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Ravens film study: Why a conservative game plan could be enough vs. Cowboys

If the Ravens are going to beat the Dallas Cowboys with a still-depleted roster Tuesday night, their offense might have to look like the Washington Football Team’s did in Week 12. And Lamar Jackson — or perhaps Trace McSorley — might have to play like Washington quarterback Alex Smith to do it.

Jackson, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thanksgiving Day, has not been activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list yet. His availability for Week 13 is unclear. Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s backup, was placed on injured reserve Friday after suffering a hamstring injury in Wednesday’s loss to Pittsburgh.

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This game week has been more “normal,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday, with at least nine contributors returning for the team’s first practices in nearly two weeks. Depleted by a coronavirus outbreak and robbed of valuable practice time, the Ravens finished with a season-low 219 yards of total offense against the Steelers.

But even a healthier attack will be restrained in some ways if the Ravens (6-5) have to turn to a rusty Jackson or an inexperienced McSorley. Jackson will not have had a full week of practice since Week 11. McSorley struggled throughout training camp and has fewer career pass attempts than does punter Sam Koch (seven). The former Penn State star was 2-for-6 for 77 yards in relief of Griffin, the bulk of which came on wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s 70-yard catch-and-run score.

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The good news for the Ravens is that Dallas’ defense on its best day is still probably not as good as Pittsburgh’s on its worst. (Same goes for their offenses, too.) The Cowboys entered the weekend ranked No. 24 in the NFL in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Their run defense — the one area the Ravens will feel most confident attacking — was No. 29.

Washington’s 41-16 win over Dallas (3-8) on Thanksgiving Day showed what coordinator Greg Roman could need from his quarterback. Smith, who, like McSorley, started the season third on the depth chart, was more caretaker than playmaker, finishing 19-for-26 for 149 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He leaned on a rushing attack that finished with 182 yards (5.1 per carry) and three touchdowns. Smith’s longest completion went for 26 yards; tight end Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback, had a trick play that went for 28 yards.

According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Smith averaged just 4.1 air yards per pass attempt in the win. No other quarterback in Week 12 targeted receivers closer to the line of scrimmage, and only one other quarterback has won a game with such a low downfield rate this season. Surprisingly, it was Jackson, normally one of the NFL’s more aggressive throwers; he averaged just 4.1 air yards per attempt in the Week 9 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith's Week 12 performance vs. Dallas.
Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith's Week 12 performance vs. Dallas. (Next Gen Stats)

For much of Wednesday’s game, Griffin was even more conservative. He didn’t attempt a pass longer than 5 yards until under four minutes remained in the first half. Of his first 10 pass attempts, four were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, four were between 1 and 5 air yards, and none were longer than 17 yards. He entered the fourth quarter averaging just 2.8 air yards per attempt, though an incomplete deep shot to Brown later boosted that number.

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Given their roster limitations, the Ravens didn’t have much choice. They were starting their sixth offensive line combination of the season, including an NFL debutant, Trystan Colon-Castillo, at center. They were missing tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Willie Snead IV, the team’s two most reliable targets over the middle, who will also be sidelined Tuesday. And they were lining up against a Steelers defense that leads the NFL in sacks.

“That’s something that we talk about; you see the first open guy, just kind of give him the ball,” McSorley said Friday.

Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III's Week 12 performance vs. Pittsburgh.
Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III's Week 12 performance vs. Pittsburgh. (Next Gen Stats)

If the Ravens have to pass like they did Wednesday, they will probably need more of what Brown provided — not only catches downfield, but production after it, too. Entering Week 13, the Ravens didn’t have a receiver among the NFL’s top 70 in total yards after the catch, partly a function of the team ranking last in the league in completions per game.

Still, for an offense built on speed, the Ravens lack reliable catch-and-run threats. Among qualifying receivers entering the weekend, Snead led the Ravens and was 12th in the NFL with 6.5 yards after the catch per reception, according to Next Gen Stats. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay and running back J.K. Dobbins are both averaging 6.6 yards after the catch but have combined for just 35 receptions in 11 games.

Wide receiver Miles Boykin has 57 yards after the catch (4.1 per reception) this season. Until Brown’s 70-yard touchdown, his season-long YAC average was 3.7 yards. Andrews is averaging 2.9 yards after 4.9 last year.

“Obviously, Marquise was able to make a great play and make a couple guys miss and turn a little bit of an intermediate throw into a big-play gain for us,” McSorley said. “That’s the kind of player Marquise is — a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle, explosive-type player. So it was great to see him just kind of be able to do what he does best, show his skill set.

“And then, obviously, being able to just keep sharpening the tools with us on the offense, and being able to do things like that: Take what the defense gives us, and then turning easy completions into big plays down the road with the guys we have on the outside.”

As Jackson’s learned this season, few in sports adapt faster than NFL defensive coordinators. When they’ve scrutinized the film of the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, they’ve seen a quarterback who’s struggled to throw downfield and outside the numbers. And they’ve adjusted accordingly.

When Dallas coaches look at McSorley’s performance Wednesday, they’ll note his misfire on a short sideline throw, his near-interception after a scramble and his ability to move in space. And they’ll be more prepared than they would’ve otherwise been a week ago.

“I think the only thing you can really acknowledge is what’s right in front of you,” Roman said Saturday. “We’ve got a great opportunity, and I know those guys are excited.”

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COWBOYS@RAVENS

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Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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