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Depth stars: which Ravens and Broncos units can step with injuries taking their toll?

Both teams will need to prove that the bottom of their roster is just as strong as the top

Baltimore Ravens v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens (2-1) travel to take on the Denver Broncos (3-0) at Mile High Stadium in Denver in a Week 4 showdown between two teams fighting to establish themselves early in the season. The Broncos are riding high after outclassing three teams that have struggled out of the gates, while the Ravens have played back-to-back-to-back thrilling finishes, two of which coming on the road.

Injuries have piled up for both teams. Denver is expected to be without several key contributors:

  1. Bradley Chubb
  2. Jerry Jeudy
  3. K.J. Hamler
  4. Graham Glasgow
  5. Josie Jewell
  6. Ronald Darby

They could also be without starting left guard Dalton Risner, who only practiced on Friday and is listed as questionable.

Baltimore’s secondary vs. Denver’s receivers

Offensively, Denver is without their top two slot options in Hamler and Jeudy, who both present lethal ability after the catch when healthy. Jeudy forced 13 missed and broken tackles after the catch in 2020, leading Denver by four (tight end Noah Fant had nine). Jeudy forced a missed or broken tackle on 25% of his receptions in 2020, which also led the team. Hamler didn’t see nearly as many targets, but was behind Jeudy at 20%, forcing six on only 30 receptions. The Broncos still have tight end Noah Fant, who works out of the slot and in line as a tight end, as well as tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Kendall Hinton, most well known for playing a game as a wildcat-style quarterback due injuries in Denver’s quarterback room in 2020 against the New Orleans Saints, has been elevated and will likely take slot snaps when the Broncos utilize 12 personnel, which should be in heavy dosage. Depending on Gordon’s capacity for work, the Broncos could also deploy two back packages, utilizing running back Javonte Williams as well as Gordon in both the run and pass game, which the Detroit Lions deployed against Baltimore in Week 3.

The good news for Denver? The Ravens secondary could be without starting cornerback Anthony Averett and starting safety DeShon Elliott in addition to already losing cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Chris Westry. The Ravens got back longtime cornerback Jimmy Smith, who had an ankle injury that held him out of the first two games, just in the nick of time, otherwise, they’d be left with just Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young as the only cornerbacks with any game experience.

Ravens rookie third-round draft pick Brandon Stephens, who has played 25 snaps at safety and 29 snaps in the slot, will likely be called on for his man coverage skills in a cornerback role. Stephens will be best suited to cover tight ends and backs, as he’s a bigger, more physical coverage defender (6-foot-1, 219-pounds at his pro day in March). If Elliott is unable to go, that would then mean Stephens and safety Geno Stone will probably see the highest snap counts of their early careers, as both would play in passing situations when the Ravens use dime defensive packages.

If Averett is ruled out, the Ravens defense will need to rely on the likes of Stephens, Stone, Smith and Young to play considerable snaps and prove their salt. This group will need to stifle the Broncos’ receivers who will be called upon similarly to step up in times of injury. Hinton, recent signing wide receiver David Moore and special teams ace Diontae Spencer have caught two combined passes so far in 2021, but will be vying for reps when Broncos Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur calls 11 personnel. Neither group can afford another injury to a starter, as Tim Patrick, Courtland Sutton, Humphrey, Smith and Young missing time in this matchup would be devastating to their respective team’s ability to stay balanced. Patrick and Sutton have been workhorses for Denver so far, running 83 and 90 routes respectively out of a possible 108 passing plays thus far. Factoring in tight end Noah Fant running 72 routes before Hamler’s injury, and their usage will likely increase, especially this week while they integrate their depth receivers into their roles over the next few weeks.

Denver’s total injuries are more recent, which will force them to adjust on the fly. Meanwhile, Baltimore has been without Peters, Dobbins, Edwards, Boyle, Bateman, Boykin, Wolfe, and Fort in the first three games they’ve played. Baltimore has also been missing offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Tyre Phillips since their Week 1 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders. Baltimore has adjusted, utilizing players like Eric Tomlinson, Ty’Son Williams, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington, Patrick Mekari, Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland, Averett and Chris Board, who have taken significant snaps in lieu of injured starters. They’ve had time to adjust and find concepts that work, while figuring out the limitations of the players that have been thrusted into prominent roles.

Baltimore’s defensive front vs. Denver’s offensive line

Baltimore was also without Brandon Williams, Justin Houston, Justin Madubuike and Jaylon Ferguson in Week 3 due to COVID-19 protocols. They were able to squeak out a win on the road in Detroit with only four defensive lineman and three outside linebackers on the active roster for game day. With Williams, Houston and Madubuike rested, Baltimore will need them to provide quality play on Sunday against Denvers beat up offensive line. Calais Campbell played in 74% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps Sunday, quite a workload for a 35-year-old defensive lineman. Through three weeks, Campbell has played 136 of 200 possible snaps, tied for the 18th most among defensive lineman through three weeks. With Wolfe still sidelined Sunday, the Ravens will need Campbell in heavy dosage yet again.

With Dalton Risner’s status in question and Netane Muti slated to start at right guard with only 101 career snaps to his name, Baltimore’s defensive front should be near full strength. If they can’t take advantage of a beaten up and inexperienced unit (Denver’s center Lloyd Cushenberry is entering his second year) then their defense will falter. Teddy Bridgewater has been sacked on 6.5% of his drop backs so far this season, the 10th highest rate in the NFL. If Baltimore can generate unblocked pressures using stunts and delayed blitzes, Bridgewater will be in for a long day.

Baltimore’s offensive line vs. Denver’s defensive front.

Baltimore will need Patrick Mekari, who has stepped in admirably at right tackle after Alejandro Villanueva slid over to left tackle to buy Ronnie Stanley time to rehab a devastating ankle injury, to play his best game to date. That will be a tall task considering he will face Von Miller, perhaps the best edge rusher of his generation. Miller has looked as sharp as ever through three weeks, notching four sacks and 11 pressures through three weeks, per Sports Info Solutions. Miller is without his bookend pass rushing mate Chubb, which propels Malik Reed into a starting role. Reed will likely be given ample one-on-one opportunities against Villanueva on passing downs, as Baltimore will need to concentrate on Miller. Reed notched seven solo sacks in 2020 with two assisted sacks, none of which came unblocked. Reed and Villanueva battling one-on-one will be a key matchup in this game. Reed is a light, lean speed rusher, which doesn’t bode well for Villanueva who plays high and had trouble with Raiders’ Maxx Crosby and Lions’ Julian Okwara on speed rushes already this season.

The other defender that the Broncos will need to step up is second-year linebacker Justin Strnad. Strnad is the Broncos weak-side linebacker now, as Alexander Johnson takes over strong-side responsibilities with Jewell lost for the season due to a pectoral injury sustained in Week 2. Johnson, one of the most well rounded off-ball linebackers in football, will make life easy for Strnad, who has the skillset of a dime linebacker. The former Wake Forest linebacker will be forced to fill run fit against Baltimore’s slew of blocking and option concepts. Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman will likely target Strnad early and often in the run game. The Broncos defense currently ranks in the top 10 in both points saved per run defended and EPA allowed per run defended. While Denver hasn’t faced proficient rushing attacks thus far, Vic Fangio’s defenses have been consistent, tried and true run stuffing units. Fangio and Roman have spent time together, serving as the offensive and defensive coordinators for Jim Harbaugh, also spending time together on Brian Billick’s staff in Baltimore in 2006-2007.

While both teams still have plenty of star power, this is a test of depth and each coaching staff’s ability to fit their schemes to what their back of roster players strengths are. May the deeper team win.