Ahead of Saturday’s regular-season finale against the Steelers, the Ravens are in a good place. And a strange place.

With the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed wrapped up, team officials are mulling how to make the most of their low-stakes Week 18 and bye next weekend. As for the players actually preparing to face Pittsburgh (9-7) inside M&T Bank Stadium, though?

“No, I haven’t thought about it once,” Pro Bowl center Tyler Linderbaum said Thursday. “Steelers got our number last game, and our goal is to go out and win Saturday, so that’s where all our focus is right now.”

Well, not everyone’s focus. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, the front-runner for NFL Most Valuable Player honors, will be inactive, along with several other key players the Ravens (13-3) are resting for the divisional round.

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The burden of avenging a 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh almost three months ago, then, will fall to an unlikely group of Ravens starters. They’ll take on a Steelers team fighting for its playoff life, too. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 18 matchup in Baltimore.

1. With injury and rest considerations thinning the Ravens’ ranks of front-line starters, Saturday’s game could feel a lot like a preseason game. And no one in modern NFL history has been better in the preseason than the Ravens.

Their NFL-record 24-game winning streak ended in August with a last-second 29-28 loss to the Washington Commanders, who played with several key starters against a largely backup-led team in the first half.

If the Ravens proved anything during their run of preseason dominance, it’s that they didn’t need their starting quarterback to give them an edge. Jackson has played in just one game over the past four preseasons, totaling six offensive snaps.

The Ravens have had to make do with backups in August and early September, just as they’ll have to make do with a mix of first-, second- and maybe even third-stringers Saturday. On offense, Tyler Huntley will start in place of Jackson at quarterback, while right guard Kevin Zeitler (knee/quadriceps) and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will sit out. Leading wide receiver Zay Flowers (calf) is doubtful. Other banged-up starters, such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, could have their playing time limited.

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On defense, only one regular starter, cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf), has been ruled out, but cornerback Brandon Stephens (ankle) and safety Kyle Hamilton (knee) could miss a second straight game after a limited week of practice. Reserve safety Daryl Worley (shoulder/ankle) has been ruled out, and three other defensive backs — cornerbacks Ronald Darby (illness) and Arthur Maulet (hip) and safety Ar’Darius Washington (pectoral), who hasn’t played since Week 1 — are questionable. Other starters could play only a fraction of their usual snaps.

Coach John Harbaugh has gushed about his coaches, from his coordinators to his assistants, throughout the season. Saturday’s game, full of moving pieces and countervailing interests, could be the staff’s toughest test yet.

“I think we have a great coaching staff,” Harbaugh said last week. “I’ve said that many times. I’m really proud of the guys. I love the way they work, the way they work together. They’re all very, very good coaches. Very smart, very dedicated coaches. … I can name so many guys that I think are worthy of respect — really, every single coach.”

2. In Jackson’s four games against Pittsburgh since becoming a full-time starter, he’s taken 20 sacks — or about one every nine drop-backs — and been pressured on 40% of his drop-backs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The Steelers’ fearsome pass rush has played a role. So has the Ravens’ occasionally leaky pass protection. But Jackson’s tendency to let plays develop has also invited cramped pockets.

With Huntley in command, the Ravens’ passing offense should be less explosive — but also quicker to get the ball out. Over the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Huntley’s average time to throw was an above-average 2.62 and 2.76 seconds, respectively, according to NGS. This season, over his nine attempts on 10 drop-backs, he has been lightning-quick: 2.12 seconds from snap to throw, an average that’s nearly a quarter-second faster than that of the Miami Dolphins’ league-leading Tua Tagovailoa (2.36 seconds).

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Huntley, unsurprisingly, has not been sacked or pressured this season. Huntley, also unsurprisingly, has not pushed the ball downfield often. His average of 6.3 air yards per attempt would lead only the Chicago Bears’ Tyson Bagent (6.2 air yards) among qualifying quarterbacks in downfield aggressiveness.

“Everybody brings their own stamp to it,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “As a coach, I think you recognize that. … They have their different style, and you recognize that. And it is fun to watch.”

With wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor and tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar expected to play significant roles Saturday, Huntley shouldn’t lack for quality targets. But they’ll need to be in sync to lessen the impact of Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, who could line up against backup tackles for at least part of the game.

“I believe Snoop [Huntley] can get the job done,” Jackson said Wednesday. “We have guys who can go out there and ball out. I have all the faith in my team.”

3. If there’s any Ravens unit that could use a tune-up before the playoffs, it’s their run defense. The Steelers’ ground game should offer a useful measuring stick.

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Pittsburgh has the NFL’s No. 12 rushing offense, according to FTN’s efficiency metrics, after rolling up 202 yards (4.4 per carry) in its win Sunday over the Seattle Seahawks. Starter Najee Harris and backup Jaylen Warren both have over 750 rushing yards this season.

Under former offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the Steelers’ commitment to running the ball against the Ravens was curious at times. But, in their two most recent meetings, it also seemed to wear down coordinator Mike Macdonald’s front. In Week 5, Warren helped power a late rally with four fourth-quarter carries for 25 yards. In the second half of Pittsburgh’s comeback win in Baltimore last year, it was Harris who helped put the Ravens away, rushing 12 times for 62 yards.

The Steelers are primarily a zone-running team, but they also use the kind of “gap” schemes — in which blockers try to clear a specific hole for the ball carrier to run through — that the Ravens have struggled at times to defend. According to Pro Football Focus, Harris has 91 carries this season on gap schemes, while Warren has 53.

One such gap scheme is called “duo,” whereby the running back reads two double-teams against first-level defenders. The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams both gave the Ravens trouble on duo concepts this season, but neither Harris nor Warren has been especially effective running them in 2023.

“They’re both hard to tackle,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. Every week stands on its own, and stopping the run will be job No. 1 for us in this game.”

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4. The Steelers found Year 1 starters with their first three picks in last year’s draft — right tackle Broderick Jones (No. 14 overall), cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (No. 32) and defensive lineman Keeanu Benton (No. 49) — plus a regular contributor in their fourth pick, tight end Darnell Washington (No. 93).

The Ravens’ own rookie class hasn’t had quite the same impact, with just one Year 1 starter in Flowers. But if Ravens veterans are set for lighter-than-usual roles against Pittsburgh, Saturday could be a showcase for Flowers’ classmates.

Inside linebacker Trenton Simpson, a third-round pick who’s in line to replace Patrick Queen next season, could see significant action on defense. He had a fumble recovery in Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins but has played 237 of his 257 snaps on special teams this season.

Outside linebacker Tavius Robinson, a fourth-round pick whose run defense has graded out well on PFF, could also step into a more prominent role along the edge. After playing 55 defensive snaps in Week 3 and 39 snaps in Week 4 because of injuries, Robinson has averaged just 11.8 over the past eight games.

Guard Sala Aumavae-Laulu, meanwhile, could make his NFL debut. The sixth-round pick was last activated for a game in Week 4.

5. The Ravens want to beat Pittsburgh on Saturday — “It’s our time to get one,” Queen said Wednesday — but a loss might not be the worst thing, if only for one reason: It could help keep the Bills (10-6) out of the playoffs.

Ahead of its game Sunday against the Dolphins (11-5), Buffalo could end up with the AFC’s No. 2 seed — or it could be eliminated. With a win over Miami, the Bills would win the AFC East and slot in just behind the Ravens in the conference’s seeding order.

With a loss, however, they’d be on shaky ground. If the Ravens lose to the Steelers, and the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Buffalo would miss the playoffs — assuming, of course, that Saturday’s Indianapolis Colts-Houston Texans game doesn’t end in a tie.

The Bills, despite their flaws and injury woes, are the NFL’s third-most efficient team, according to FTN, with a top-five offense helmed by MVP contender Josh Allen and a solid defense. Buffalo has won four straight games, including a shellacking of the visiting Dallas Cowboys in Week 15, tied with the Cleveland Browns for the NFL’s second-longest active streak.

After the Ravens (six games), of course.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring. 

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