Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wants to build momentum. He wants to give his players game experience. But Harbaugh also wants his team rested and healthy for the NFL playoffs.
With those goals in mind, he has to weigh the costs and benefits of playing, deactivating and limiting the snaps of the Ravens’ key players heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale. While he wants to beat the team’s biggest rival, the result of the game ultimately has no effect on the team’s playoff picture, since the Ravens clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC by beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Their postseason opener will come in the divisional round.
The NFL added another variable into the equation with its decision to have the teams play Saturday in Baltimore. The Ravens are following one short week (a Monday game to a Sunday game) with another (a Sunday game to a Saturday game).
“It’s not like the preseason, where you have a bunch of guys,” Harbaugh said Monday, referring to the 90-man rosters that teams have before the regular season. “You have six [game-day inactive] spots to work with, and there’s going to be probably somewhere in that range with different guys who have injuries. ... That pretty much dictates for you what you’re going to do.”
The Ravens have four players — right guard Kevin Zeitler (knee/quadriceps), cornerbacks Brandon Stephens (ankle) and Marlon Humphrey (calf), and safety Kyle Hamilton (knee) — who might be inactive because of injuries. They also have players who have been dealing with nagging injuries, others who have carried a heavy load this season and a few who are too important to expose to the risk of injury.
The last time the Ravens were in this situation — their 2019 finale against the Steelers — they sat three injured players: tight end Mark Andrews (ankle), running back Mark Ingram II (calf) and safety Earl Thomas III (knee/hand). They also deactivated quarterback Lamar Jackson, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, right guard Marshal Yanda and defensive tackle Brandon Williams.
Then, after a week off in the wild-card round, the Ravens lost their playoff opener to the Tennessee Titans. Harbaugh said he’s thought a lot about the decisions they made in 2019, especially having Jackson sit out. He plans to talk with Jackson ahead of Saturday, but he has not made any roster decisions yet.
“We have to work through the injury part of it first,” Harbaugh said Monday. “That’ll take us probably 24, 48 hours to get a real handle on that, and then we’ll make those decisions on that. We’re not going to keep it a secret. We’ll let you know what we’re going to do once we start practicing.”
As we wait for the Ravens to decide on a plan, here’s how their starting lineups and rotations could look Saturday.
Projected inactives: QB Lamar Jackson, LT Ronnie Stanley, RG Kevin Zeitler
Jackson is the fulcrum of the offense, the person who keeps the entire engine running. Without him, the Ravens’ Super Bowl odds drop significantly. It’s not worth risking him. Besides, he’s carried a heavy workload and deserves a rest, which he also got in the 2019 finale.
Stanley has dealt with nagging injuries to his knee and ankle. He’s a veteran who has proven he can sit a practice or a game and slide back in without much drop-off. He’s a technician who has spoken of wanting to get stronger, so rest and time to work on his body could help him improve his ability to anchor in pass protection, which he’s struggled with.
Zeitler, meanwhile, is dealing with lower-body injuries that limited him in practice last week and sidelined him Sunday, and there’s no reason to rush him back.
QB: Tyler Huntley
RB: Justice Hill
WR: Rashod Bateman, Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr.
TE: Isaiah Likely
FB: Patrick Ricard
LT: Patrick Mekari
LG: John Simpson
C: Tyler Linderbaum
RG: Ben Cleveland
RT: Morgan Moses
Starters who could play limited roles: WR Zay Flowers, WR Odell Beckham Jr., RB Gus Edwards, RT Morgan Moses
While Flowers has put together back-to-back impressive performances, he’s done so while dealing with injuries. He missed practice time because of a foot injury two weeks ago before missing more time with a calf injury last week. While it’s beneficial for the rookie to continue building his game, Flowers also could use some time to rest.
Beckham has taken rest days at practice throughout the season, and while he will probably be active, he might not play much. He’s also a veteran who knows how to step up in the playoffs and how to manage things like bye weeks. Edwards also deserves a lighter role after being a workhorse on the ground for the Ravens all season.
Moses has been dealing with a shoulder injury for weeks. The Ravens have already started a rotation to keep his snap count down, and they’ll most likely continue that. Playing in the trenches is a grind on the body, and reliable offensive linemen are important in allowing Jackson to work his magic.
