Ravens coach John Harbaugh's response Monday when he was asked whether right guard Marshal Yanda is on track to return soon was certainly ominous.
"We'll let you know as we go. We'll see how he progresses," Harbaugh said.
Yanda damaged his shoulder against the New York Giants. He missed two games, took advantage of the bye and then played the entire game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, Yanda wasn't feeling too good after the game and he hasn't been on the field since.
Stories of Yanda's toughness are legendary. He has proven in the past that if there was any way for him to be on the field and play effectively, he would be out there. We'll see how this situation develops. Obviously, Yanda badly wants to play and the Ravens need him out there. Yanda's loss cannot be overstated. He's right at or near the top of the players the Ravens could least afford to lose for an extended period.
By the way, if you watched how Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals dominated the interior of the New York Giants' patchwork offensive line for stretches Monday night, you probably don't need to be reminded about how much the Ravens need Yanda. They have to face the Bengals twice and the Yanda-Atkins matchup has always been worth the price of admission.
With questions about Yanda's health and left guard Alex Lewis (high ankle sprain) out indefinitely, I'd expect the Ravens to add a guard this week, possibly as early as today. John Urschel could step in and play left guard for Lewis, and Vladimir Ducasse or Ryan Jensen could plug in at right guard for Yanda. The Ravens could also use James Hurst at guard if need be, and they have the option of promoting either guard Jarell Broxton or center Matt Skura from the practice squad. But offensive line depth has become a huge concern, so they'll probably want to add at least one more healthy body to that mix.
A look at Zuttah
Speaking of injured offensive linemen, center Jeremy Zuttah has taken a lot of criticism this year for his play. However, he deserves some praise for how he gutted it out last Thursday against the Cleveland Browns.
Dealing with a sprained ankle, Zuttah twice went down and walked gingerly off the field. But when the Ravens got the ball back, Zuttah was back in the game. I'm sure that was appreciated by his teammates and quarterback, given the injuries the Ravens already had along the offensive line.
You have to wonder whether the Ravens' offensive line problems will prompt Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to put quarterback Joe Flacco in the shotgun and use the hurry-up more. That's what got the Ravens offense going against the Browns, and that would be Flacco's preference anyway.
I don't think the Ravens are suited to be in the shotgun and hurry-up at all times, and they're certainly going to need to prove they can run out of the shotgun against a quality defense. But Flacco and the offensive line will need as much help as possible and that's one way to do it.
Path to the playoffs
This is going to be a fun week, given the fact that the Dallas Cowboys have won eight straight games and are the talk of football. And the Ravens absolutely love these types of games, where they go in as heavy underdogs against a team that seemingly has everything in its favor.
However, don't lose sight of the fact that the Ravens' path to the playoffs is through winning the AFC North. Every win is huge, but the games that will most decide the Ravens' postseason fate are the two against the fading Cincinnati Bengals and the Christmas Day matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Three teams in the AFC West already have seven wins, so an AFC North team claiming a wild-card berth isn't looking good as of now. If you're the Ravens, you win two of those three remaining divisional games, beat the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles at home, and you're going to be in good shape. Easier said than done obviously.
Much of the talk this week will be on the matchup between the Cowboys' top-ranked running game and the Ravens' top-ranked run defense.
But the Ravens will need their running game to be reasonably productive if they are going to win. The Ravens can't hang their defense out to dry Sunday. They need to move the ball offensively, extend some drives and not allow Dallas to control time of possession.
The Cowboys, behind their massive and talented offensive line and physical running back Ezekiel Elliott, are relentless. I don't care how good the Ravens' run defense is. Dallas is going to make some plays and if the Ravens defense is out on the field a lot, it's going to wear down. This might be a game where the Ravens dress an extra defensive lineman (Willie Henry) to make sure they're covered.
How to use Jimmy Smith
By now, it's clear the Ravens would prefer not having their top cornerback Jimmy Smith shadow the opponent's top receiver. They feel it can create defensive confusion and tip what coverage they're in.
However, they're clearly open to doing it in, and I think we'll probably see Smith on Cowboys standout receiver Dez Bryant more often than not Sunday.
As good as Ravens cornerback Tavon Young has been, the rookie would be giving up about five inches and 40 pounds to the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bryant. That's pretty unfair. Smith, on the other hand, is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and prefers matching up with bigger receivers rather than the small quick guys. Young will have his hands full with Dallas' diminutive slot receiver Cole Beasley.