Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton took what the Ravens' depleted secondary gave him in the passing game for more than three quarters. When Cincinnati fell behind in the fourth quarter, he took advantage of that soft coverage for the game-winning blow.
Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green for a 77-yard touchdown to give the Bengals a 23-16 lead, a play that placed an unfair spotlight on cornerback Chykie Brown and the Ravens' undermanned secondary, which spent the entire game trying to contain the Bengals' deep threats.
"The coverage was there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a matter of a great player that got a step behind us and made a great play. Chykie got his hand in the air. He was beat by a step, though. He should stay on top there, and he knows that."
The play was a crack in what was a sound and well-executed game plan by the Ravens, who gave the Bengals' receivers a cushion at the line of scrimmage and tempted them to cut off their routes, stand in space and settle for short yardage. With starting cornerback Lardarius Webb sidelined by a lower back injury and having just three cornerbacks active, the Ravens kept the game plan simple.
"The plan was not to give up big plays … just keep them in front of us, all short balls and then rally and tackle him," safety Matt Elam said. "Don't give up nothing over the top. That's the philosophy — you don't give up big plays. We gave up one big play."
Green, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver, was ready to exploit that as the Bengals drove to retake the lead after Steve Smith's 80-yard touchdown put the Ravens up, 16-15.
"We had the look we wanted," Dalton said. "A.J. had been telling me that he felt they were playing him soft, and he could get by them."
Green called the play an "all-go," aptly named for the deep routes that he, receivers Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate, and tight end Jermaine Gresham ran. The Ravens were in a "Cover-Three" defense, with safety Darian Stewart and cornerbacks Brown and Jimmy Smith each responsible for one third of the field for deep coverage.
Gresham was checked off the line by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, but found open space up the middle. Nickel cornerback Asa Jackson lined up tight on Sanu in the slot, but blitzed and Elam picked up Sanu in coverage on his deep route.
On the far side of the field, Smith was running step for step with receiver Brandon Tate, who was mirroring Green's deep route with one of his own. Dalton had plenty of options, but set his sights on Green.
Brown said he was looking for the deep ball, but needed to stay in front of Green on the play.
Stewart, who was playing his first game with the Ravens Sunday, said he tried to make a play on the ball rather than ensure there was someone between Green and the end zone.
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He scolded himself for failing to keep the play in front of him and for allowing Green to score untouched.
Up until that point, the entire secondary had kept Green and the Bengals' deep threats in front of them. Stewart said the Ravens spent most of the game in "Cover Three," which explains the space the Bengals' receivers had at the line of scrimmage on so many plays.
Dalton went deep just a handful of times on the Ravens' thin secondary. Sixteen of Dalton's 25 completions went for less than 10 yards, and even his longest completion before the Green bomb — a 32-yard catch-and-run by running back Giovani Bernard — was on a screen.
The Ravens played primarily with just five defensive backs with starter Lardarius Webb out, thrusting Brown into a large role. Harbaugh said Brown and the entire secondary played well, save for the game-changing Green play.
"It seemed like we tackled, we kept it in front of us pretty well," Harbaugh said. "I thought all of our corners, the whole secondary, really the whole defense played good, solid football. Throughout the game, they really only had one play at the end. But it was the one that was the difference."