After another dispiriting home loss, the Ravens will try to defend their turf in prime time against the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals blew them out twice in 2021. Do the matchups look different this time around? Here’s who has the edge:
Ravens passing game vs. Bengals pass defense
Lamar Jackson played his worst game of the season in a Week 4 loss to the Buffalo Bills, throwing two interceptions and struggling to see downfield targets against a defense that consistently pressured him without blitzing. The bad news for the Ravens is that the Bengals present a similar challenge, blitzing on just 17.2% of drop-backs and harassing quarterbacks with a pair of productive edge rushers in Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Cincinnati sacked Jackson five times in a 41-17 blowout in Week 7 last year, with Hubbard and Hendrickson combining for 3 1/2 of those. This would be an opportune week for left tackle Ronnie Stanley to return. Daniel Faalele and Morgan Moses struggled to keep Buffalo’s outstanding edge rushers from hurrying Jackson, and Stanley would likely offer an instant upgrade in pass protection. The Ravens will also be without No. 1 wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who hurt his foot against the Bills and did not practice this week. Bateman is Jackson’s top downfield target, so Demarcus Robinson (five catches on 10 targets, 41 yards) will be asked to step up. Tight end Mark Andrews remains Jackson’s top target overall (24 catches on 36 targets, 260 yards), but he had a subpar game against the Bills, in part because officials wiped out a catch at the goal line with a push-off call and in part because of Buffalo’s superb inside linebackers. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay (12 catches on 13 targets, three touchdowns) has grown into a reliable third option for Jackson.
Cincinnati’s pass defense ranks eighth in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and has held opposing quarterbacks to 5.9 yards per attempt. Behind Hendrickson and Hubbard, the Bengals have solid players throughout their secondary with cornerbacks Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton and safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III. They have excelled on third and fourth down, allowing opponents to convert on just 17 of 58 chances.
Bengals passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
Joe Burrow was regarded as a leading Most Valuable Player candidate coming into the season but got off to a rough start with four interceptions in an opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has played better the last two weeks with five touchdown passes and no interceptions in wins over the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick loves playing against the Ravens, whom he torched for 941 yards and seven touchdowns in a pair of blowout wins last season. The Bengals invested heavily in improving their pass protection, but Burrow has been sacked on 9.3% of his drop-backs through four games, up from 8.9% last season. Right tackle La’el Collins has been the worst culprit on an offensive line that could be Cincinnati’s Achilles heel. But it’s fair to ask if the Ravens, 27th in the league in pressures per drop-back, are equipped to take advantage. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh did produce his first sack of the season to go with a forced fumble against the Bills. Though the Ravens added Jason Pierre-Paul to their mix of edge rushers, they have missed Justin Houston, who suffered a groin injury in Week 3 and has not practiced since. They’re blitzing on 27.6% of drop-backs under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald but struggling to get home with those extra rushers.
Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Brandon Stephens will face an extreme challenge this week from Cincinnati wide receivers Tee Higgins (20 catches, 315 yards, two touchdowns) and Ja’Marr Chase (25 catches, 293 yards, two touchdowns), a pair of big, fast targets who can score from anywhere on the field. It’s a scary matchup for a defense that struggled to prevent long pass plays in a Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins and a Week 3 win over the New England Patriots. Higgins, however, was limited in practice by an ankle injury and is questionable to play. On the plus side, the Ravens lead the league with 10 takeaways, a sign that Peters’ return and their offseason investment in safety Marcus Williams (three interceptions) have paid off. A new problem arose Thursday when Peters (quadriceps) appeared on the team’s injury report; he did not participate in practice Friday and would be a major absence if he cannot go Sunday.
Ravens running game vs. Bengals run defense
The Ravens ran for 162 yards on 33 attempts against Buffalo and are averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the season. Their ground game was on the upswing with J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill working beside Jackson, but they suffered a setback when Hill (6.6 yards per carry) hurt his hamstring late in the Bills loss. Coach John Harbaugh said the injury was not serious but that Hill would likely miss time. Neither Mike Davis nor Kenyan Drake would be as dynamic a partner for Dobbins, who scored twice against Buffalo in his second game back from the knee injury that cost him all of last season. No matter who’s taking handoffs, Jackson rolls on as a terrifying threat on scrambles and designed runs. He’s averaging 8.5 yards per carry and on pace to rush for more than 1,300 yards.
Cincinnati’s run defense took a major hit when defensive tackle D.J. Reader, one of the top interior defenders in football, went on injured reserve. They have not faced a strong ground attack — certainly not one with a threat such as Jackson — since they lost Reader, so their No. 4 ranking in run defense has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, their safeties and linebackers are solid run defenders, so they are not easy to gouge.
Bengals running game vs. Ravens run defense
The Bengals have averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, and running back Joe Mixon is off to a poor start, averaging 2.7 yards on more than 20 carries per game. He remains a threat as a pass catcher but is not running like the star many perceive him to be. Burrow isn’t a running threat on par with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, but he cannot be ignored on scrambles. He’s second on the team with 79 yards on 20 carries.
The Ravens have not played up to their usual level in this area, allowing opponents to average 5 yards per carry. Linebackers Patrick Queen and Josh Bynes have not played well against the run, and the Ravens also need Oweh to be more consistent setting the edge. The Bengals could be a team for their run defense to get well against.
Ravens special teams vs. Bengals special teams
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The Ravens still rank first in special teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. All-Pro Justin Tucker has made all five of his field-goal attempts this season, with three of those coming from 50 yards or beyond. Duvernay is the league’s most dangerous returner, averaging 15.4 yards on punts and 42 yards on kickoffs. Rookie Jordan Stout has alternated booming punts with mishits and imprecise placements; the Ravens hope for more consistency from him.
The Bengals rank 11th in special teams DVOA. Kicker Evan McPherson has a powerful leg but has missed twice in 11 attempts this season. Trent Taylor has averaged a solid 10.8 yards on punt returns.
Ravens intangibles vs. Bengals intangibles
The Ravens walked off their home field a frustrated team after blowing a 17-point lead against the Bills. Harbaugh faced widespread second guessing from fans, who felt he should have gone for an easy go-ahead field-goal attempt instead of trying for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the end of the Ravens’ last drive. Harbaugh has stood by his decision, and players have promised to move past the demoralizing defeat quickly. They’ll try to do so against an opponent that slapped them around like no other in 2021.
The Bengals will come to Baltimore well-rested off a Thursday night win over the previously undefeated Dolphins. The defending AFC champions know what Burrow can do at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens have lost five games going back to last season. It’s the biggest game of the early season for both teams as they jockey to take pole position in the AFC North.
The Ravens have outplayed the Bengals through four games but have only a 2-2 record to show for it. Can their defense be trusted to make a late stand against Burrow if the game is close? Can their offensive line give Jackson time to work against a defense that beat him up last season? This would be an easier call if the Ravens were not again facing injury questions at key spots, but Jackson’s legs will be their salvation in another close game. Ravens 30, Bengals 26