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Mailbag: Rest vs. Rust: What's the Ravens' Plan This Time?

QB Lamar Jackson
QB Lamar Jackson

Downing: All three of these questions are getting to the same point. Will the Ravens approach the regular season finale any differently than they did in 2019? The Ravens also wrapped up the No. 1-overall seed with a week to play back in 2019, and they decided to rest most of the starters for that finale (also against the Steelers). The Ravens then lost the divisional round to the Titans, so Ravens fans are understandably nervous about the notion of getting rusty by having a two-week break leading up to the first playoff matchup this year.

My perspective is that this is a difficult decision for Head Coach John Harbaugh. In talking with several players, the concern of rust is real, and that 2019 playoff result is still fresh for the players who remain from that team. But in my mind, the risk of injury outweighs the potential for getting rusty. Whenever players step on the field, there is potential for injury, and the Dolphins saw that late in Sunday's game when outside linebacker Bradley Chubb went down with a torn ACL after the result was already decided.  Of course, players can get hurt in practice, but the likelihood of that is lower compared to a full-speed game against a division rival.

For players who have been nursing injuries, such as Kyle Hamilton, Brandon Stephens, Marlon Humphrey and Kevin Zeitler, the decision is easier. They should probably stay on the sidelines to get healthy for the postseason. The biggest question is quarterback Lamar Jackson. Keeping him on the sidelines is the safe, conservative way to go. But if he thinks it's important to play, then that's something to seriously consider. Another option here is that the Ravens don't take an either/or approach, but they give Jackson and the starters some playing time before pulling them from the game. They took that approach in 2012 when they had the AFC North wrapped up going into the last game. The starters saw about a quarter of work before getting pulled, and the Ravens could opt to go that route again. It's all a tough decision for the Ravens, and whatever route Harbaugh decides to go will be discussed and analyzed.

Brown: Ravens vs. Steelers is always intense, but I don't think the rivalry will impact which players Baltimore decides to dress on Saturday.  The Ravens have already achieved their biggest regular-season goals – winning the AFC North and clinching the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. Now they can focus on another important objective – getting as healthy as they can for the postseason.

The Steelers need a win to get into the playoffs, so they'll be going full tilt. While the Ravens always want to win, and beating the Steelers is always especially important, Harbaugh will do whatever he thinks is best for his team's long-term goals. But make no mistake, he will be trying to win.

Downing: I would be surprised to see Malik Cunningham get snaps at quarterback this week. The Ravens have Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson ahead of him on the depth chart, and they will probably get the snaps ahead of the former Louisville quarterback. Even if the Ravens decide to rest most of the starters, including Jackson, I would be surprised to see Cunningham take the helm at quarterback after getting signed three weeks ago. If Cunningham does make his Ravens debut, that could be more likely to come with snaps at wide receiver. Harbaugh said when the Ravens signed Cunningham that he would also work at receiver, so they may give him a limited look in that role Saturday if they decide to rest most of the starting wideouts.

Brown: Yes, I think we could see Ronnie Stanley and Patrick Mekari continue to platoon at left tackle during the playoffs. Mekari was given the highest grade by Pro Football Focus among Ravens offensive linemen against the Dolphins, and he's one of the team's most valuable players. Stanley has been hampered by a knee injury and even if he's feeling better by the playoffs, Baltimore may want to limit his snaps to reduce the wear and tear.

Morgan Moses and Daniel Faalele may also continue to platoon at right tackle. Harbaugh noted recently that Faalele has taken a huge step forward in his second season and he played 30% of the snaps against Miami. I don't think we will see any playoff platooning in the middle of the offensive line. Ben Cleveland played well at right guard against Miami in place of Zeitler, but Zeitler has played every snap in 10 games this season and has far more experience than Cleveland. If Zeitler is healthy, I expect him to play every snap along with left guard John Simpson and center Tyler Linderbaum, who's one of the NFL's best players at his position.

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