Three thoughts following Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start

The Baltimore Ravens picked up one of their biggest wins of the season on Sunday by taking down the Cincinnati Bengals 24-21. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and kept the Ravens’ playoff hopes alive as they prepare to enter the final stretch of the season.

Here are three key takeaways from the Ravens fifth win of the year: 

1 Jackson runs wild in first NFL start

You know I had to start with Lamar Jackson. After two weeks of quarterback uncertainty, the Ravens’ first-round rookie was given the opportunity to start his first NFL game. The circumstances were not ideal with Joe Flacco suffering a hip injury, but Jackson made the most of his first real opportunity by leading the offense to a 24-point afternoon and a victory.

Jackson has been involved in the Ravens’ offense throughout the season as a secret weapon of sorts but very rarely has he come through with a big play. That changed on Sunday as Jackson consistently fooled the Bengals defense with the read option. Marty Mornhinweg played to his young quarterback’s strengths and let him carry the ball 27 times. The result was a 117-yard afternoon on the ground for Jackson. Even with a handful of mobile quarterbacks finding a home in the NFL in recent years, none of them have carried the ball this many times in a game.

The former Louisville Cardinal added 150 yards through the air to cap off a solid debut. It would have been an even better afternoon for the rookie had he not thrown an ugly interception at the beginning of the second half but he still rebounded and led the offense to a comeback win.

One of the biggest differences I saw with Jackson under center was the length of drives. It’s no secret that if you run the ball well, you are going to eat up a lot of clock. The Ravens offense ended up running the ball over 50 times this week so it’s no surprise that they won the time of possession battle pretty easily. However, this should not be brushed off as an meaningless stat. By holding the ball for 38 minutes, the Ravens took the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands and gave the Bengals offense fewer opportunities to go on the attack.

Jackson’s future as a starter this season is still up in the air, but if he does get the chance to start in big games against Kansas City the Los Angeles Chargers, an overwhelming run attack could be the key. It’s hard enough to play defense in today’s NFL so you have to do whatever you can to keep the ball away from guys like Patrick Mahomes and Phillip Rivers.

2. All aboard the Gus bus

The Ravens went into Sunday’s matchup with four active running backs as Ty Montgomery made his debut in purple and black. To the surprise of many fans, Gus Edwards emerged from this group as the leading rusher. The undrafted rookie made his debut off the practice squad earlier this season but made a name for himself this week with 115 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries to help lead the Ravens’ offense.

Marty Mornhinweg has had trouble getting the run game going all year but you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching Sunday’s game. Edwards’ 100+ yard afternoon was accompanied by 117 yards from Jackson, marking the first time since 2012 (Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce) that the Ravens have had two 100-yard rushers in one game.

While Edwards is certainly an unlikely hero, his success alongside Jackson is not a big surprise. While playing for Rutgers as a graduate transfer in 2017, Edwards was utilized heavily in a read option offense similar to the one being used here with Jackson. With that in mind, it makes sense why John Harbaugh and Mornhinweg would give him the majority of snaps.

Both Buck Allen and Montgomery are better utilized in the pass attack, making Alex Collins the only other running back on the depth chart that can carry the ball on a consistent basis. However, Collins’ fumbling troubles make him a liability in the read option where the quarterback and running back have to decide who will carry the ball in a matter of seconds.

3. Defense exorcises their Dalton demons

With all the focus on Jackson and his exciting debut as a starter, the Ravens defense will get lost in the media storm. You would bee a fool to ignore this defensive performance considering it was one of the best for the Ravens all season. With the Bengals’ offense seeking revenge after getting embarrassed at home by the New Orleans Saints, this looked like it could be a rough afternoon for the Ravens who have been slipping on defense in recent games. 

However, the Ravens defense was stout all afternoon and managed to hold a Bengals offense that has given them a lot of trouble to just 255 yards. Wink Martindale’s crew has allowed fewer yards in just two other games this season (Buffalo & Tennessee). In addition to this, the pass rush saw a return to form in Sunday’s win. Only two sacks were recorded but Dalton was rushed into a handful of bad throws after getting heavily pressured.

Overall, it was a rough afternoon for the Bengals quarterback as he completed just 19 of his 36 pass attempts. The absence of A.J. Green certainly had an impact but Dalton failed to deliver the ball to his other receivers on a consistent basis. The Ravens secondary and middle linebackers had good coverage all afternoon and got their hands on a few of Dalton’s off-target throws.

