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Justice Hill has been a unheralded ‘difference maker’ for the Ravens

The fifth-year veteran has displayed the most complete skill set of any Ravens’ running back

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Heading into the 2023 season, the Baltimore Ravens’ top running back was fourth-year pro J.K. Dobbins — who was entering the final year of his rookie contract. After being hampered by injuries and limited in touches, this was supposed to be Dobbins’ breakout season. He was primed to thrive in a more featured role in a new offense that allowed him to showcase his dynamic skill set.

Unfortunately, his campaign was grounded before it could take off after he suffered a torn Achilles in the season opener. Dobbins finished with 37 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 10 total touches. After he went down, fifth-year veteran Justice Hill was able to tie his career total in rushing touchdowns by reaching the end zone for the first time since he was a rookie in 2019. While he only picked up nine yards on eight carries against a stingy Houston Texans’ defense, his pair of two-yard rushing scores in the third quarter effectively put the game out of reach.

Hill suffered some early season mesh point exchange issues with quarterback Lamar Jackson on read option, zone read, and RPO (run-pass-option) plays. This likely contributed to him not being featured more after prominently in the first half of the season, although he did make four starts between Week 2-8. Nevertheless, he maintained a consistent role on offense as the team’s best pass-protecting running back, who would come in on obvious passing downs and two-minute situations.

After being one of the brightest standouts for the Ravens in the preseason and training camp, a shoulder injury forced undrafted rookie running back Keaton Mitchell to begin the year on injured reserve. A hamstring injury caused him to miss a game just two weeks after being activated to the 53-man roster but by about the midway point of the season, Mitchell was an electrifying sensation.

His breakout game came in Week 9, when he exploded for 138 rushing yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. From there, he recorded at least one play of 20+ scrimmage yards in each of the next five games before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week 15.

At the time, Mitchell’s loss seemed to be a devastating blow given the playmaking ability he brought to the Ravens offense both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. However, while he hasn’t averaged a 20+ yard play per game, Hill has continued to provide an explosive element and an even more complete skill set.

During his Monday press conference, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh spoke glowingly of how much Hill has meant to the team’s success this year and praised him for being so “well-rounded.”

“I’ve told [Justice Hill]; he’s a supremely talented player, but his heart is even bigger,” Harbaugh said. “He runs so hard. His acceleration [and] his bursts are right up there at the top of the league. He gets the ball north, he has really good vision, [he] catches the ball [and] he pass protects. [He’s] a well-rounded back. I couldn’t say enough about him. He’s been a difference maker for us.”

When Hill was re-signed last offseason, it was widely viewed as a solid move to retain quality depth in the backfield and stability on special teams. Not many would’ve envisioned that he’d have a profound role in a potential championship run but that is exactly what he has been.

In a rematch with the Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs this weekend, Hill had a heavier workload and much great success running the ball. He finished second on the team in rushing with 66 yards on a team-leading 13 carries and added another 11 receiving yards to his scrimmage total on a pair of catches.

Hill has recorded career highs on offense across the board for the second year in a row. He primarily played on special teams in 2020 and missed all of the 2021 season with a torn Achilles suffered in practice just before Week 1.

In the regular season, he recorded 387 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 84 carries and caught 28 of his 39 targets for 206 receiving yards and a score. Hill also made significant contributions as a kick returner on special teams, including a long of 78 yards to open the second half of the Ravens’ Week 17 rout of the Miami Dolphins.

“If you’re not ready when an opportunity arises, you’re not going to be here for long,” Hill said Wednesday. “I’ve always taken advantage of all those opportunities. You have to prepare throughout the year, throughout the week, and if your number is called, just go out there and execute.”

Sixth-year veteran Gus Edwards had a career year as well, finishing second on the team in rushing yards behind Jackson with 810. Edwards has been a nearly unstoppable force in short-yardage situations and from the goal line with a team-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. While his role has remained the same, Hill’s has expanded as the season has gone on and attrition created more opportunities for him to rise to the occasion.

As exciting as the debut of four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook was last weekend, his arrival into the offense shouldn’t restrict Hill’s transcendence. Hill has proven himself this year whenever given the chance to showcase his talent. He was a X-factor against the Texans in countering the blitz and grinding out the game on the ground. Expect him to continue being a focal point this upcoming Sunday, when they host the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.

“[I’m] always ready for any opportunity that comes my way,” Hill said. “My main goal is to help the team win. That’s been my goal since I came here, so whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do.”