When he looked ahead earlier this week to the challenges the Minnesota Vikings will present Sunday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged it was imperative that his team finds its slumping passing game. But the Ravens will have to do it with several of their top receiving options not available or dealing with injuries.
Breshad Perriman (concussion) has been ruled out for Sunday's game at U.S. Bank Stadium and Chris Matthews (hamstring) is doubtful to play. The team's top two receivers, Jeremy Maclin (shoulder) and Mike Wallace (back), are questionable. It appears both veterans will attempt to play, but it's certainly fair to wonder how effective they'll be against the Vikings' talented secondary.
"We'll just have to find the 46 guys that can suit up and play for us, but we're pretty hopeful for those guys," Harbaugh said after Friday's practice when asked about the number of receivers available to play Sunday. "They seem to be doing well and making good progress. It's just something you can't really predict."
As the Ravens (3-3) prepare for a tough road game against the Vikings, their only three healthy receivers are Michael Campanaro (River Hill), Chris Moore and Griff Whalen, who was just re-signed Thursday and hasn't played in a game since preseason.
Whalen had not caught a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco until Thursday's practice. Campanaro and Moore have combined for 12 catches for 104 yards this season, and both had key drops in last Sunday's 27-24 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears.
Maclin didn't play in that game at all and he spent the week practicing in a non-contract jersey because of a balky shoulder. Wallace, who has missed just one game in nine NFL seasons, said he plans to be on the field Sunday against one of his former teams, but the team's deep threat has been limited all week with a sore back.
"We'll just see how it plays out," Harbaugh said. "Everybody has practiced, so we have enough guys to play. We'll just have to work out the math on it – who can play, who can't go. If someone can't go, someone else will replace him. It might be another position; we [might] have to go light in one position and heavier in another."
Harbaugh predictably didn't dwell much on the team's health situation at wide receiver. The Ravens already have 15 guys on injured reserve – and another player could be headed there Saturday to make room for an offensive lineman – so the weekly injury issues are nothing new anyway.
However, any further challenges to a passing game that has repeatedly faltered and self-destructed amid mistakes and poor execution are obviously unwelcome. As it is, the Ravens rank 31st in the league in passing yards per game with an average of 159.7.
Flacco is second in the NFL with eight interceptions but his two picks last week came on throws that bounced off the hands of Perriman and Moore. The 10-year quarterback said Wednesday he would not hesitate to go right back to his young receivers. He might not have a choice.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes is considered one of the best in the league. If Wallace is playing, he'll likely see his share of Rhodes on the outside with Maclin or Campanaro playing in the slot and Moore on the other side. Behind Rhodes is Harrison Smith, one of the NFL's best safeties and a ball hawk who already has three interceptions.
"When you're not at your full strength, there's going to be some level of a drop off. Sometimes it's not much, sometimes it's hardly any. Sometimes, it's a lot. In our case, I think we have some really good guys that can go in and play so there won't be much a drop off," Wallace said. "But you have to be prepared. I think [wide receivers coach Bobby Engram] does a great job just letting everybody get reps and not just give them to one particular guy, even though most likely he's going to be the guy to run the play on Sunday.
"If you play that position, you're going to get a shot at it during the week most likely. He does a good job preparing guys. I think we're going to be fine."
It's no secret either that opposing teams will focus on stopping the Ravens' running game, which ranks seventh in the NFL, and make Flacco and Co. beat them through the air. That will likely remain the case until Flacco consistently proves he's capable of doing that this season.
For that to happen Sunday, the Ravens are not only going to need a healthy and productive Wallace and Maclin, they'll likely need contributions from Campanaro, Moore and perhaps even Whalen.
"I feel extremely ready," Moore said Friday. "The coaches have been doing a good job of preparing me with the playbook and the game plan and actually getting me out there and getting the reps in practice so I know what I'm doing. I feel very confident. If they need me to step up and make plays, I will. Depending on the situation at receiver, I'll probably get more playing time. So I'm really excited to do whatever I can do to help this team win."
Whalen said Thursday he was unsure what role he'd have, if any, on game day. He obviously didn't have to pick up things from scratch as the five-year veteran spent training camp and the preseason with the Ravens. Flacco, though, was sidelined throughout camp because of a back injury, so the quarterback and wide receiver have had to get to know each other quickly this week.
"I'm not sure that anybody knows yet as far as who is going to be where, what's going to be going on for game time," Whalen said Thursday. "I'm just making sure I have the game plan down so whatever they need me to do, I can do it."