The biggest defensive play came on the final drive of the game when Marlon Humphrey broke up what would have been a huge fourth down conversion for the Bengals. Up until this play, things were feeling eerily similar to the heartbreaking loss in week 17 last year, but Humphrey and the rest of Martindale’s crew avenged that painful loss with a game-winning defensive stand.

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Image credit: Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun

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Three things to watch for as the Ravens return from their bye week to welcome the Bengals

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens will return from their bye week at 4-5 and slotted into the ninth seed in the AFC playoff picture when they welcome the 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals to Baltimore on Sunday at 1:00pm at M&T Bank Stadium.

The bye week is typically a time when teams are able to get healthy, step away from football, and reset their minds for the push for the playoffs. Ideally bye weeks are uneventful but that was not the case for the Ravens.

Last Friday, CBS‘s Jason La Canfora fired off a tweet that launched a cloud of doubt over the Ravens quarterback situation:

That wasn’t it for La Canfora as he reported on Sunday that the Ravens and Head Coach John Harbaugh were heading for a “mutual parting of ways” at season’s end.

The first of these bye week stories for the Ravens has continued to play out this week as the Ravens still have not committed to who will be under center this Sunday against the Bengals. The second of these stories is something that we have expected could be possible for this Ravens team if they once again fail to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

These aren’t ideal ways for the team to be spending their bye week. The Ravens need to be focused on Sunday as they are playing for their season. A loss would put the Ravens at 4-6 and drop their playoff probability to 7.6% per ESPN. A win puts the Ravens’ playoff chances at 43%.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s divisional clash with the Bengals.

1) Who is under center for the Ravens?

It was the biggest story in Baltimore during the bye week and rightfully so. Many fans are ready to hand the keys to the Ravens offense over to the rookie sensation in first round pick Lamar Jackson. They have grown tired of Joe Flacco’s lack of production and are ready to see what Jackson can do. Jackson, however, missed practice on Thursday due to a stomach ailment. We will see if that impacts his chances to start on Sunday.

Others feel that Robert Griffin III gives the Ravens the best chance to win if Flacco is unable to play on Sunday. He has far more experience than Jackson but he has not played in a regular season NFL game since Jan. 1, 2017 when he was under center for the Cleveland Browns’ season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The long and short of it is this. I do not expect Flacco to play this Sunday against the Bengals. Flacco has been brutal against the Bengals lifetime and I believe that the Ravens are looking to go a different way at quarterback this week. We likely won’t know for sure which quarterback is going to play until the injury reports come out Friday and the inactives come out on Sunday.

It shouldn’t matter who is under center this Sunday. The Bengals’ defense set a modern day NFL record by allowing over 500 yards in three straight games. In that stretch they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints but 500 yards is 500 yards. The week prior against the Steelers, they surrendered 481 total yards.

The Bengals are last in total defense and pass defense. They are 31st in rush defense and points-per-game allowed. The league average is 361.58. The Bengals are giving up 454.6. Marvin Lewis has taken over the play-calling after defensive coordinator Terryl Austin was fired this week.

Who will be under center for the Ravens this Sunday? It shouldn’t matter. The offense should be able to be productive regardless of which quarterback starts. With that being said my guess is Jackson will get his first NFL start.

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The Ravens will go as far as Wink Martindale’s defense will take them this season. Image Credit: Russell Street Report

2) Can the defense regain their form?

Numbers are a funny thing. They can be used to support your point or dispel others. It has often been said that numbers never lie.

The Ravens’ defense is tied for second in total defense, allowing 305 yards-per-game. They allow just 17.8 points-per -game, ranking them second in the NFL.

Furthermore, the Ravens are fourth in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 35.2% of their third down opportunities on the season. They are tied for seventh with 28 sacks on the season as well. So why does a defense who ranks top ten in all of these major categories need to regain their form?

It is because these numbers lie. The Ravens’ defense has been marginal at best during the team’s three-game losing streak. Gone are the days of 11-sack games like the one the Ravens had in Tennessee. Over the past three games the Ravens have just two sacks. Opponents are converting 52.4% of their third down opportunities. They are giving up an average of 375 yards-per-game, slightly above the league average.

