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Shifting strategies
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By DOUG FERGUSON, GEORGE HENRY, STEPHEN WHYNO, TOM CANAVAN, MICHAEL MAROT
The Associated Press
  
  

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Saturday, November 17, 2018 – Page S10

JACKSONVILLE; ATLANTA LANDOVER, MD. ;EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. ; INDIANAPOLIS -- The Ravens have a lack of viable QB options against the Bengals; the Falcons look to shut down Cowboys running back Elliott; Manning meets an old friend when the Giants take on the Bucs; the Steelers are soaring, but they can't take the Jaguars too lightly; the rolling Texans face roller-coaster Washington; and the Titans will mix it up against the Colts, The Associated Press reports

BENGALS AT RAVENS Joe Flacco's sore right hip means Ravens coach John Harbaugh may have to wait until Sunday before deciding who to start at quarterback in a pivotal game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Harbaugh's options are Flacco, an ailing 11-year veteran; Lamar Jackson, a rookie who's never made an NFL start; or Robert Griffin III, who's been inactive every game this season.

Rather than fret, Harbaugh attempted to put a positive spin on the situation.

"It just makes it tougher for the Bengals to prepare for us," he said. "So, that's kind of a good thing."

Actually, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis couldn't care less. He's got his own problems, most notably a horrific defence that set a dubious Super Bowl-era record by yielding at least 500 yards in three successive games.

Lewis fired defensive co-ordinator Teryl Austin on Monday and assumed the responsibility of running the defence with the aid of Hue Jackson , who was hired Tuesday after being dismissed as head coach of the Browns earlier this season.

Asked to describe his wild week, Lewis said quite sarcastically: "Yeah, it's what you wish for."

The Ravens (4-5) and Bengals (5-4) fully expected to be in a better place with seven games to go.

After a 4-2 start, Baltimore has lost three straight.

The Bengals have dropped four of five after opening 4-1.

The importance of this game for both teams cannot be understated.

"Us and Baltimore at this point are where we need this win," Cincinnati receiver Tyler Boyd said.

"It's a huge game to make or break a team."

Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said: "When you come off three losses, you definitely know you definitely have to win." STEELERS AT JAGUARS Even if the memory is still fresh, the temptation is there for Pittsburgh to overlook the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers might have been guilty of that in January in the AFC divisional playoffs. Mike Mitchell and Le'Veon Bell talked more about a rematch in the conference title game against New England than the Jaguars, who had beaten them soundly at home earlier in the year. The Jaguars beat them again, 45-42.

Never mind that both players are now gone, Mitchell signing with the Colts and Bell refused to sign his US$14.5-million franchise tender and is sitting out the season.

"Hopefully, people get the memo on that and respect these guys, because all they've done is kick our butt the last two times we've played them," Steelers guard David DeCastro said. "I don't know that there's much to talk about, playing at their place. It's going to be a tough game. They're a really good defence, especially for us."

But there is much to talk about.

The Steelers are soaring. After a sluggish start, they have won five straight games, including a 52-21 victory a week ago Thursday against the Carolina Panthers when Ben Roethlisberger had a perfect quarterbacking rating for the first time in nearly 11 years.

"They're going to come in with a chip on their shoulder," Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette said.

In recent weeks, the Jaguars have more closely resembled the team that went nine straight seasons without reaching the playoffs than the one that was one quarter away from beating New England and reaching its first Super Bowl. From a 3-1 start, the Jaguars have lost five in a row. And while they still have the top-rated pass defence in the league, they looked bumbling at times last week, with busted coverages and confusion in a 29-26 loss at Indianapolis.

Jacksonville can't afford another loss if it wants to return to the playoffs.

The Steelers are favoured to win, just like the previous two times. No one is talking about that on either side.

COWBOYS AT FALCONS The Atlanta Falcons' defence has one primary goal entering Sunday's game against Dallas: Slow down Ezekiel Elliott and make Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott try to beat them with his arm.

The Falcons will need all their resources to corral Elliott, who leads the NFL with 93 runs of 10 or more yards over the past three years.

Atlanta coach Dan Quinn says his defence, which gave up 211 yards rushing in last week's loss at Cleveland, must maintain gap control against a patient, powerful running back.

"He can wait to set up a block and stick his foot in the ground and really explode," Quinn said. "Oftentimes, you can see him take a handoff and see a read about to happen, then he can change the direction and really explode. I would say the second piece of that is he's really effective as a pass catcher, too."

Atlanta's struggling defence should get a boost from the return of middle linebacker Deion Jones, who hasn't played since breaking his right foot in the season opener. When healthy, Jones is the Falcons' best defender. He calls the plays, is stout against the run and is fast enough to cover running backs and receivers in coverage.

Jones's injury and season-ending surgeries for starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have been too much for the Falcons to overcome. They rank third-worst in average yards allowed and fourth-worst in scoring average.

Elliott is coming off a dazzling performance - 19 runs and six catches for 187 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns - in a win at Philadelphia. But the Cowboys had to stay the course early when Elliott had just seven yards through the team's first two possessions.

