Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasted no time preserving the mystery about which players he’ll start in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Before reporters could ask the inevitable question Monday afternoon, Harbaugh said he would rest quarterback Lamar Jackson, right guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, safety Earl Thomas III and running back Mark Ingram II, who’s recovering from a calf strain.
The Ravens clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC with their victory in Cleveland on Sunday, so they can’t improve their position by beating the Steelers. That afforded Harbaugh a luxury achieved by only a few teams each season. Whenever the situation arises, we hear debates pitting the virtues of rest against the dangers of rust.
“There’s a strong case to be made either way, and I really recognize the other side of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s two good choices, really. We are going to have to practice really well. That’s our whole team. And really, the whole team, most of the whole team, is playing anyway.”
For all the discussion of the issue, it’s difficult to find any real pattern in the results of teams that have rested starters vs. those that have not.
Players mostly avoided weighing in on the pros and cons.
“It’s above my pay grade,” said Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III, who will start in place of Jackson against the Steelers. “That’s what they pay coaches for. We’re paid to play. If they say, ‘Hey [Lamar], you’re going this week, he’s going. If they say, ‘R.G.,’ you’re going this week,’ then I’m going. That’s the way we operate.”
Players did express pride in earning some of their teammates a week off. “Those guys have been around the league. They’ve got more wear and tear on their bodies,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “For them to be able to rest and get ready for the playoffs is really, really huge for us.”
Harbaugh faced a different picture the last time he had to make a similar decision, in 2012. The Ravens clinched the AFC North before their Week 17 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. But they had also lost three of their past four games at that point, and Harbaugh had fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after the second of those defeats against the Washington Redskins.
The Ravens nonetheless went with the rest option, playing quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice for about a quarter and keeping key veterans such as Yanda, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on the bench in a road loss to the Bengals.
We know how that worked out as the Ravens swept through the best teams in football on their way to victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
Harbaugh said he was not thinking directly about 2012 when he decided what to do this year. “You do go by all of your experiences,” he said. “You do go by your feelings about it and conversations, too, of course, and just all that factors in.”
The Ravens might like to rest even more of their essential contributors, but that’s difficult to do in the NFL, which allows just 46 active players for each game. It’s much easier to rest starters in college football or in the preseason, when coaches are dealing with rosters of 70 players or more.
The Ravens will likely have to lean hard on players they can’t afford to lose.
“Most of the guys are going to play the whole game,” Harbaugh said. “Most of the guys will have a full plate, because guys will be playing both the offensive or defensive position and special teams in a lot of cases. There will be some guys pulling some heavy duty in the game. So, it’s just case by case.”
They’ll also try to win the game, even though a victory would do nothing to enhance their playoff position.
“That’s the Pittsburgh Steelers, fighting for a shot in the playoffs, so never,” Pierce said when asked whether it would be difficult to lock in for Week 17. “We have history with those guys, so no. And anybody who tells you otherwise, we should have a talk.”
With that in mind, here’s a look at how the Ravens might manage each position group:
Quarterbacks: We know Griffin will start an NFL game for the first time since 2016. What we don’t know is how much offensive coordinator Greg Roman will open up his attack against a ferocious Steelers front seven that sacked Jackson five times in Week 5. The Ravens also want to keep Griffin healthy going into the playoffs, and Harbaugh said third-string quarterback Trace McSorley could play against Pittsburgh.
Running backs: Ingram won’t play, and with Jackson out, the Ravens probably won’t use as many designed runs for their quarterback. That means Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill could be in line for season-high workloads. Given the concerns about Ingram’s calf, the Ravens might lean more on Hill in the interest of preserving Edwards to be their possible No. 1 back in the AFC divisional round.
Wide receivers/tight ends: Rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown has been prone to injury, so don’t be surprised if the Ravens limit his exposure to contact against the Steelers. The same could be said for tight end Mark Andrews, who takes rough hits every game as Jackson’s most productive target. Nick Boyle has earned a rest as the iron man of the tight end group, but the Ravens will need his blocking against the Steelers. Among the wide receivers, Jaleel Scott will probably play his first offensive snaps of the regular season.
Offensive line: We know Yanda will sit, so the bigger question is whether the Ravens will rest Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who belongs on any short list of their most indispensable players. Stanley missed Week 15 with a concussion and often plays through smaller injuries that arise during games, so the Ravens could give most of his snaps to veteran James Hurst, who did a solid job filling in against the New York Jets. At right guard, they could give work to Parker Ehinger, Hroniss Grasu or rookie Ben Powers.
Defensive line: Williams will sit, and the Ravens might also limit snaps for their other interior stalwarts, Pierce and Domata Peko Sr. That could mean heavy workloads for defensive end Chris Wormley and defensive tackle Justin Ellis, who’s been inactive the past three games.
Linebackers: The big question here is how much the Ravens will play Matthew Judon, who’s easily their most productive pass rusher and perhaps the defender they can least afford to lose. Expect Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser to receive season-high workloads on the edges.
Secondary: This is where the Ravens will face the most decisions, given their plethora of veterans. Thomas won’t play, but the Ravens could also limit snaps for cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters and Brandon Carr. They have the depth to do it with Anthony Averett and rookie Iman Marshall on hand to eat up playing time. Don’t expect much rest for safety Chuck Clark and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who’ve been every-snap players for most of the season.
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