Contributors who could take on greater roles: WR Rashod Bateman, RB Justice Hill, G Ben Cleveland, OT Daniel Faalele
Bateman is coming off a fantastic game, one he’s been working toward all season. This is the time to build off that momentum and get him going heading into the playoffs. Even though he wouldn’t be building chemistry with Jackson if he sits, more confidence would work wonders for him.
Hill is in a similar situation. He’s been used as a third-down back often in recent weeks, but if Edwards’ snaps are reduced, Hill could step into the biggest role he’s played in the offense in a while.
Cleveland impressed when he stepped in Sunday for Zeitler. Harbaugh spoke Monday about how he had “stacked” a season’s worth of practices and put everything he learned into action against Miami. He can continue to show off his improvement while gaining experience heading into the playoffs. The same goes for Faalele, who could see significant action at right tackle if Moses’ day ends early.
Projected inactives: CB Marlon Humphrey, CB Brandon Stephens, S Kyle Hamilton
Harbaugh hasn’t said much about the severity of Humphrey and Stephens’ injuries, but he indicated Monday that he’s not concerned about their playoff availability. And why push them to come back before they’re ready? Humphrey has been dealing with injuries since before the season started. Stephens has also carried a huge load for the Ravens this year and could use a rest.
Even if Hamilton is feeling well, there’s no real reason to risk reinjury again. He might be a second-year player, but he’s intelligent and levelheaded and will probably handle time off the right way. Hamilton can use an extra game off to strengthen his banged-up knee.
DL: Michael Pierce, Justin Madubuike, Brent Urban
OLB: Jadeveon Clowney, Odafe Oweh, Kyle Van Noy
ILB: Roquan Smith, Patrick Queen
CB: Ronald Darby, Rock Ya-Sin, Arthur Maulet (slot)
S: Marcus Williams, Geno Stone
Starters who could play limited roles: DL Michael Pierce, DL Justin Madubuike, OLB Kyle Van Noy, OLB Jadeveon Clowney, ILB Roquan Smith, ILB Patrick Queen, S Marcus Williams
It’s evident that Smith and Queen, despite playing extremely well recently, are dealing with something more than your typical end-of-season bumps and bruises. Both have been good, but neither has played with quite the same violence they brought at the start of the season. Queen, in particular, has left the field clutching his shoulder area several times the past few games. If he and Smith see the field Saturday, it should be in a reduced capacity, because their on-field presence is important to everything this defense runs. They are similar to Jackson in that sense.
Williams, likewise, has been off his game ever since his pectoral injury. His recent groin injury hasn’t held him back, but it’s also something that can be tweaked easily. A limited role Saturday couldn’t hurt.
At outside linebacker, Van Noy and Clowney have been relentless this season, but they’re both aging veterans playing a physical position. A lighter workload might serve them well in the long run.
Up front, Madubuike and Pierce have dealt with minor head and neck injuries recently while playing a grueling role. A more balanced rotation Saturday could benefit both, keeping them fresh for the postseason.
Contributors who could take on greater roles: DL Broderick Washington, DL Travis Jones, OLB Tavius Robinson, ILB Trenton Simpson, LB Malik Harrison, CB Ronald Darby, CB Rock Ya-Sin, CB Arthur Maulet, S Geno Stone, S Daryl Worley
If Smith doesn’t play much in the game, someone will need to take on the responsibility of wearing the green dot and relaying defensive play calls. Stone is an intelligent player who has been given the responsibility in the past. This whole season has been about him seizing opportunities, and Saturday could be yet another chance for him to prove to the Ravens why he’s worth re-signing.
Simpson, who recovered a fumble Sunday, and Harrison, who’s played primarily as an outside linebacker this season, could step in for Smith and Queen in the middle. Del’Shawn Phillips, another valuable special teams contributor, impressed at inside linebacker in the preseason.
Robinson, a rookie like Simpson, has drawn praise from veteran teammates for his hard work this season. He could step up at outside linebacker in their absence Saturday.
Jones has flashed his star potential as a nose tackle this season and could be in for a busy day. Washington, who’s struggled to make an impact up front, seemed to take the Ravens’ home loss last season to Pittsburgh personally. A rematch against a physical Steelers front could get him back on track.
With the Ravens’ top nickel back and outside cornerbacks sidelined Sunday, their backups had to step up against dynamic Miami wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Darby, Ya-Sin and Maulet all answered the call. The Steelers will test them again, giving the second-string secondary more opportunities to hone its game if it’s called upon in the playoffs. Safety Worley could also play a prominent role.
Baltimore Banner reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.