Why the Ravens Will Not Fade Down the Stretch Like They Did Last Year
It's understandable if Ravens fans are experiencing a disconcerting case of deja vu.
This time last year, the Ravens were 8-4 and in first place in the AFC North, and the Cincinnati Bengals were right on their heels. The Ravens offense was scuffling, and then Lamar Jackson went down with an injury that was initially believed to be week-to-week.
The similarities to the Ravens' current circumstances are undeniable, and no one needs to be reminded how the final five weeks of last season played out.
However, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec said there is reason to be optimistic that the 2022 Ravens will not suffer the same fate as last year's team.
"There are two big differences: A year after their roster was decimated by injuries, the Ravens should be getting healthier with running back J.K. Dobbins, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and safety Marcus Williams expected to return in the coming days," Zrebiec wrote. "A year after its final five-game stretch of the regular season included games against two of the NFC's top teams, the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, and division matchups with winning Steelers and Bengals squads, Baltimore plays only one remaining team with a winning record, and that's a Week 18 game versus the Bengals."
Not only are the Ravens healthier than they were at this time last year, but backup quarterback Tyler Huntley is more seasoned. Huntley engineered a 16-play, 91-yard game-winning drive against the Denver Broncos this past Sunday and has earned the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
"Huntley doesn't get many first-team reps these days with Jackson as the starter, so it was impressive to see him step in with hardly any time to even warm up, and have instant chemistry with the starting wide receivers," our Ryan Mink wrote.
Zrebiec wrote: "Even if Huntley has to start two or three games, the Ravens will have no legitimate excuse if history repeats itself."
How the Offense Could Change Under Tyler Huntley
Speaking of Huntley, while he and Jackson have similar skill sets, they execute the offense differently, The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer observed.
Shaffer looked at how the offense could change with "Snoop" starting while Jackson is sidelined with a knee injury:
"With Jackson sidelined, the Ravens have lost maybe the NFL's top ball carrier. … Huntley is no slowpoke — he left star Broncos safety Justin Simmons lunging at air on a 14-yard scramble late in the third quarter — but he does not exert the gravitational pull on run defenses that Jackson does. And so a recently scuffling ground game, and a not-quite-full-strength running back room, now has even less margin for error.
"The Ravens' best hopes for success might rest on their read-option game. During Huntley's four straight starts to end last season, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray combined for 157 yards on 21 option handoffs (7.5 yards per carry), according to SIS, while Huntley himself added six keepers for 45 yards (7.5 yards per carry)."
WR Devin Duvernay
"Duvernay would end the [Broncos] game with two completions on two targets of 10-plus air yards from Huntley. During his six-game slump, starting in Week 6, he had just two catches on five targets of 10-plus air yards from Jackson, according to Sports Info Solutions. The Ravens need Duvernay's early-season dynamism back."
Mike Tomlin: Ravens Are a 'Great Dance Partner'
Huntley's worst performance last season was against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 18. In the 16-13 loss in overtime, Huntley was 16-for-31 for 141 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumble, although he did run for 72 yards on 12 carries.
Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said he expects to see a better version of Huntley when Pittsburgh hosts the Ravens this Sunday.
"I would imagine last year's experience really narrowed his focus as he went into the offseason," Tomlin said when speaking to the media yesterday. "He was able to identify tangible areas of his game that he needed to improve. I'm sure they were, as well. We're not going to seek comfort or find comfort in the fact that we've been in a stadium with him before. Last year's exposure for him, more than anything, tells us we had better be prepared for a guy that is significantly better."
On a side note, when Tomlin was asked about the storied rivalry between the Ravens and Steelers, he replied: "It takes two to tango, and they're a great dance partner."
His point is well-taken, although considering how hard-hitting and intense Ravens-Steelers games are, they're probably more akin to slam-dancing than a tango.