Ravens defensive players safety Earl Thomas and newly signed defensive tackle Jihad Ward talk about beating the Bengals Sunday.
Asked to reminisce about his first career NFL start, Lamar Jackson was not overly sentimental. There are cable-movie reruns he probably feels more strongly about. He remembered the Ravens beating the Cincinnati Bengals at home last season, and that was “pretty cool.” It was, he said Wednesday, all he needed to remember.
But what’s past is prologue, and the Ravens’ Week 11 win over the Bengals created a template for Jackson’s success in Baltimore — one they have largely diverged from this season, intentionally and unintentionally. He set a franchise record for carries by a quarterback that afternoon, and the defense clamped down on Cincinnati at M&T Bank Stadium, and that was enough.
The Ravens’ 23-17 win Sunday over these Bengals was a throwback to 2018, to a time when the defense was reliably dominant and the offense’s most valuable asset was Jackson’s elite feet. It was about as old-school a result as the Ravens have had all season.
Less than a year after Jackson carried the ball a staggering 26 times for 119 yards in the first game of the post-Joe Flacco Era, he left the M&T Bank Stadium field behind only one of his playing idols, Michael Vick, in single-game rushing yardage. Jackson finished with 19 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown and went 21-for-33 for 236 yards, the first player in NFL history to record at least 200 yards passing and 150 yards rushing in a regular-season game.
The Ravens defense, meanwhile, limited the Bengals to 250 yards — 5 fewer than they gave up in Jackson’s debut. Just like old times.
“It was a dogfight,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “It was.”
The Ravens’ second straight win was not close until late, when penalties helped along a fourth-quarter touchdown drive by Cincinnati, setting up an ultimately unsuccessful onside kick. It probably should not have been even as close as it was: The Ravens nearly doubled the winless Bengals in yardage (497-250) and time of possession (39:42 to 20:18) and held even on the turnover battle (one apiece).
But even after Cincinnati returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the game never seemed out of the Ravens’ control. That was often the feeling last season, when Jackson and the NFL’s top-ranked defense choked the life out of most opponents with a style that didn’t produce many big plays but certainly prevented them.
On Sunday, Jackson’s improvements as a passer were obvious. With rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown sidelined by an ankle injury, the Bengals’ lowly defense seemingly had to worry only about the 25-yard box in front of Jackson on every play. No one was running by them deep. Jackson still found tight end Mark Andrews six times for 99 yards, and six other receivers had multiple catches.
That did enough to open lanes for the Ravens’ top-ranked rushing attack. Running backs Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill combined for 117 of the team’s season-high 269 yards. On the Ravens’ most time-consuming drive, a nearly 10-minute fourth-quarter possession that went 83 yards and ended, surprisingly, with only a field goal for a 23-10 lead, the Ravens ran for 73 yards.
“I love running the ball,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “It’s one of the reasons I play the game. It’s to pound other teams and dominate their fronts.”
“You love that, sitting over there on the sidelines, and you’re just watching them march down the field,” safety Chuck Clark said. “They’re keeping us off the field, and they’re just racking up yards and getting points — getting some type of score, at least. Love it.”
Ravens players and coaches have talked about how this offense will evolve this season, adapting to personnel and opponents. Through six weeks, there have already been two distinct iterations: the early-season, high-flying passing attack highlighted by Andrews and Brown and, more recently, the ground-and-pound offense that on Sunday finished with more carries than pass attempts for the second straight week and third overall.
The defense has changed because it has had to — injuries, blown assignments, schematic decisions. And it’s improved because it’s had nowhere to go but up, really. After allowing 500-yard games in back-to-back losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, the Ravens held the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bengals to a combined 519.
The necessary caveats apply: Pittsburgh was playing with a second-string quarterback, and then a third-string quarterback. Cincinnati was without star wide receiver A.J. Green and its top offensive tackles. But the Ravens were missing starting linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and cornerback Jimmy Smith on Sunday, too, not to mention their two lost-for-the-season defensive backs, Tony Jefferson and Tavon Young. For now, they’re winning battles of attrition.
“They played fantastic,” coach John Harbaugh said of the defense. “They did another great job in sudden change again. … The defense, they deserve all the credit.”
When the Ravens next face the Bengals, their Nov. 10 meeting might prove to be a port in the storm. The Ravens have started 4-2 for the second straight season, but half of their wins are against teams with a combined 0-11 record. With the next two months on the Ravens’ schedule, not even a two-game lead in the AFC North should feel comfortable.
There’s a bye in Week 8. There’s the rematch in Cincinnati. But when the opponent with the second-worst record in that stretch is the Super Bowl runner-up Los Angeles Rams (3-3), there is a storm brewing. Over the next eight weeks, the Ravens will host the New England Patriots (No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings entering Week 6), Houston Texans (No. 10) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 1) and hit the road to face the Seattle Seahawks (No. 9), Rams (No. 17) and Buffalo Bills (No. 19).
The Ravens cannot make the mistakes they did Sunday — the blown kickoff, a fumble by Andrews on a second-quarter hurdle, the pain-in-the-butt penalties — and expect to win next Sunday at the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field. “Small stuff like that, we’ve got to clean it up in practice,” Jackson said.
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Through six weeks, though, the Ravens are again atop the AFC North. They don’t have to win one particular way. They don’t need to dazzle with a passing attack or have the NFL’s stingiest defense, though both would be helpful. They just need to figure out how to win, be it against strong hosts or weak guests.
“To find a win to win the game, to overcome our own mistakes, speaks a lot to our guys,” Harbaugh said. “And with that, to be the team that we can be — our guys know this — we need to keep improving our efficiency, not giving opponents opportunities that they really haven’t earned. … That’s the thing that we have to continue working on. That’s the difference between good and great in the National Football League, and that’s what we’ll focus on.”