A year ago, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was critical of the Cincinnati Bengals after they kicked a late field goal to ruin the Ravens’ shutout in a 27-3 victory.
On Sunday, the Ravens’ coaching staff was saluting the Bengals after a 24-point win that put Cincinnati (5-2) in first place in the AFC North after seven weeks.
There was much discussion about whether there was a shift in power brewing in the division before the season started, but the Bengals made it official Sunday. They crushed the Ravens, 41-17, and made Baltimore (5-2) appear as lifeless as the Los Angeles Chargers, who the Ravens whipped, 34-6, last week.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has always been reluctant to wave the white flag. He has traditionally played his starting quarterbacks to the bitter end in almost every game, regardless of the score. But once Cincinnati went ahead 41-17 with about seven minutes remaining, Harbaugh pulled starter Lamar Jackson.
It was no más.
“They came into a division game on the road and played great, and they won and beat us,” Harbaugh said. “We were beaten soundly, and that’s what happened.”
It was a statement game. For the Ravens, this could be a preview of what happens when they play a defensive team with an athletic front four and Jackson can’t control the pace of the game. Without Jackson’s dominance, the Ravens’ weak running game and poor pass coverage are exposed.
As for Cincinnati, it was a coming-out party. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in second-year player Joe Burrow and a great complement on the outside in rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who toasted the Ravens’ top cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, on the way to 201 yards. Not only do the Bengals have Burrow and Chase, but they have some other highly skilled offensive players in running back Joe Mixon and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
If you’re waiting for the Bengals to fall apart like they have in previous years, you might be waiting a while. Cincinnati had only one penalty for 5 yards on Sunday. The Bengals converted one of two fourth-down situations, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is when you’re the Bengals. With Cincinnati up 27-17 with 11:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bengals actually made a stop on a fourth-and-7 at the Ravens’ 38-yard line.
They would have folded in previous years. These Bengals are for real.
“It’s a different team,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We’re allowed to build and improve, and we just have a different mentality right now. We’ve done a lot of different things to get to this position, and I’ve given out a lot of tough speeches over time about great things to come and [to] keep working. And you hope and pray that the team believes in that. That’s the foundation of what we’re building, and this is the result. This is their moment.
“Everything we’ve talked about, we’ve earned. We’re starting to earn respect, but we still have a long way to go. Just winning one road game against a divisional opponent, that’s what you have to do if you want to compete in this league. We have a long way to go, but I’m really proud of the collective team effort. This was a complete game today by all three phases, and that’s what we need to come on the road to Baltimore with and beat them.”
Like Cincinnati, the Cleveland Browns have an athletic front four, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ can be just as active. It’s not as if any of these division rivals have developed a special formula to stop Jackson, but they get off blocks and run to the ball. The Ravens’ offensive line is effective when they can make quick contact and Baltimore’s running backs get through the hole in a hurry.
But starting halfback J.K. Dobbins and top backup Gus Edwards are both out for the season with knee injuries. With the backs the Ravens have on their roster, they can still win 10 to 12 games, but it’s going to be tough to win in the postseason.
It’s not the Ravens’ fault. They were forced to sign aging players such as Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell, who don’t have the speed to be a threat off tackle or the consistent acceleration to pop a big run up the middle. With this running game, Jackson has to be the top threat outside the tackles.
With this offensive line, Jackson has to improvise and make plays in the pocket, which is why he often held onto the ball too long Sunday. Jackson rushed 12 times for 88 yards and completed 15 of 31 passes for 257 yards, but this wasn’t the Jackson we’d all come to expect in 2021.
Jackson never found his phone booth to become Superman. The Bengals, with five sacks, didn’t let him. Neither did the Ravens’ running game.
“We always have to have two guys on him, one inside shoulder [and] one outside shoulder,” said Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard, who had 2 ½ sacks. “So, you always have to have two people on the ball.”
Harbaugh doesn’t have many options with the running game. The Ravens are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. But it’s the defense that has been so puzzling.
The Ravens allowed 520 yards of total offense as Burrow completed 23 of 38 passes for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 113.5. He threw touchdown passes of 55, 32 and 82 yards, and the Bengals had touchdowns runs of 21 and 46 yards.
The Ravens again had the tackling blues. They spent a lot of time tackling air or laying on the ground appearing to look for gophers.
“I guess I’ll look at the film and kind of figure it out,” Humphrey said of the poor play. “I think things just didn’t go our way early. So, as ‘Wink’ says, it’s not as bad as it seems; but right now, it seems pretty bad.”
Oh, it was bad. Ugly.
Instead of looking at the video, maybe the Ravens want to burn the film and move on. They’ve already proven they can play at a high level in last week’s rout of the Chargers. After Sunday’s game, Harbaugh tried to find the words to sum up the loss.
He said the NFL is a week-to-week and game-to-game league. Basically, it comes down to which team is hot at the end of the regular season and can carry that momentum into the playoffs.
“There never is any running narrative, it just doesn’t exist,” Harbaugh said.
But we do know that the AFC North race is going to be hard-fought. If Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield ever steps up his game, the Browns have as much talent as any team in the league. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has seen his best days and his arm will tire before the end of the season, but you can never count out Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
As for the Ravens, they have issues with their running game. The defense seems to have a personality disorder. One week they play like the 1985 Bears, and the next week they play like the Bad News Bears.
Regardless, the Ravens can’t be as bad as they played Sunday. In fact, they looked like the Chargers last week, who were also headed into their bye week.
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