The first start of Tyler Huntley’s NFL career ended on a last-second sack. His second start came down to a last-minute 2-point conversion. 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 only 11 games since arriving in 2020, but in that time he has become well acquainted with the slimmest 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 to the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, respectively, by a point. Their season ended in Week 18 on a field goal by the Steelers.
As Huntley prepares to make his fifth career start Sunday in 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 defenses tying up their ground game and Huntley leading 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 ahead. Against a talented (if recently inconsistent) Denver defense, the Ravens averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per pass attempt. They finished with two turnovers and 4.1 yards per play overall. Not until the Ravens’ 11th and final drive did they reach the end zone — and even that 16-play, 91-yard possession required a couple of fourth-down conversions and Denver penalties.
“At the end of the day, offense is just about executing, running your plays, doing your job,” tight end Mark Andrews said Wednesday. “We’re fortunate to have a good backup in ‘Snoop’ [Huntley] and what he’s able to do.”
The offense Huntley will likely lead 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 shaken up the depth chart, and there’s still reliable production at tight end. But elsewhere, offensive strengths and weaknesses have seemingly flipped.
With left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) practicing fully Wednesday, the Ravens could have their preferred offensive line starting together again inside Acrisure Stadium, a group considered one of the NFL’s best and a far cry from the injury-depleted, cobbled-together unit that struggled for stretches last season.
But with wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s season ended by a Lisfranc (foot) injury and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown traded to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, Huntley won’t have the firepower out wide he enjoyed in 2021. The three wide receivers he targeted most often Sunday were Demarcus Robinson, whom the Las Vegas Raiders released in August; Devin Duvernay, who’s struggled to recapture his explosive early-season form; and DeSean Jackson, 36, who was out of football until joining the Ravens’ practice squad in October.
The challenge for coordinator Greg Roman is figuring out what this Huntley-led offense can lean on. (Neither Huntley nor Jackson was made available to reporters Wednesday.) Over the Ravens’ first nine games, before their Week 10 bye, they had the NFL’s fourth-best offense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. Over the past three weeks, however, the Ravens rank 22nd overall, with a 26th-ranked passing offense and 15th-ranked rushing offense.
Their ground game struggles are most glaring. 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 designed runs.
“I think when you have that space of mindset that everything can get better, no matter what the circumstance, if we ran for 300 yards, there are still things that we can execute better,” right tackle Morgan Moses said Wednesday. “You want to be able to flourish in playoff football. Being that it’s December football, the run game is very important to our offense. I’m excited to get after it every week. You just learn from your mistakes and go out there and correct them.”
For a team accustomed to bullying run defenses, the Ravens have 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). Since the bye, they’re 17th (1.5 yards) and 13th (2.6 yards), respectively. Their conversion rate on third-down rushes has dropped from 62.8% to 52.4%.
“We’re going to keep fighting to try to break them,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “I promise you that people are spending a lot of time defending them in practice and working on them and making sure they’ve got a good scheme up for them. So that’s just going to be back and forth. We can run the ball, there’s no doubt. Everybody knows we can run the ball, and they’ll 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 habitually avoided. Despite his deep-shot struggles this season, Jackson ranks 10th in the NFL in average air yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, at 8.8 yards downfield per attempt. In 2021, he finished second (9.6 air yards per attempt).
Last year, Huntley ranked only 20th among qualifying quarterbacks in downfield aggressiveness (7.8 air yards per attempt). On Sunday, he finished with 5.8 air yards per attempt, the third-lowest mark among all qualifying Week 13 quarterbacks. There were a lot of singles — and not a lot of extra-base hits. Huntley was 27-for-32 for 187 yards and an interception, but just 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’ll need more. Their special teams play is maybe the NFL’s best. The defense has rounded into form as one of the league’s most balanced units. Huntley can lead game-changing 16-play drives, as he showed Sunday.
The hope on offense is that the Ravens can find easier ways to win.
“We know what [Huntley] can do, and we believe in him, and we trust him to come out 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’s almost no lapse. It’s the same thing with him; we believe in him. When he comes out there, no lapse. We all expect the same standard on this team.”
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Steelers by 2 1/2