who has become an important part of the mix.
Board registered two sacks against the Giants. He only had a ½ sack previously in his entire career. He played 36 percent of the defensive snaps.
In his third season, Board has become recognized as one of the league's top special teams players. While he takes pride in that, it's gratifying for the former undrafted North Dakota State product to contribute on defense too.
"I'm just trying to go out and do whatever I can to help us win. Whatever is asked of me, I just go out and do it to the best of my ability. It feels really good though," Board said.
After the game, Harbaugh said Board has played "excellent football" and is becoming a regular in the inside linebacker rotation with L.J. Fort and rookie Malik Harrison.
"He's becoming a really good inside linebacker," Harbaugh said of Board. "Very rarely do you see the guys who excel on special teams the first couple of years and grow into that not become really good defensive players. … He's making tackles. He's covering well. I think he's really making a name for himself."
The Ravens' rookie class has been excellent this season, and one of the latest to emerge is Madubuike. The third-round pick from Texas A&M got a late start because of a leg injury suffered in training camp, which sidelined him for the first four games. He missed more action because of COVID-19.
But Madubuike has played the last three weeks, including some important reps with Calais Campbell sidelined. He has flashed his quickness, power and relentless motor, and against the Giants, he got his first career sack.
As the Ravens look to keep their veterans on the defensive line fresh, the rookie can be a difference-maker behind them.
"Justin Madubuike had another really good game; he keeps getting better every single week," Harbaugh said.