Ravens' quarterback uncertainty leaves Falcons with guesswork
The cloud of uncertainty surrounding the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback decision isn't exactly helping the Atlanta Falcons, either.
Atlanta doesn't know whether to prepare for veteran Joe Flacco, a more traditional NFL quarterback, or rookie Lamar Jackson, who brings the threat of a scramble into the mix for when the teams meet on Sunday.
Flacco has missed the last two games with a hip injury and Jackson has led the team to back-to-back wins. But Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh got a little testy about it last week when someone suggested it made more sense to go with the hot hand.
Flacco did not practice Wednesday, opening the door for Jackson to make his third straight start.
Unless Flacco is fully cleared, Jackson will likely be the starter when Baltimore visits Atlanta on Sunday.
Harbaugh has not officially ruled Flacco out Week 13 against the Falcons.
"There's a process involved," Harbaugh said. "It has to do with the doctors and the trainers and his rehab. He's progressing very well. He's doing well and there will be another step today, and tomorrow and the day after that. And we'll see where we're at."
Regardless of who plays, it is another critical game for Baltimore (6-5) to hold onto that sixth and final wild-card spot in the AFC.
"It's a challenge," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "When you don't know which one you're going to face -- and you'll hear me say the offense is not too different -- you can take that out this week."
Jackson, who won a Heisman Trophy at Louisville, has a good arm, but is just as comfortable taking off with the ball.
"He's got such quickness and speed, like a wide receiver or a corner has, but he's behind center," Quinn said. "You can simulate that with a receiver for the run plays, but it's not as authentic because he can't step back and rip the passes."
Jackson rushed for 190 yards over the last two weeks and had 119 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"It's definitely different int terms of the way they can utilize quarterback runs," Quinn said. "We have some experience going against that in the division with a mobile quarterback (Cam Newton) who has designed runs."
Quinn said the uncertainty requires additional time and preparation for the staff and the players.
"It does, because you have to have calls that you feel good with both -- for whoever is playing," he said. "That obviously makes up for the strong majority of your game plan, but you have to have some calls that are specific to somebody that is as athletic as Lamar. That's what makes it a little challenging and different."
Fellow Ravens rookie Gus Edwards has also emerged as a playmaker and has run for more than 100 yards over the last two games. Baltimore has averaged 5.3 yards per carry over that stretch.
Edwards said the offensive linemen love the way the Ravens have been able to pound the ball.
"They get pumped out there when we're running and getting positive yards," Edwards said. "They're jumping around, looking at the sideline, hoping we continue going. They love it."
The Ravens' running attack will be crucial to this game. In the last two games since the bye, Baltimore has risen from 27th in rushing to 11th in the league.
Overall, that Ravens' resurgent running attack has helped the defense. Over the past two games, the Ravens have run for more than 200 yards and dominated time of possession. This kept the team's defenders fresh late in the game to make big plays and close out a pair of victories.
Baltimore will look to keep the Falcons, who are ranked seventh in the NFL with an average of 400 yards per game, off the field as much as possible. Baltimore has the league's No. 1 overall defense but it will face a bigger challenge this week than the last two opponents -- the Bengals and Raiders.
Baltimore remains in playoff contention, but has little room for error. The Ravens trail Pittsburgh by two games in the AFC North and have little wiggle room if they hope to contend for a wild card.
The Falcons (4-7) have lost three straight games since a three-game winning streak evened their record and restored their playoff hopes. Now any thoughts of the playoffs are virtually evaporated.
They will find it difficult to run the ball against the Baltimore defense, which ranks first against the rush in the NFL. Moving the ball on the ground has been a challenge the last few weeks and was impossible against the Saints a week ago.
With the run game nearly invisible, the onus falls on quarterback Matt Ryan to move the sticks. His deep group of receivers (Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper) are all healthy and Ryan continues to target other players on the roster. Expect to see running back Tevin Coleman be on the receiving end, too.
The biggest question mark is the offensive line, which was ineffective in advancing the running game and protecting Ryan a week ago. Quinn made it a focus this week and if it doesn't improve, the Falcons could be in for a long Sunday afternoon.
Updated November 28, 2018