The Cincinnati Bengals saw one version of a hobbled Lamar Jackson in 2020. They probably wouldn’t mind seeing it again in 2021.
Before their Week 5 matchup in Baltimore last season, Jackson missed one Ravens practice with a knee injury, then the next with an illness. He was a full participant in a Friday walk-through, and said after a 27-3 win that the knee injury “didn’t really affect me at all.”
The stats told another story: Jackson went 19-for-37 for 180 yards, two touchdowns and an interception; his 73.1 passer rating would rank as the second worst of the season. He ran just twice for 3 yards, the fewest in his career as a starter. The Ravens finished with 332 yards of total offense. “It was all right,” Jackson said of his knee.
Fourteen months and one upended AFC North leaderboard later, it’s not Jackson’s knee that’s concerning. It’s his maybe-sprained, maybe-bruised right ankle that’s become the most scrutinized body part in Baltimore, an ailing avatar for the tumult that injuries and a coronavirus outbreak have thrown the Ravens into over the regular season’s final month.
Coaches have called Jackson “day-to-day.” But he has not practiced since he was carted off the field in a Week 14 loss to the Cleveland Browns nearly two weeks ago, and the Ravens (8-6) have prepared for Sunday’s pivotal rematch with the division-leading Bengals (8-6) as if backup Tyler Huntley will make his second straight start and third overall. However, both Jackson and Huntley were listed as questionable, with Huntley sitting out Friday’s walk-through because of a non-COVID illness. Third-stringer Josh Johnson is the Ravens’ only other healthy quarterback since practice squad player Chris Streveler is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Jackson’s absence comes at a possible inflection point in their season. None of the Ravens’ first 14 games had the sky-high stakes of their 15th: A win at Paul Brown Stadium would make the Ravens AFC North favorites and put them in line for a top-four playoff seed. A defeat would mark their first four-game losing streak since 2016 and sap their postseason hopes.
If the most important question facing the Ravens this weekend is whether Jackson can play, a close second might be whether a limited Jackson offers more than a full-strength Huntley.
“That’s a good question, but it’s hard to answer, because there’s no definitive formula there,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “So we’re just going to have to see where we’re at with all factors. That’s how you do it. You have to take everything into account and see where you feel best about going forward — practice time, health-wise and all those things. That’s really all you can do, just go with what you feel like is best and how the guys are doing.”
Harbaugh said after a narrow loss Sunday to the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers that the Ravens would “anticipate” Jackson returning for Sunday’s game, but he left open the door for Huntley to play again if Jackson is not “fully ready.”
Even if Jackson is an option to start Sunday, his return could be rusty. Guard Kevin Zeitler said Wednesday that Jackson is “doing everything he can to get healthy as fast as he can,” but in sitting out practice, Jackson has missed opportunities to prepare not only for a talented Bengals defense but also a raucous crowd. Amid the delirium of a potentially division-deciding game in Cincinnati, Jackson’s silent count could be as important as his footwork.
“I think it does become a concern for any player when they miss time,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “You really want them out there working on their craft, but these things happen. You have to work through them. Before the Denver game, [Jackson] missed Wednesday and Thursday, and I thought he played a great game [finishing with 316 passing yards]. So he has the capability to do that. We have all the confidence in him and Tyler.”
Huntley said he’s prepared every week this season as if he’d start, and over the Ravens’ past seven quarters, he’s looked the part of an NFL starter. In a near-comeback win over the Browns, he passed for 270 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 45. In Sunday’s loss to the Packers, he passed for 215 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two touchdowns, scoring benchmarks that not even Jackson has reached. His single-game QBR (82.4) was the highest of any Ravens quarterback this season.
Maybe most impressive, Huntley has stabilized the Ravens’ offense against the blitzes that shook Jackson in his recent slump. According to Sports Info Solutions, Huntley is 28-for-40 for 292 yards, two touchdowns and an interception (97.1 passer rating) against five or more pass rushers this season. Since Week 7, when Jackson finished just 15-for-31 for 257 yards and a touchdown in a blowout home loss to Cincinnati, the Pro Bowl selection is 33-for-63 for 294 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (62.5 passer rating) against the blitz.
“Tyler has impressed upon me that he’s a guy — and this is critical to any player coming into the NFL, and you can identify it fairly quickly — when some people make the invariable mistake or don’t do something the right way, what do they do next time?” Roman said. “Do they learn from that? He’s been a guy who, as he’s young and he’s learning through this experience, which is really the only way to learn, he’s the guy that puts those things behind him and moves on to the next inevitable moment for a young player. …
“Every week, he gets better and better. As he gains experience, I really feel like he’s going to continue to improve. As good as he played last week, I know in his mind, with the competitor that he is, he’s looking to play a little bit better all the time. I think he’s a realist when it comes to that, but also, his confidence is definitely growing. He’s a very diligent preparer. He prepares very diligently, and I think that’s one of his greatest assets.”
No Raven, however, raises the offense’s ceiling quite like a healthy Jackson. He’s by far the team’s most productive runner on designed carries (5.0 yards per carry), according to SIS, as well as its most dangerous downfield passer. On intermediate throws (10 to 19 air yards) over the Ravens’ first six games, Jackson averaged 11.8 yards per attempt. On deep throws (20-plus air yards), he averaged 14.8 yards per attempt. Huntley’s season-long averages are just 8.1 yards and 9.5 yards, respectively.
The challenge for Harbaugh and Roman: deciding how to access that early-season efficiency with a less-than-100% Jackson. The longer the Ravens wait, the healthier he’ll be — and the less time he’ll have to lead a postseason push.
“I think you have to take that into account with kind of how you put the game plan together,” Roman said. “I think you have to put it together globally, and then you have to be able to kind of titrate it down into certain scenarios. If he can’t move very well, then we’ll certainly lean on other things than trying to have him move too much. So it’s just something you have to weigh in. It’s a fact of life in the NFL.”
On a Ravens roster depleted by injuries and illness, Huntley has emerged as an unlikely steadying force. Zeitler said the second-year South Florida native “owns the huddle.” Safety Brandon Stephens called Huntley a “special guy.” Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said that “all the players rally around him just like we rally around Lamar.”
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Huntley, one of Jackson’s closest friends on the team, said Thursday that he’s learning to appreciate every snap he gets. The starting job might not be his for much longer. Jackson is the face of the franchise, the quarterback of the future.
Now the Ravens just have to figure out what Sunday might look like with and without him.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bengals by 3