Brendon Ayanbadejo admitted the obvious several weeks ago.
It took Ravens coach John Harbaugh a while to catch up to admitting it, too. Sort of.
The defense, which had given up the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in the last six games of the regular season (299), is better going into Saturday’s playoff at the Denver Broncos not only because of improved health but not having to make key players pull double-duty on special teams.
“We’ve probably played more guys -- I don’t have the stats on this -- but it’s hard for me to imagine a team who’s played more players than we have this year, extensively,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens lost linebackers Ray Lewis for 10 games, Terrell Suggs for seven, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe for three. Sprinkled in between were a host of other injuries to defensive linemen and secondary players such as Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Chris Johnson.
That forced practice squad players such as Josh Bynes and Omar Brown into action, but also added to the workload on special teams.
“Other teams are putting fresh guys on special teams while we’re putting guys out there who just finished playing a series and they’re not always quite as fresh,” Ayanbadejo said at the time. “You want to say it doesn't matter, but it matters.”
Bynes, for example, went from playing a total of nine defensive snaps in two games against the Pittsburgh Steelers to playing all 77 less than a month later against the Broncos.
Ayanbadejo played 47 snaps in the same game on defense, and 26 of 36 snaps on special teams. He usually plays about 20-25 defensive snaps.
The coverage has been exceptional for most of the season, including in Sunday’s 24-9 wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts when the Ravens allowed a total of 0 return yardage on punts and kickoffs. Jacoby Jones came close to breaking a few big plays as well, and that gave quarterback Joe Flacco a shorter field.
When the Ravens fell into a three-game losing streak in December and struggled to the finish line, they allowed a 64-yard punt return in overtime that cost them a win at the Washington Redskins.
Lewis, Suggs and Ellerbe didn’t play in that game and McClain went down with a season-ending neck injury.
Ayanbadejo, Bynes and Upshaw, all key special-teamers, played 40 or significantly more defensive snaps and a double digit of plays on special teams.
Near optimum health, the overall performance of the special teams should be better.