By Norm Elrod
The Baltimore Ravens find themselves with a choice to make. Should they start Lamar Jackson or Joe Flacco at quarterback Sunday when they face the Chiefs in Kansas City?
Sitting at 7-5, just behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North lead and in line for the second Wild Card spot, the Ravens’ postseason berth remains up in the air. They need wins — or help — over the last four games, which include favorable matchups with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns and difficult matchups with the Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.
But without the rookie Jackson, who helped author their current three-game winning streak, the situation might be a little different… a little worse. They might face longer odds or be all but out of contention altogether. Or their situation might be exactly the same.
My colleague Ryan Mayer makes a compelling case for sticking with Lamar Jackson as the starter. I disagree. Joe Flacco should quarterback the team down the stretch, and here’s why.
The Ravens’ wins under Jackson came against the Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, all beatable teams regardless of Baltimore’s starting quarterback. The Falcons, Raiders and Bengals are three of the six worst rushing defenses in the NFL this season, yielding 130.7, 153.3 and 153. yards per game respectively. And while Jackson’s legs were certainly a factor in those wins — a healthy Flacco certainly couldn’t have run for 75, 71 and 119 yards — the yards he gained were there for the taking.
Those teams’ defenses, three of the seven worst overall, aren’t that much better against the pass, the category where Jackson’s production lags. He went 12-21 for 125 yards against a Falcons pass defense that gives up 263.5 passing yards per game, and 14-25 for 178 yards against a Raiders pass defense that allows 243.3 yards per game. What about against the Bengals, the NFL’s worst defense? In that game, he was 13-19 for 150 yards against a pass defense that allows 279.8 yards per game passing.
Jackson has certainly been constrained in the Ravens’ offensive attack. They’re playing it safe, as teams with strong defenses often do when starting young quarterbacks. He’s not being asked to throw downfield, instead relying on shorter possession-oriented plays. That’s been enough to win the last three weeks, but will it be enough to beat the Chiefs, the NFL’s top scoring offense?
The Ravens defense is also the NFL’s best this season, but it is far from the Ravens’ best. And it can be beat. It has been beat by lesser offenses than the one they’ll face this week. Patrick Mahomes will put up points, even without Kareem Hunt in the backfield, and the Ravens will have to respond. A robust passing attack is what the Ravens need to match the Chiefs’ scoring output.
Flacco, in an admittedly uneven season, has put up strong passing numbers against strong defenses. Going 28-42 for 363 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers is one example; going 25-40 for 277 yards and touchdown against the Denver Broncos is another. And while Jackson’s running ability has helped open up the rushing attack lately, a credible downfield passing threat — the kind Flacco can provide — also helps open up the run. Backing up defenders, or at least making them respect the pass, will free up space for Gus Edwards to operate.
Another reason to start Flacco over Jackson is sitting on the Ravens bench. Robert Griffin III, as a rookie, was a similar quarterback to Jackson, though probably a more developed passer. He led the Washington Redskins to the playoffs his rookie year, sustaining ACL and LCL injuries that kept him out of the Pro Bowl. More importantly, the injuries — and their mishandling — also slowed his development and helped derail his career in Washington.
Jackson, not Flacco, is the Ravens’ future. And RG3 is a warning of what could happen to that future if it isn’t managed properly. Don’t rush Jackson’s development, especially when he can’t provide the downfield attack his team needs in a playoff run. He’s performed admirably in his fill-in role. But Flacco should start against the Chiefs and for the rest of the season. Jackson’s time will come.