"Honestly, at the beginning, it was a little bit tough sledding," Elliott said. "We made some good adjustments. We have to have the same mentality going into this game."

Dallas' defence faces a tough challenge in matching up against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and star wideout Julio Jones, who has reached 10,000 yards receiving quicker than any player in NFL history.

TEXANS AT WASHINGTON Jay Gruden occasionally has to remind people his team is in 6-3 and in first place.

"That's a heck of deal after nine games," the Washington coach said. "But I'm also excited with the fact that we have not played our best yet, and I think the best is yet to come."

It wasn't been a flawless ride, but when rollercoaster Washington plays host to the rolling Houston Texans on Sunday, it'll be a showdown between two surprising division leaders. Washington has gotten into first place in the NFC East alternating strong and weak performances, and Houston has won six in a row to also reach 6-3 and sit atop the AFC South.

Led by veterans Alex Smith and Adrian Peterson, Washington goes into the matchup motivated by a lack of respect. Second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Texans are full of confidence after digging out of an 0-3 hole.

"Winning helps," Houston coach Bill O'Brien said. "Everybody has confidence in their ability to go out there and play well, but I also think our team understands that this is a very humbling league. This is a league, it's a short walk. It's a short walk from where you are right now to where you were when you were 0-3."

It's a very short walk for Washington from its best to its worst. A three-game October winning streak and last week's victory at Tampa Bay didn't show its best.

So there's reason why, despite leading the division by two games, Washington isn't getting the same buzz as other playoff contenders. Players are just fine with that.

Peterson figures it's too early to think playoffs, but said: "You can definitely have it in the back of your mind and understand how important each and every game is."

Coming off their bye week, the Texans fully understand the value of every game to their chances of winning a third division title in four seasons.

BUCCANEERS AT GIANTS They were long-time teammates and champions on the New York Giants' Super Bowl team in February, 2012.

Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul will add a new dimension to their eight-year friendship Sunday when the Giants (2-7) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6) at MetLife Stadium.

They'll be opponents for the first time.

As he has been the past 15 seasons, Manning will be quarterback for the Giants. Pierre-Paul will be playing defensive end for Tampa Bay in his first game at the Meadowlands since New York traded him to the Bucs in March to clear salary-cap space.

Pierre-Paul has had this date checked since the schedule was announced.

"Eli is Eli, man. I know one thing: If he's hot, he's going to continue being hot," Pierre-Paul said of Manning, who took some heat off himself by throwing three touchdown passes and engineering a late TD drive in the Giants' win over San Francisco last Monday night. "We've got to get after him early and he knows I'm coming. I'm coming Eli, I'm coming. Just letting you know."

Pierre-Paul didn't get the best sendoff after the trade. Not many teammates called him, although Manning did.

"He's a leader. I actually learned this from him, he comes in every morning real early," said PierrePaul, who has eight sacks this season, two less than the entire Giants team. "He started that as a rookie.

He never changed. Eli's a great guy. But I ain't falling asleep on him. That's for sure."

Manning laughed saying, he hopes JPP takes it easy on him.

"He's getting a lot of sacks and making plays," Manning said. "I expect him to be fired up. Hopefully we've got a game plan for him, and make sure we try to control him."

Tampa Bay has the NFL's top-ranked passing attack and is also No. 1 in total offense. With 3,251 yards passing, the Bucs have thrown for the second-most yards through the first nine games of a season in NFL history behind the 2000 St. Louis Rams (3,330).

TITANS AT COLTS The Tennessee Titans believe a whole new look might solve their Andrew Luck problem.

Hey, nothing else has worked.

Since the Indianapolis Colts drafted Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, he's started nine games against the Titans and never lost - not when he played poorly, not when he left early, not even when he got hurt. So this time, the Titans are going with a different strategy in hopes of outwitting an old nemesis.

"They give you multiple looks, they're probably more multiple than any team in the league," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "I look at it much like an offence, in terms of what we try to do on offence with packages, they do it on defence. They do it well."

The Titans (5-4) have stolen a page right out of New England's playbook and made it work.

They've allowed the fewest points per game, fewest touchdowns scored and lowest passer rating against the blitz in the league. They've moved into second place in the AFC South, one game behind Houston, by pitching consecutive second-half shutouts against Dallas' Dak Prescott and New England's Tom Brady.

Now comes the hard part: Beating Luck.

"For me it's always personal going against this guy," said Jurrell Casey, the Titans' three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman whose struggles against Luck also include two college losses. "I'm always talking mess but right now I can't talk too much mess. He's got the upper hand."

Tennessee knows the story all too well.

Before sweeping Indy (4-5) last season, when Luck sat out following shoulder surgery, the Titans had lost 11 straight in the series to three different Indy quarterbacks - Luck, former Titans starter Matt Hasselbeck and Dan Orlovsky, who ended the Colts' 0-13 start with a win over Tennessee in 2011.

Even in the game Luck initially injured the shoulder, Week 3 in 2015, his late rally gave the Colts their first win of the season.

But this week's challenge could be even more daunting with Luck playing some of the best football of his career.

Associated Graphic

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette

Washington quarterback Alex Smith

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck


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