The Ravens and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are stuck.
No team wants to rely on a short passing game, but that’s the Ravens right now. They’d prefer to be able to mix and match, combining their powerful running game with a versatile passing attack, but they can’t. Some of it is by design and some of it is because they are ill-equipped.
In the spirit of Christmas, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was in a giving mood Sunday as he turned the ball over three times, including one interception that was returned 17 yards for a touchdown by safety Chuck Clark. But the Ravens still lost, 20-19, as their playoff hopes crumbled.
The Ravens turned all of Stafford’s turnovers into points with a touchdown and two field goals from Justin Tucker, but that’s not good enough when playing a team with an explosive offense like the Rams’. Turnovers and scoring opportunities have to be turned into touchdowns, and if they aren’t, you get what the Ravens got Sunday.
Another loss. That’s five in a row.
And what you saw Sunday is what you will see in the playoffs if the Ravens play a top offensive team like the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills or even the New England Patriots if rookie quarterback Mac Jones gets hot. The Ravens can’t compete because they won’t take chances. They play small ball, most of it by design.
Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, filling in for injured starter Lamar Jackson, completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 passes. Most of those were 8- to 10-yard outs, quick slants or short crossing routes across the middle. That’s great if you want to control the time of possession against a team like the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions or Chicago Bears.
It’s not so good against the Rams, who have talented receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp and tight end Tyler Higbee. They can score quickly and from almost anywhere on the field, which is one of the reasons the Ravens lost despite having more than a seven-minute advantage in time of possession.
When you play small ball, there is virtually no room for error. A team like the Ravens can’t afford a penalty at a crucial moment because their chances of gaining a first down on third-and-long are almost as slim as their playoff chances. It’s understandable why Roman might be so guarded.
The Ravens’ offensive line has trouble pass blocking, so it’s not as if they can use a lot of passing plays that require the quarterback to drop back 5 to 7 yards. They gave up five sacks Sunday and have allowed 54 for the season, which is one of the main reasons Jackson is walking around with a limp. To counter the pass rush, Huntley has to throw quickly, take a sack or take off running.
He took off a lot against the Rams, which is why he finished with 54 rushing yards on six carries. The Ravens’ best offensive play, as it was with Jackson, is the quarterback scrambling after the pocket collapses. And when that doesn’t work, the Ravens are in trouble.
It’s safe to assume that Roman knows Huntley, a second-year undrafted quarterback, isn’t ready for a more complex passing game. To call this a watered-down passing attack would be unfair, but it’s very simplistic. Huntley basically looks at one receiver and if he isn’t open, goodbye.
He missed two potential touchdown passes in the second quarter, overthrowing Devin Duvernay in the back of the end zone on a third-and-5 with 3:48 to go and completing a 33-yard pass to tight end Mark Andrews down the right sideline. The throw to Andrews was a great idea, but Marquise Brown was streaking down the middle of the field for what would have been an easy 65-yard touchdown.
Another miscue happened late in the first half when Huntley threw a long pass to Brown, who broke inside while the pass sailed to the outside. The pass was picked off by safety Jordan Fuller at the Rams’ 37-yard line and returned to the Ravens’ 29. Three plays later, Stafford threw a short pass over the middle to Kupp, who turned it into an 18-yard touchdown.
Maybe the moral of this story is an easy one: just keep it simple.
“‘Hollywood’ [Brown] beat him a different way than I was thinking,” Huntley said. “It was just a miscommunication. I wish I could have that one back, though. That was one of those ones that you want to have back, but football is football. Kudos to No. 4, he made a good play right there.
“The Rams have a good defense — a great defense. They played very physical down there. We just came up short every time we got down there.”
This is all part of the Jackson fallout. With their star quarterback missing the past three games because of an injured ankle, the Ravens have gone conservative. Huntley played small ball in his two other starts this season, and the Ravens stuck with the short passing game when journeyman Josh Johnson filled in for Huntley last week against the Bengals.
It’s a shame because the Ravens have the makings of a really good group of receivers. They have speed in Duvernay and Brown. They have a tough guy who can go deep and make catches over the middle in rookie Rashod Bateman, and a possession type in James Proche II. And they have one of the best tight ends in the NFL in Andrews.
But they can’t pass block and have a quarterback going through on-the-job training.
“Yes, he played a poised game. He made some plays,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Huntley. “I’m sure there are plays he’s going to want to have back. We’re looking … We’re going to judge all of our players by the highest standard. As a starting quarterback, there are plays he could have made there, too, with his legs and with his arm. He also made a number of plays and operated for the most part well.”
But “well” wasn’t good enough. And neither was the Ravens’ offensive line or the team’s short passing game.
Even with Stafford and the Rams offense having a bad day, the Ravens played well enough to win. But they didn’t.
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Because they are stuck.