In other words, while the overall season numbers say otherwise, the Ravens’ defense has become middle of the pack. I said it on the podcast this week and will continue to beat this drum for the rest of the year. The Ravens will go as far as their defense is capable of taking them. They are still the more talented and capable unit in comparison with the offense.

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Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs are among several starters who don’t project to be back next season for the Ravens. Image Credit: Baltimore Feather

The Ravens defense is facing clouds of uncertainty this coming offseason. Veterans like Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs could be looking at retirement or being cap casualties. Linebacker C.J. Mosley will be looking to be compensated as a top five middle linebacker despite rarely looking the part. Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith could also be cut this offseason in moves to help the Ravens save cap space. Za’Darius Smith is in a contract year and could be on his way out of town as well.

With six starters status in flux for next season, now is the time for this defense to rally the troops and put together a dominant month and a half of football to lead this Ravens team to the playoffs.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis and the Bengals have had the upper hand on John Harbaugh and the Ravens as of late. Image Credit: USA Today

3) Can the Ravens get the Cincinnati monkey off their backs?

Remember when everyone used to refer to the football team that plays in Cincinnati as the Bungles? From 1991-2004 the Bengals had 0 winning seasons. They were one of the laughing stocks of the NFL and a team that didn’t merit much consideration when talking about potential playoff teams.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Bengals have been to the playoffs five of the last seven years. Depite not winning a game in the playoffs the Bengals have been able to find the postseason more often than the Ravens in recent times. Cincinnati currently occupies the final playoff spot in the AFC this season to date as well.

The Bengals have owned the Ravens over the last ten matchups, boasting a record 8-2. The only two victories for the Ravens came in the season opener in 2017 when the Ravens blanked the Bengals 20-0 and in the first meeting in 2016 when the Ravens won 19-14. The Ravens had won five of six in the series prior to the Bengals’ recent run of dominance.

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A.J. Green projects to miss Sunday’s matchup and that will prove large. Image Credit: USA Today

One thing that bodes well for the Ravens Sunday is that Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and noted Raven killer A.J. Green figures to miss Sunday’s contest with a toe injury. Green dominated the team’s week two 34-23 Bengals win, tallying five catches for 69 yards and three first half touchdowns.

Joe Mixon is a threat at running back for Cincinnati and we all remember what Tyler Boyd did to the Ravens last season as he snatched their playoff hopes right out of their hands with a 49-yard fourth-and-12 touchdown catch with :44 seconds left at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2017 season finale.

The Ravens desperately need to exorcise their Cincy demons this Sunday and get their playoff chances back on track.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell– Bengals 27 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw– Bengals 28 Ravens 19

Jay Stavros– Ravens 20 Bengals 17

Ian Schultz– Ravens 23 Bengals 13

The Ravens need to win this game. John Harbaugh needs to win this game. Whether the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh at the end of the season or not is irrelevant. This team believes they can still make one final run to the playoffs. It starts Sunday against the Bengals when Harbaugh improves to 9-2 out of the bye and the Ravens right the ship.

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Image Credit: USA Today

Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson, or RGIII: What should the Ravens do?

OWINGS MILLS — Three days before the Baltimore Ravens come out of their bye against the 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals, we still don’t know who will be starting at quarterback come Sunday.

Joe Flacco hurt his hip on the first drive of the Ravens’ 23-16 loss to the Steelers 11 days ago. He has yet to practice this week and was spotted on crutches over the weekend, but according to Kyle Andrews of 105.7 The Fan, Flacco was seen in the locker room on Thursday without crutches.

As expected, Flacco’s absence from the practice field has stirred up rumors about Lamar Jackson, the 32nd overall pick of the 2018 draft, starting his first NFL game on Sunday. Jackson has just 12 pass attempts so far on the year.

So far this season, the Ravens have carried Robert Griffin III on the 53-man roster as an insurance policy in the event that Flacco went down with an injury. Jackson struggled with his accuracy throughout training camp. He’s needed some time to develop as a pocket passer. Jackson has reportedly improved since the summer, but the coaches may still feel some reluctancy to throw Jackson into the fire.

Adding to this week’s drama, Jackson missed Thursday’s practice with a stomach issue. Flacco missed practice too, meaning that Griffin was the only Ravens quarterback on the field Thursday.

