5 things we learned from the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals

1.) The Ravens got the win they needed but they're still not the team they want to be.

The Ravens had to beat the struggling Bengals at home to keep a foothold in the AFC North. Their remaining schedule is difficult enough that they can't afford any slip-ups in their divisional match race with the Pittsburgh Steelers.


So in that sense, they left M&T Bank Stadium satisfied Sunday afternoon.

But team leaders Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs have played enough January football to know that getting to the playoffs is one thing. Playing well enough to win in the postseason is another. And right now, the Ravens aren't all the way there.


They've beaten one team decisively all season — the winless Cleveland Browns. Stingy as their defense has been, we've learned how heavily it depends on injured cornerback Jimmy Smith. Meanwhile, the Ravens' greatest offensive threat is a kicker.

"Man, if it ain't tough it ain't the Raven way," Suggs said after the team broke a five-game losing streak against the Bengals. But he didn't say it in a gloating way. He wants to see his team put games away more cleanly.

Flacco offered similar comments from the offensive side.

"One play happens in the wrong way, for whatever reason, they're going to be right back in it," he said, recalling his mindset as he watched the Bengals rally from a 16-3 deficit. "I felt like we let the game get to that point today, and it's never a good feeling."


We've heard a lot of comments like that from key Ravens this season. They're happy to hold the division lead with five weeks to go. They believe in their talent. But they know they've yet to hit the kind of stride that carried them through the playoffs in 2012.

2.) No one has ever kicked a football better than Justin Tucker is kicking it right now.

Suggs allowed himself a pregnant pause before he answered a question about Tucker, now 27-for-27 on the season.

Like most veterans, the dean of the Ravens is used to treating kickers as not quite people. But even he could not poo-poo a performance in which Tucker made three kicks of 50 yards or more, and saved the team's sputtering offense.

"He's gonna love this," Suggs said. "We've got the best kicker in the league.  There's no doubt about it. But we've got to keep the young kid humble."

Tucker's performance almost transcends best-in-the-league territory. I've never seen a kicker hit so casually from beyond 50 yards. Certainly not on a worn grass field in the chilly winds of late November.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how Tucker is on the vanguard of a new generation of kickers who are redefining our understanding of efficiency on long field goals.

I spoke to former Ravens kicker Matt Stover for the article and he emphasized how much weather and field conditions affect accuracy, especially on longer kicks. Stover noted he was far more efficient on the well-tended field at M&T Bank Stadium than he had been in his early days in Cleveland.

In that context, he argued Tucker's performance is more impressive than that of Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey, the only player with a higher career field-goal percentage. Bailey kicks under a retractable roof at home.

Tucker is so confident that at this point, he just runs on the field for kicks of 54 and 57 yards, almost daring coach John Harbaugh to pull him off.

Meanwhile, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent pushed an extra point wide when his team was trying to catch the Ravens in the third quarter.  It was his fourth missed PAT in four games. Tucker has never missed one in his career.

So in one area of the game, at least, the Ravens are holding an ace.

3.) The Ravens still need to push the pace on offense more consistently.

The Ravens came out in hurry-up mode and zipped down the field for a touchdown on their first drive of the game. Breshad Perriman made a tough catch in the corner of the end zone to cap it off. Little did they know that 11-play, 75-yard would stand as their offensive highlight of the day.

Several times this season, the Ravens' struggling offense has surged to life by adopting a quicker tempo for a drive or two. But we haven't seen them stick with it for longer stretches.

Flacco lamented that fact after the game. "I felt like they were feeling a little bit of pressure early on, and for whatever reason, we kind of, in the second half, weren't able to do that," he said.

Flacco clearly enjoys the quick decision making of the two-minute offense, so it will be intriguing to see if offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg forces the issue more regularly over the last five weeks of the season.

The Ravens certainly need to keep tinkering, because their inability to finish drives remains a glaring weakness. Flacco said he feels as tense as any fan on the couch when he recognizes the team allowing a game to become too close.

"In order for us to take that next step and be the kind of team that we want to be and be a championship football team, we're not going to survive week in and week out doing things like this," he said.

4.) The Ravens' pass rush came through in the end, but they need it to be more consistent.

Linebacker Elvis Dumervil made a triumphant return from injury, stripping Andy Dalton on Cincinnati's final drive to seal the victory.

Suggs also sacked Dalton twice and forced him to fumble each time, though the Ravens recovered neither loose ball.

So on the surface, it was a signature performance by the Ravens' graybeard edge rushers. But as Suggs acknowledged afterward, the few big plays obscured the fact the Ravens failed to bother Dalton for much of the game.

"I didn't really think he let us get after him too much," Suggs said.

With cornerback Jimmy Smith still out because of a back injury, the Ravens needed a more consistent rush to compensate for a thin secondary. Instead, they allowed Dalton to throw for 191 yards in the second half, and that was without receiver A.J. Green in the game as a deep threat.

It was telling that with Dumervil back, the Ravens put linebacker Za'Darius Smith on the inactive list. They hoped Smith would grow into Pernell McPhee's old role as a third pass rusher, but that hasn't happened. And as a result, they're still left relying heavily on the 32-year-old Dumervil and the 34-year-old Suggs.

That might be enough for this year, but it's a long-term problem for the franchise.

5.) We're starting to see why the Ravens liked Kenneth Dixon so much in training camp.

Sure, 13 carries for 49 yards against the Bengals isn't exactly Ezekiel Elliott territory. But after Dixon missed the first four games and hardly played in the next three, he has been a significant contributor each of the last three weeks.

The rookie from Louisiana Tech runs through contact, often gaining an extra two or three yards when he appears bottled up. At a compact 212 pounds, he packs a wallop. He also catches the ball smoothly out of the backfield.


Dixon hasn't established himself as a breakaway threat, but the Ravens don't necessarily need him to be. He and Terrance West are both tough runners whose styles seem likely to play well in the cold weather to come.


The Ravens moved on from Justin Forsett in part because of their faith in Dixon's all-around talent. Now that he's healthy, we're all seeing his promise.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun