Five storylines to watch as the Ravens prepare for their stretch run

From Joe Flacco's uncertain health to the outlook for a Lamar Jackson-led offense, here are five storylines to watch as the Ravens prepare for their final seven games.

Has Joe Flacco started his last game for the Ravens?

As concerns emerged last week about the state of Flacco’s hip, it was impossible to avoid thinking about the big picture. With the Ravens 4-5 and riding a three-game losing streak, caused in part by the quarterback’s declining performance, fans had already begun speculating when rookie Lamar Jackson might take over the team’s underperforming offense.

Coach John Harbaugh tried to quell any budding controversy during his news conference the day after the team’s Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He defended Flacco’s play and said he would remain the starter, with Jackson in line for an expanded complementary role.

But that plan could change given the reported hip injury Flacco suffered when Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt drove him to the ground early in a 23-16 loss.

If Flacco can’t play at all or can’t play near his best level, the Ravens’ chances of rebounding for a playoff push would be diminished. With Jackson under center, they would become a team looking to the future rather the present. Under those circumstances, it would make sense for the Ravens to designate Flacco as a post-June 1 cut and save $18.5 million next summer.

They might have been headed down that path, regardless. Even before Tuitt slammed into him, Flacco had tailed off from a hot start to the season. He entered Sunday ranked 31st in the league in yards per attempt and 26th in passer rating. With him as the team’s offensive leader, the Ravens throw too frequently with too little payoff. That’s been the case since former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left town after the 2014 season.

But fans who see Flacco’s hip injury as a cover story for the inevitable changing of the guard are misguided. He was clearly hurt during the Steelers game and has always done his best to play through pain, sans excuses. We could learn as soon as Monday whether he plans to test his hip Sunday in a do-or-die game against the Cincinnati Bengals. It would be in character for him to give it a go.

If this is his final ride with the Ravens, we should dwell not on the disappointments of the past four seasons but on his Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award and the stability he brought to the most important position on the field. He’s one of the most important people in the history of the franchise.

How would a Lamar Jackson-led offense function?

Jackson has been an effective runner in two-quarterback sets with Flacco, averaging 5 yards per carry. As Harbaugh pointed out, the team’s overall rushing offense has been more dynamic with him in the game.

But we really have no idea if the Ravens could move the ball consistently with Jackson as their starter. He would remain a threat with his legs, of course, but he’s attempted just 12 NFL passes, most of them in mop-up duty. When he threw more regularly during the preseason, his accuracy wavered.

Now, Jackson doesn’t have to be Drew Brees. His potency as a runner should afford him more room for error as a passer. We simply have not seen enough to know what will happen if he’s asked to throw 25 or 30 times in a game.

Quarterbacks coach James Urban and third-stringer Robert Griffin III have worked with Jackson more closely than anyone, and they speak highly of his determination and development. Talk to the rookie for a few minutes, and you realize that for all his humility as a teammate, he brims with confidence.

The Ravens’ season will take on an air of mystery and renewed anticipation if Jackson does take over for an injured Flacco. But it could also turn into a painful trial-by-fire for a player who needs more time to polish his skills.

How will the quarterback situation impact Harbaugh’s future?

Harbaugh and Flacco came in together, so perhaps it’s fitting that they’re facing intermingled questions about their respective futures in Baltimore after 11 seasons.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti kept his coach in place through the bye week and seems likely to do so through the end of the season. But Bisciotti said he contemplated firing Harbaugh after the Ravens fell short of the playoffs last season. If they miss the postseason for a fourth straight year, many assume he’ll finally pull the trigger on a sweeping reset. The timing would make sense with Eric DeCosta set to succeed Ozzie Newsome as general manager at the end of this season.

But what if Harbaugh and his offensive coaches achieve great success launching Jackson as an NFL starter over the next seven weeks? Or what if Flacco grits his way through and the Ravens rally to snatch a wild-card spot against mediocre competition?

In scenario No. 1, would Harbaugh stamp himself as the man to lead the rebuild? Would he even want to do that at this point in his career, when he’d be an attractive coaching candidate in other cities?

In scenario No. 2, would a playoff berth earn him a reprieve? Would he want it?

Harbaugh has always kept his teams fighting, even in the late stages of disappointing seasons. Given the drama at quarterback, his next seven weeks will be among the most fascinating of his long tenure with the Ravens.

Can the defense carry the Ravens back to contention?

Even after three straight disappointing performance, the Ravens entered their bye week ranked first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game and second in fewest points allowed per game.

Given the piles of points the Steelers and New Orleans Saints put up in subsequent games, the Ravens’ efforts against them don’t look so shabby.

There’s still plenty of talent on all three levels of the Baltimore defense, and Harbaugh hopes two weeks of rest will bring his players back to full speed. The Ravens could benefit from the absence of injured Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green in their Nov. 18 game against the Bengals. Better luck on turnovers — the Ravens are tied for 26th in takeaways after leading the league with similar personnel in 2017 — would also help.

But if three straight losses taught us anything, it’s that even a league-leading defense will struggle to control the best offenses of this NFL era. After a two-week respite, the Ravens will go back to facing high-octane attacks (the Atlanta Falcons, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers) in December.

Keep in mind that Flacco and Harbaugh aren’t the only key figures facing uncertain futures in Baltimore. If the Ravens begin a full-on rebuild, it’s not clear veteran defenders such as Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith would remain on hand. You also have to wonder if middle linebacker C.J. Mosley might reconsider his long-stated desire to re-sign with the Ravens in the offseason.

Can the Ravens regain stability on the offensive line?

This starts with left tackle Ronnie Stanley returning from an ankle injury that kept him out against the Steelers. The team’s 2016 first-round pick was playing the best football of his career, and he’s irreplaceable.

But if Stanley and right tackle James Hurst (back) re-enter the mix, the Ravens would suddenly face a good dilemma. Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. has played well enough, especially as a pass blocker, that he might force Hurst into a utility role or back inside to guard, where Alex Lewis has struggled this season.

That configuration could offer the Ravens a preview of their long-term future on the offensive line.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if right guard Marshal Yanda is another franchise stalwart nearing the end of his time in Baltimore. Yanda has rebounded from an ankle injury that cost him most of the 2017 season to play at a Pro Bowl level. But he’s 34, in the penultimate year of his contract and has said he’ll weigh his football mortality every offseason from now on. Would he want to play out the string on a rebuilding team?

It’s a question many familiar Ravens will face if the team does not right itself quickly.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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