Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made his long-awaited return to practice Wednesday, but a gimpy right ankle could keep him from rejoining a bolstered roster for Sunday’s crucial game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Jackson, sidelined since the Ravens’ Week 14 loss to the Cleveland Browns, was limited in the 20 minutes of practice open to reporters Wednesday. He had a slight limp as he jogged from one field to another, and he tended not to drive off his injured back foot as he delivered the ball in passing drills.
Coach John Harbaugh said he’s “really hopeful” that Jackson will start Sunday, but acknowledged that he’d hoped the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player would return to action last week. Jackson hasn’t played since Dec. 12, when he was carted off the field after Browns rookie inside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah tackled him from behind.
The Ravens have lost four games in a row for the first time since 2016, and a loss Sunday would all but eliminate them from playoff contention before their regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jackson, who was not made available to reporters Wednesday, has advanced to the postseason in each of his first three years in Baltimore.
“I really want to see him out there on Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “I know the fans do. I know, most of all, Lamar does. So he’s going to do everything he can to be out there, and you can’t make a promise, because we don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”
Jackson’s return Wednesday overshadowed the arrival of more reinforcements, most notably the activation of starting outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tyus Bowser off the reserve/COVID-19 list. Houston missed the Ravens’ blowout loss Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals, while Bowser returned just one day after being designated.
Three key reserves and special teams contributors — inside linebackers Chris Board and Kristian Welch and safety Geno Stone — were also activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. Earlier in the week, the Ravens got back cornerbacks Chris Westry and Jimmy Smith and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, all of whom practiced Wednesday.
But no player’s status this week will be monitored as closely as Jackson’s. A Pro Bowl selection for the second time in his three years as a full-time starter, Jackson has struggled over the second half of the season. He’s 1-3 in his past four starts, with 673 passing yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions over that stretch.
The Rams won’t make anything easy. Led by star tackle Aaron Donald (12 sacks) in the front and cornerback Jalen Ramsey (three interceptions, 14 passes defended) in the back, the Rams have the NFL’s sixth-most efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders, with top-10 pass-stopping and run-stopping units. Two years after Jackson and the Ravens destroyed the Rams in Los Angeles, 45-6, they’ll likely enter Sunday’s game as underdogs for the fourth straight game.
“We’re fighters here,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “We’re always going to fight. There’s never going to be a quit in us. No matter what the game is, no matter what the score is, we’re going to keep on coming, we’re going to keep on going, and that’s just who we are. And obviously, getting No. 8 [Jackson] back is special, because he’s a special player, and I think we’re all excited about that.”
If Jackson is limited or ineffective Sunday, the Ravens should have his more-than-capable backup available. Harbaugh said he expects Tyler Huntley, who missed the Ravens’ loss in Cincinnati after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday, to rejoin the team Thursday. The second-year quarterback has impressed in five appearances and two starts this season, throwing for 743 yards, three touchdowns and an interception and posting an 88.9 passer rating while rushing for 168 yards and two scores.
With Jackson and Huntley sidelined Sunday, the Ravens turned to third-string journeyman Josh Johnson, who finished 28-for-40 for 304 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his first start since 2018. But the offense lacked the big-play spark that Jackson offers as both a downfield thrower and open-field runner.
“Lamar is a great competitor,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “He’s a great playmaker. He does the things that he needs to do to be the best at what he does. But at the end of the day, if Lamar is not ready to play, he’s not ready to play. That’s on them — that’s up to the training staff, and that’s up to the coaching.”
As Jackson’s right ankle improves, so, too, could the health of the team around him. Right tackle Patrick Mekari (hand), tight end Nick Boyle (knee) and defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who were all limited last week, were full participants in Wednesday’s practice. Harbaugh also indicated that defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and tight end Josh Oliver, along with Huntley, could be activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list before Sunday’s game.
Even if starting cornerback Anthony Averett (ribs/chest) is unavailable this weekend, the Ravens could have their strongest game day roster since Jackson was hurt — and just in time, too.
“It’s going to feel good to have more guys out there compared to the previous two weeks,” safety Chuck Clark said. “It’s going to feel good, for sure, to have our ‘dogs.’ I was just walking from the locker room coming down here now and hearing guys yelling, and that’s a little bit of the energy that we’ve been missing these past two weeks, with different personalities, different energy and different spirits. So just hearing that, I feel like we’re going to be fired up, ready to go this week.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Rams by 3 ½