With Pro Bowl quarterback Lamar Jackson again sidelined, backup Tyler Huntley will start the Ravens’ must-win regular-season finale Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach John Harbaugh announced Friday.
Huntley’s fourth career start will be the most important of his young career. Amid a five-game losing streak, the Ravens (8-8) need a win over the Steelers (8-7-1) in Baltimore and wins by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Las Vegas Raiders and New England Patriots on Sunday to make their fourth straight postseason appearance. They enter the weekend with just 2% playoff odds, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections.
Jackson was ruled out of Sunday’s game after not practicing this week. He has not appeared in a game since Dec. 12, when he was carted off the field in a Week 14 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player has practiced just once in that span, when he limped through a Dec. 29 workout as the Ravens prepared for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Jackson, who never missed a game because of injury before this season, will now likely end the year having missed four in a row. An illness also sidelined him in Week 11, when Huntley made his first career start in a win over the Chicago Bears.
“He wants to be out there every time,” Huntley said Friday of Jackson, whose passer rating (87.0) and QBR (50.3) this season represent his worst marks since his rookie year. “Being in the locker room, it’s so hard to not see him going out there and being great, how he usually is. … I can’t wait for ‘L’ to feel better.”
Harbaugh declined to comment on the team’s injuries this week. Asked Wednesday about Jackson’s timetable to return, he said: “I really don’t even see the value of talking about it at this point in time.”
Huntley, who’s 1-2 as a starter, had never been named a starter before a game until Friday. Jackson was listed as questionable on the team’s three previous injury reports and was inactive for all three games.
In six games this season, Huntley has completed 67.5% of his passes for 940 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions and added 35 carries for 222 yards and two scores. This week, he’s coming off one of the toughest stretches of his young career. After missing the Ravens’ Week 16 blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals with a coronavirus infection, he wasn’t cleared to practice until three days before Sunday’s game against the Rams.
Huntley said Friday that he was “still feeling it in my chest” days after he tested negative for the virus. Against a talented Rams defense, he finished 20-for-32 for 197 yards an an interception; his 66.8 passer rating was the lowest of his three starts. The Ravens didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the 20-19 loss for the first time October 2018.
“It’s like a little kid learning how to draw,” Huntley said Friday of his in-game experience. “The first time you draw, it looks crazy. Then you get a little better. You get an actual kind of picture. And then, as they keep going, they add some color to it, and it starts looking like a real-deal picture. So it’s just, the more reps, the more experience [you get] and the better you play.”
With a strong performance Sunday, Huntley could send longtime Ravens nemesis Ben Roethlisberger into retirement with a loss. The 39-year-old Steelers quarterback is approaching what’s expected to be his 249th and final NFL game. Roethlisberger has won his past four starts against the Ravens, and in a Week 13 win in Pittsburgh, he went 21-for-31 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score.
Huntley called it a “great accomplishment just to be considered” part of the AFC North rivalry. He was just 6 years old when Roethlisberger, in December 2004, made his first career start against the Ravens, and he has as many career starts as Roethlisberger has Super Bowl appearances (three).
“Tyler is preparing very hard,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “I think he has a really good focus, week in and week out. The things that happen, he’s seeing a lot of things for the first time. You’re talking about a guy who went to Chicago, didn’t know he was playing until a couple hours before the game and led a two-minute drive to win that game on the road.
“[He] went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers [in Week 15] — that was one play away — and toe-to-toe with another veteran quarterback [Matthew Stafford] last week. I think he’s affording himself really well. That’s a reflection of his preparation. I really like how focused he is. There are high standards that he’s really pushing to improve all the time. So I really love his work ethic.”
Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett, who hasn’t practiced since suffering a ribs/chest injury in Week 16, was ruled out along with Jackson. Averett’s second straight absence means the Ravens will again be without their top three outside cornerbacks — Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were already on injured reserve — against Roethlisberger and wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday. Johnson, who leads the Steelers with 1,100 receiving yards, had a season-high 105 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens in Week 13.
Ravens rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (foot), who also hasn’t practiced the past two weeks, is doubtful. Guards Ben Powers (foot) and Ben Cleveland (head) are both questionable. They were estimated to be limited participants in Friday’s walk-through, leaving the team’s backup plan at left guard uncertain. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay (ankle/knee) was estimated to be a full participant but is considered questionable.
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Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (ankle) and right tackle Patrick Mekari (hand) are expected to play Sunday after not being listed on the injury report. Brown missed Thursday’s practice, while Mekari was limited. Despite the team’s injury situation, Harbaugh called the Ravens’ week of practice “one of our best” this season.
“The guys have been tremendous,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve been fast, been on point. The timing has been excellent — both sides of the ball and special teams. They’ve been great to work with all week, just like all year. [It’s been] as good or better than we have been all year. So, yes, I feel great about the week.”
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers ruled out starting nose tackle Isaiah Buggs (illness) and reserve inside linebacker Buddy Johnson (foot). Starting left tackle Dan Moore Jr. (ankle) is doubtful after not practicing all week.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3 ½