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The last two times the Cincinnati Bengals faced the Ravens, their run defense barely amounted to a speed bump. In quarterback Lamar Jackson’s first career start last November, the Ravens finished with 267 rushing yards, then a season high. In Week 6 this season, they ran for 269 yards, still a season high.

So when the Ravens got the ball Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, what did they do? Pretend to run the ball, of course.

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Their first play from scrimmage was a 49-yard bomb from Jackson to rookie wide ride receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown off play-action. Their next play was a 19-yard completion to tight end Mark Andrews off play-action. The fifth and final play of 75-yard touchdown drive was a 2-yard throw to Andrews ... off play-action.

The Ravens have one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses because they have the NFL’s best rushing attack. And they have the NFL’s best rushing attack in part because, with Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst, they have the NFL’s most complete group of tight ends.

So when the Ravens face a defense either unprepared to stop the run or overcommitted to bottling it up, as they did Sunday, there is no better changeup than a play-action pass to tight ends equally adept at blocking and catching. Of Jackson’s 15 completions for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the 49-13 win, Andrews, Boyle and Hurst combined for 12 catches for 151 yards and two scores. All but four came after faked handoffs.

“Everything” the Ravens do on offense, coach John Harbaugh said last month, “is kind of complementary of our run game and our play-action and all of that.”

No matter its defense Sunday, Cincinnati was ill equipped to handle the Ravens’ play-action pressure. On Andrews’ first completion, Jackson lined up in the pistol, with running back Mark Ingram II behind him and tight end Nick Boyle motioning from left to right. As Jackson faked a handoff to Ingram, the Bengals’ defense started to warp.

Seeing the play-action, their linebackers instinctively crept forward before shuffling back. Linebacker Jordan Evans took off after Boyle, who had continued into the right flat. Others settled into a patchwork zone. Starting in the slot, Andrews ran a corner route that landed him easily between safeties Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates III. With the pass rush halted by the play-action, Jackson had a clean pocket and an easy throw.

On the Ravens' opening drive Sunday against Cincinnati, quarterback Lamar Jackson twice found tight end Mark Andrews open on play-action passes. On their first connection, a faked handoff to running back Mark ingram II disarmed the Bengals' coverage. While one defender went after tight end Nick Boyle in the flat, others couldn't make up ground on tight end Mark Andrews, running a corner route out of the slot. Jackson had a clean pocket and an easy read for a 19-yard completion.
On the Ravens' opening drive Sunday against Cincinnati, quarterback Lamar Jackson twice found tight end Mark Andrews open on play-action passes. On their first connection, a faked handoff to running back Mark ingram II disarmed the Bengals' coverage. While one defender went after tight end Nick Boyle in the flat, others couldn't make up ground on tight end Mark Andrews, running a corner route out of the slot. Jackson had a clean pocket and an easy read for a 19-yard completion. (NFL Game Pass)

On the Ravens’ third drive, a well-timed play call beat a defense that wasn’t bent out of shape. On first-and-10, Boyle and Hurst flanked right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on the line of scrimmage. With fullback Patrick Ricard and Ingram in the backfield with Jackson, and only Brown split out wide, the Ravens were giving every indication that a run was imminent.

It was not. After a fake to Ingram, Jackson dropped back into another clean pocket. He first looked left, to Brown, whose deep route was well covered. Jackson then panned to his right. In Cincinnati’s Cover 3 defense, Williams had both Boyle and Hurst running through his deep third of the field. The linebackers in front of them hadn’t dropped far enough to deter a throw, either.

Jackson could’ve found Hurst along the sideline easily. He nailed Boyle down the seam instead for a 25-yard gain. Two plays later, the Ravens took a 21-0 lead with a 17-yard strike to Andrews off play-action.

Even when run fakes don’t work, the Ravens know that they can rely on Jackson’s improvisational ability — and on their tight ends to catch most of what he throws their way, from whatever angle he throws them.

Earlier on their third drive, the Ravens ran a play-action bootleg on second-and-10. As Jackson moved to his right, three receivers flooded the zone at each level — wide receiver Seth Roberts on a deep comeback, Hurst on a crossing pattern and Boyle in the flat. Boyle was the safest option. Roberts, who’d broken free, was probably the best option. Jackson chose neither.

With cornerback William Jackson III in coverage, Hurst had only a half-step of separation. Williams, the Bengals safety, was mirroring Lamar Jackson, lurking between the quarterback and where Hurst was headed. So Jackson threw a pass as if it were a Frisbee, a sidearm spiral. The ball buzzed past Williams and found Hurst, helmet high, in stride. Hurst, like Boyle, hasn’t dropped a pass all season, according to Fox Sports, and he brought this one in comfortably for a 14-yard gain.

On Sunday, the Ravens will face likely their toughest run defense yet. The Houston Texans are the NFL’s sixth-most efficient run stoppers, according to Football Outsiders, higher than any defense the Ravens have seen this season.

But even if Jackson, Ingram and Gus Edwards don’t find many running lanes, the Ravens should remain committed to faking it. From 2015 to 2018, according to Sports Info Solutions, more play-action usage actually correlated with an increase in play-action efficiency, not a drop-off. The plays certainly help Jackson. For the season, his passer rating is 101.7, among the top 10 overall. On play-action, according to ESPN, that rating shoots up to 114.8. It shouldn’t take a Bengals-level defense for the Ravens to succeed there.

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Potent play-action

Tight ends Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst powered the Ravens' passing offense in Sunday's rout of the Cincinnati Bengals, but they got their help from the threat of the running game. On eight of their 12 combined completions, the Ravens used play-action.

Tight end; Yardage; Play type

Andrews; 19; Play-action

Hurst; 6; No play-action

Andrews; 2 (TD); Play-action

Andrews; 4; No play-action

Boyle; 35; No play-action

Hurst; 14; Play-action

Boyle; 25; Play-action

Andrews; 17 (TD); Play-action

Andrews; 9; No play-action

Boyle; 10; Play-action

Andrews; 2; Play-action

Boyle; 8; Play-action

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