For the second straight week, the Pittsburgh Steelers will face a mobile quarterback and a run-first offense. This time, it will be the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens, who will be starting their backup quarterback Tyler Huntley. In the four games he started last season, including one against the Steelers, Huntley rushed for 294 yards with 6.3 yards per carry. On a Thursday interview, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was asked if it’s tougher to blitz mobile quarterbacks according to a transcript provided by the team.
“I think you have to pick and choose your spots,” Austin said when asked if blitzing mobile quarterbacks is tougher than scrambling quarterbacks. “I think a lot of times when you’re blitzing, the idea is maybe not to sack him, but to keep them in the pocket so you cut down on running lanes and the ways he can get out and really hurt your defense.”
Blitzing mobile quarterbacks to contain their rushing ability is a common strategy. As Austin said, any blitz they send will be strategic with the goal of containing Huntley’s escapability from the pocket. However, blitzing also has the potential for a counter intuitive effect, as it may serve to open running and passing lanes.
“A lot of times you see with the mobile quarterbacks,” Austin continued. “When they get outside the pocket, that’s when they’re at their most dangerous. So, there’s usually a strategic element involved in the blitz and why you’d want to, but it all depends on the guy.”
For the Steelers, who blitz the 5th highest rate in the league at 32.2%, it’s reasonable to expect that they will send a few men early and often. However, it’s not that simple.
When the Steelers played Huntley in Week 18 of last season, they blitzed 21.4% of the time, which was below their 2021 season average of 27%. When they did blitz, Huntley had a 91.4 PFF passing grade and an 81.3 passer rating, compared to a 42.2 grade and 21.8% of the time, which was below their 2021 season average of 27%. When they did blitz, Huntley had a 91.4 PFF passing grade and an 81.3 passer rating, compared to a 42.2 grade and 21.8 rating when they did not.
Both Huntley’s rushing and passing numbers are significantly better when he is blitzed according to PFF. While he only played four games, Huntley’s 2021 passer rating when blitzed was 94.9, compared to 68.2 when he wasn’t. Moreover, he had a run grade of 82.3 when blitzed, which ranked 6th in the league, and was better than his run grade when he was not blitzed.
Huntley playing better against the blitz is not necessarily common for mobile quarterbacks. In fact, Ravens’ starting quarterback Lamar Jackson has a better passing grade when he is not blitzed than when he is. The Steelers have plenty of tape on Huntley, and having played him once already certainly doesn’t hurt. If they do their homework on Huntley, they may find it wiser to not blitz too often.