Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

December 14, 2018 at 5:05 pm.

Bucs prepare for two-headed QB threat

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would seem to be out of the playoff picture, but with all the teams ahead of them in the wild-card race losing last week, believe it or not they still have some life at 5-8.

It will be a tough road, however, to win their final three games starting with Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Ravens.

But just because the playoffs may be out of reach for the 11th straight season, there still is a lot to play for.

Head coach Dirk Koetter needs to show some wins down the stretch to keep his job. General manager Jason Licht could be in the same position. Quarterback Jameis Winston would seem to have a good chance to return for a fifth season, but nothing is guaranteed.

He is 2-1 since returning from his benching and has made better decisions with the football. But like the others, Winston needs wins.

It won’t be easy against a Ravens defense that is one of the best in the NFL and the Bucs will be without injured receiver DeSean Jackson for the third straight game.

Nonetheless, the biggest pressure may be on the Bucs’ defense in trying to stop rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Since taking over from Flacco in Week 11, Jackson has led the Ravens to wins over the Bengals, Raiders and Falcons before suffering a 27-24 loss in overtime to the AFC-leading Chiefs.

Flacco’s resume is pretty impressive. He’s led the Ravens to two AFC North titles, appeared in three conference championship games and beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 season.

But before Flacco became injured, the Ravens were stuck in neutral at 4-5 this season. Flacco was playing good, not great, completing 61.2 percent of this passes for 2,465 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Jackson hit the ground running – literally – in his debut against the Bengals by rushing for 119 yards on an astounding 26 carries. He’s had more than 70 yards rushing in each of his last three games. No wonder the Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in rushing with 134.5 yards per game.

He’s been a little less steady as a passer, completing only 58.4 percent for 687 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

But because the Ravens design runs for Jackson, the Bucs defense will face a difficult challenge. Normally, the defense has a one-man advantage since you don’t normally account for the quarterback as a runner, receiver or blocker.

“Huge challenge,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said. “Since Lamar’s gotten in that offense and got it rolling they’re averaging over 200 yards (rushing). I think the least they’ve had I think is 198 and I think they’ve had 265 as the most. They’re running the offense at a very productive rate right now and it’s a big, big challenge. It’s going to be 11-man football – as it always is – but you’ve got a runner and a thrower with the capability of Lamar Jackson, it’s tough sledding. So we’re working like heck getting ready for it.”

Of course, there also is increased exposure to possible injury to a quarterback who runs the football as often as Jackson.

Some, like 6-foot-5, 245-pound Carolina quarterback Cam Newton have withstood the pounding. Others, like Ravens No. 3 quarterback Robert Griffin III, have not.

“It’s a really fair consideration,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s something we have to think about. You know, when you run this kind of an offense, keeping the quarterback healthy is going to be a big part of it I think. How Lamar is coached by James Urban is a big part of it. Lamar has been doing it for a long time. He ran a similar offense in college and stayed healthy. That’s real important. We’ve got to do a great job of that because you want your quarterback healthy and he’s going to get hit when he runs the ball.

“It’s changed our offense dramatically. Obviously, we’re running the ball more. It’s quarterback driven types of runs. We had these things in the package since we drafted Lamar and we were practicing them through training camp and dabbling a little bit when they were both playing. But now, obviously, it’s the main part of our offense.”

Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said the Bucs are preparing for one of their most physically challenging games of the season. The Bucs are 20th against the run, allowing 119.4 yards per game.

“Any time when you have a running quarterback, you’re looking at a more physical game,” Pierre-Paul said. “Just to play that is difficult. I’m not going to lie, their option stuff is difficult and anybody in the NFL – D-end-wise – if they say it’s not that’s a lie.”

They face Newton twice a year, so some of the same rules on defense will apply. But Newton no longer possesses the kind of speed owned by Jackson, who didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine but said he would’ve been in the 4.38 range.

“You’ve seen him, he gets on an edge and then all of a sudden puts it into another gear,” Duffner said. “My gosh, he’s probably the fastest player on the field. And that coupled with what he can do with his arm – he’s got a strong arm – he can snap it in a second. He’s got a quick release. He’s very dangerous.”

For good measure, the Bucs also have to be prepared for Flacco to trot onto the field at any time with his strong right arm and let it fly.

“So we’ve got a two-headed dragon we’re trying to slay,” Duffner said.

SERIES HISTORY: 6th regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 3-2. Ravens won the last meeting between these teams 48-17 at Raymond James Stadium in 2014. The Bucs shut out the Ravens in Baltimore 25-0 in 2002, the year they went onto win Super Bowl XXXVII.