By DAVID GINSBURG
OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The effective play of rookie Lamar Jackson as a starting quarterback has left Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh with a decision to make if veteran Joe Flacco returns this week from a right hip injury.
Does Flacco get back the starting job Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons? Or does Harbaugh stick with the hot hand in Jackson, who guided Baltimore (6-5) past Cincinnati and Oakland in his first two NFL starts?
Flacco was examined by a doctor on Monday, Harbaugh said. If the 11-year veteran is cleared to return, he will likely practice Wednesday for the first time since the injury occurred on Nov. 4 in a loss to Pittsburgh.
“The biggest criteria is the protection of the hip,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no big tear in there that I’m aware of. The hip has to be strong and not agitated for Joe to really protect himself. That’s the concern, Joe’s safety.”
Once Flacco returns, the clock begins ticking for Harbaugh to decide between the pocket passer he’s guided since 2008, or the rookie who’s been slashing and darting all over the field for an offense that’s surpassed 400 yards in each of the last two weeks.
“I feel very, very confident that I have a good handle on what we need to do when the time comes, which is not here yet,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think you start making these decisions until you get to the bridge. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I’ll be ready to make that decision when the time comes.”
When the Ravens selected Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in the NFL draft, Harbaugh vehemently asserted that the Louisville star and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner would sit behind Flacco on the depth chart. The 33-year-old Flacco started the first nine games, throwing for 2,465 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions, but Baltimore dropped three straight on the back end of that stretch and was in danger of dropping out of the playoff hunt.
Jackson had been used periodically before taking over for the injured Flacco on Nov. 18 against the Bengals. The rookie ran for 117 yards in a 24-21 victory, and built on that performance Sunday by running for a score and passing for a touchdown in a 34-17 rout of the Raiders.
With an assist from rookie running back Gus Edwards, the Jackson-led Ravens ran for 265 yards against Cincinnati and 242 against Oakland. Prior to that, Baltimore’s season high for yards rushing was 123.
Asked if the Ravens’ improved ground game could be attributed to Jackson and Edwards (who has surpassed 100 yards in two straight games), Harbaugh replied: “Both of those things, plus I think our offensive line is blocking really well. The tight ends are blocking really well.”
Flacco’s has the edge in experience and is the better passer. Jackson is a threat to run at any time, a skill that drives opposing defenses crazy.
“When you can establish the inside run, the perimeter offense, all the bells and whistles with Jackson, they’re very hard to defend,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said.
In a way, Harbaugh will choose his starting quarterback as if his job depended on it. Because maybe it does. Baltimore has failed to reach the playoffs in three straight seasons, and another miss could put the coach on the hot seat.
Should Harbaugh reach a decision before the Ravens face the Falcons (4-7), don’t expect him to publicly announce it.
“If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know,” he said. “So, I’m probably not going to announce it for obvious reasons — just to make it tough on our next opponent. That’s the way we’ll go this week.”