Ravens must try to heal, remain focused during buildup to 'Harbaugh Bowl'

With only three days to prepare for tough 49ers team, Ravens won't go through physical practices

November 21, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

John Harbaugh celebrated his team's latest victory by returning to his office at the Ravens' headquarters in Owings Mills and watching game tape until very late into Sunday evening.

The 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, which hung into the balance until the final minute when the Ravens made a key defensive stand inside their 10-yard line, wasn't just as any other victory to move beyond. It elevated the Ravens into first place in the AFC North, improved their division record to 3-0, and upped their home mark to 5-0.

But there was no choice because this isn't just any other week, especially for Harbaugh. The Ravens face the unenviable task of preparing for the San Francisco 49ers, whose 9-1 record is the second best in football, in little more than three days, all while dealing with the hype that surrounds playing on Thanksgiving night and participating in a sibling rivalry.

When the Ravens' Harbaugh stares across the sideline Thursday night and sees his brother, Jim, the head coach of the 49ers, it will mark the first time in NFL history that two brothers will match up against each other as the respective head coaches.

"I've never rooted against him, really ever," said John Harbaugh, who is 15 months older than Jim. "We played against each other one time in baseball in high school, an American Legion team. My Dad was actually coaching Jim's team, and we won, 1-0. That's the last time I remember our teams going [against the other's]. We're always on the same team all the time. It's going to be a little different that way, but really, it's not about that. We're not going to be playing. It's going to be the players playing in the game."

An at-times playful and sarcastic John Harbaugh answered questions about his relationship with his brother for more than 20 minutes on a conference call with the national media Monday. He certainly hasn't heard the last of such questions in advance of Thursday's nationally-televised game, no matter how much the focus is steered off family and onto football.

However, the reality is that as much attention as the story line will generate, Harbaugh has far bigger worries. Coming off a tight and grueling game, the Ravens have to bounce back physically and emotionally in such a short period of time against San Francisco, a team that has been labeled one of the most physical in the league.

The 49ers' defense is ranked eighth overall in the NFL, and they are first overall in defending the run, and sixth overall in running the football.

"The challenge is going to be being healthy," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who has been dealing with a neck issue the past couple of weeks. "Short week, guys got banged up. I got banged up. We've got to make sure we're taking the time and being smart with it. We'll be ready. This game was on the schedule a long time ago and guys will be ready."

John Harbaugh said that the Ravens will have more "mental" practices this week than physical ones, allowing his players the necessary time to recuperate and game plan for a team that they haven't played since 2007. The Ravens had a walk-through practice today and Harbaugh said pretty much everybody took part and he praised the players for their attention to detail and enthusiasm.

The big health question, of course, will be about the availability of middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who missed the Bengals' game with a toe injury, breaking his streak of 57 consecutive regular-season games started. Lewis, who could be a game-time decision again Thursday, was not walking with an obvious limp as he left the Ravens' practice bubble with the rest of his teammates. He declined to be interviewed later, and Harbaugh also provided no update on Lewis' condition.

With Lewis on the sidelines Sunday, the Ravens' defense played pretty well for three quarters before nearly allowing the Bengals to erase a 17-point deficit in the final 14 minutes. Trailing by a touchdown, Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton led his team down to the Ravens' 7-yard line before the Bengals were stopped on four consecutive plays.

Several players said later that there were a couple of communication issues, but it was mostly business as usual without Lewis and with inside linebacker Jameel McClain relaying defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's calls to his teammates.

"Ray Lewis is a dominant force in football. Everybody knows that, so not having him makes the game different, but at the end of the day, we've got 11 guys out there that are prepared to play and go out there and do what they [have] to do," McClain said.

The Ravens will only have three days to get those issues ironed out. The team's coaching and support staff had been watching some film on San Francisco earlier this season, but that process didn't start in earnest until Sunday night. By the time Ravens players arrived at the team complex today, the iPads that contain the game plan for facing the 49ers had already been loaded with the relevant information.

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