The good news is Jackson’s not injured. The bad news is that with Flacco’s status for Sunday up in the air, Jackson can’t afford to be missing practice time with the first team. You can’t attach a timetable to a stomach problem, but one would expect the issue to be resolved by Sunday. But will Jackson be fatigued? Will he be a few steps slow?

Does any of this even matter if Flacco feels good enough to play on Sunday? Not to mention that Flacco hasn’t practiced in over a week. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady can miss a week of practice without it hurting their play. But could Flacco do the same? Considering how poorly Flacco has played over the last nine quarters, it’s fair to be skeptical.

With Flacco’s hip preventing the 11th-year quarterback’s ability to practice, and additionally given Jackson’s stomach problem, who should start at quarterback for the Ravens on Sunday?


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Image Credit: Ravens Wire

Option 1: Roll with Joe

If Flacco starts on Sunday, he starts because he’s healthy enough to play. Pretty simple. If his hip is hindering him from moving around at all in the pocket, it’s smart to sit him. Flacco already doesn’t have the best mobility in the pocket, and he’s played poorly in previous instances when he’s competed with an injury.

With the Ravens being a game below .500 in a ‘playoffs or else’ season, John Harbaugh and company will roll with Joe if he is able to play on Sunday. It’s already rumored that Jackson is not developing as quickly as the coaching staff would like him to, so Harbaugh probably feels that Flacco still gives the Ravens their best chance to win.

Even though Flacco has historically struggled against Cincinnati, the plan has been for Flacco to start until the Ravens are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. And if he’s capable of playing on Sunday, he will get the chance to lift the Ravens back to .500 and lead the Ravens back to the postseason for the first time since 2014.


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Image Credit: Baltimore Sun 

Option 2: Lamar Jackson starts his first NFL game

For Jackson to start on Sunday, two things need to happen: Flacco’s hip injury is severe enough to keep him out of Sunday’s game, and Jackson fully recovers from the stomach issue that kept him out of Thursday’s practice. If Flacco in inactive and Jackson starts, the Ravens activate RGIII to serve as Lamar’s backup.

Even if the coaching staff isn’t convinced that Jackson is ready to start, the Ravens drafted him in the first round for a reason and they need to see what they have in their investment. It’s very likely that Flacco will be a cap casualty in the upcoming offseason, and if there’s a chance to get Jackson some live reps, the Ravens need to take it.

If Jackson starts on Sunday, the quarterback rumors surrounding the Ravens won’t stop. If anything, they’ll intensify. If Jackson starts and leads the Ravens to a win, Harbaugh (potentially coaching his last stretch of games in Baltimore) will likely go with what wins games. Flacco and the Ravens were on a three-game losing streak before their bye. If Jackson snaps that streak, the Ravens may elect to stick with him.

If Jackson starts and the Ravens lose, then they’re 4-6 and slip even further down the list of teams in the hunt for the #6 seed in the AFC. At that point, sticking with Jackson makes the most sense anyway. It also depends on how long Flacco’s hip injury keeps him out of games. Even at 4-6 the Ravens still wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so starting Flacco could remain in the cards.


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Image Credit: Sporting News 

Option 3: RGIII makes his first NFL start since 2016 

This is the last resort for the Ravens. If Flacco can’t play through his injury and Jackson’s still under the weather, the Ravens have no choice but to start RGIII. RGIII played well in the preseason and has done everything the Ravens have asked him to do, but he hasn’t started a game since Jan. 1, 2017 as a member of the Cleveland Browns.

In five 2016 starts, Griffin threw two touchdowns and three interceptions with a rating of 72.5. Since his 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, he’s left a lot to be desired on the field with his play.

There could also be a situation where Jackson suits up but does not start, under either Flacco or Griffin. If Jackson is not 100% and Flacco or Griffin starts, they could continue to use Jackson in certain packages as they’ve done all season. It’s even possible that with two nicked up quarterbacks, all three men dress up against the Bengals. The Ravens have not listed three active quarterbacks yet this season, but given the circumstances it could happen on Sunday.


As of now, it’s impossible to tell who’s going to be starting at quarterback for the Ravens on Sunday. But, there are a number of different circumstances that could emerge, and there are reasons for starting each guy. The injury report comes out tomorrow, which could narrow the options down. Ravens fans (and even the Bengals) may not know who starts for the Ravens until hours before kickoff, but whatever the Ravens decide could alter the franchise’s plans at quarterback for years to come.

Featured Image Credit: Baltimore Ravens