Tyler Huntley’s first career NFL start ended with a last-second sack. His second start came down to a 2-point conversion in the final minute. A last-minute touchdown was the difference in his third career start. His fourth career start was decided in overtime.
The Ravens’ backup quarterback has played in just 11 games since arriving in 2020, but in that time he’s become well-acquainted with the smallest of margins and what separates winning and losing by them. In Week 11 last year, Huntley and the Ravens beat the Chicago Bears by a field goal. In Week 14 and Week 16, they lost by one point to the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, respectively. Their season ended in Week 18 on a Steelers field goal.
As Huntley prepares to make his fifth career start Sunday at Pittsburgh (5-7), filling in for injured starter Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ offense suddenly finds itself in a position its new quarterback can understand. With the defense tying up its ground game and Huntley running a conservative passing game, the Ravens (8-4) have almost no margin for error.
Their narrow win Sunday over the Broncos, who knocked out Jackson (knee) on a first-quarter sack, offered a possible preview of the struggles to come. Against a talented (if recently inconsistent) defense in Denver, the Ravens averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per pass attempt. They finished with two punt returns and 4.1 yards per game overall. It wasn’t until the Ravens’ 11th and final drive that they reached the end zone — and even that 16-play, 91-yard drive required a couple of fourth-down conversions and penalties for Denver.
“At the end of the day, offense is just about execution, running plays, getting the job done,” Mark Andrews said Wednesday. “We’re lucky to have good backup in ‘Snoop’ [Huntley] and what he is able to do.”
The offense Huntley will run Sunday is different from the one he inherited after Jackson suffered a season-ending ankle injury last December. There are still questions at running back, where injuries and inconsistency have rattled the depth chart, and there is still reliable production at tight end. But elsewhere, the offensive strengths and weaknesses have seemingly flipped.
With left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) practicing fully Wednesday, the Ravens could have their favorite offensive line starting together again in Acrisure Stadium, a group considered one of the best in the NFL and away from the injury-depleted, cobbled-together unit who struggled for stretches last season.
But with catcher Rashod Bateman’s season ended with a Lisfranc (foot) injury and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown traded to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, Huntley won’t have the firepower he enjoyed in 2021. The three receivers he targeted most often Sunday were Demarcus Robinson, whom the Las Vegas Raiders released in August; Devin Duvernay, who has struggled to regain his explosive early-season form; and DeSean Jackson, 36, who was out of football until he joined the Ravens’ practice squad in October.
The challenge for coordinator Greg Roman is figuring out what to build on this Huntley-led offense. (Neither Huntley nor Jackson were made available to reporters Wednesday.) Through the Ravens’ first nine games before the Week 10 layoff, they had the NFL’s fourth-best offense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. Over the past three weeks, however, the Ravens have ranked 22nd overall with a 26th-ranked passing offense and 15th-ranked rushing offense.
Their ground game struggles are the most blatant. The Ravens have averaged 4.1 yards per carry since returning from the bye, 17th best in the NFL in that span, but just 3.7 yards per carry on projected runs.
“I think when you have that mindset that everything can get better, no matter the circumstance, if we ran 300 yards, there’s still things we can execute better,” right tackle Morgan Moses said Wednesday. “You want to be able to thrive in playoff football. Being December football, the running game is very important to our offense. I’m excited to pick it up every week after that. You just learn from your mistakes and go out there and correct them.”
For a team used to harassing run defenses, the Ravens surprisingly struggled to win at the line of scrimmage. Before the bye, the Ravens ranked second in the NFL in yards before contact per rush (2.2), according to TruMedia, and seventh in yards after contact per rush (3.3). Bye, they are 17th (1.5 meters) and 13th (2.6 meters) respectively. Their conversion rate on third down rushes dropped from 62.8% to 52.4%.
“We’re going to keep fighting to try to break them down,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “I promise you people spend a lot of time defending them in practice and working on them and making sure they have a good scheme for them. So this will just be back and forth. We can run the ball, there’s no doubt about it. Everyone knows we can run the ball and they will prepare to stop our run. We want to be able to run the ball.”
Especially if their passing game under Huntley settles for the kind of small ball that Jackson has typically avoided. Despite his depth struggles this season, Jackson ranks 10th in the NFL in average passing yards per NFL Next Gen Stats at 8.8 yards per attempt. In 2021, he finished second (9.6 yards per attempt).
Last year, Huntley ranked just 20th among qualified quarterbacks in downfield aggressiveness (7.8 air yards per attempt). On Sunday, he finished with 5.8 yards per attempt, the third-lowest mark among all Week 13 quarterbacks. There were a lot of singles and not many extra-base hits. Huntley was 27-for-32 for 187 yards and an interception, but only eight of his attempts were thrown at least 10 yards downfield, according to TruMedia. (He completed five for 72 yards.) Only two attempts were at least 20 yards downfield, neither of which was completed.
For one week, that production was enough. “We needed 10” points, Harbaugh said Monday, “and we got 10.” But for the Ravens to stay ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, they will need more. Their special teams game is perhaps the best in the NFL. The defense has become one of the most balanced units in the league. Huntley can run 16-game streaks, as he showed Sunday.
The hope on offense is that the Ravens can find easier ways to win.
“We know what [Huntley] we can do and we believe in him and we trust him to come in there and do the job,” outside linebacker Tyus Bowser said Wednesday. “We have so many parts on defense [coming in and out of the game], and there is almost no gap. It is the same with him; we believe in him. When he gets out there, no escape. We all expect the same standard from this team.”
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
The line: Steelers by 2 1/2