On Jan. 6, the Ravens were figured out. Their offense was doomed. Lamar Jackson? Just a running back with an arm. It had taken all of one game of trial and error and another week of study for the Los Angeles Chargers to cripple the Ravens’ attack. Their 23-17 road win in the AFC wild-card round was proof of that.
Until, well, it wasn’t. Ten months after the widely panned sequel to the Ravens’ Week 16 triumph over those same Chargers, the franchise reboot has been a box office success. The 6-2 Ravens are first in the NFL in scoring. Their offense is second in yards per game. An offseason of film study has proven about as futile as attempts at corralling Jackson, now a Most Valuable Player candidate: The Ravens’ rushing offense, averaging a yard per carry more than last year’s did, is on pace to set the league’s single-season yardage mark (1,639 yards through eight games).
As the team moves on from its credential-stamping 37-20 win Sunday night over the New England Patriots, a different test awaits Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. There is uncertainty around 0-8 Cincinnati’s biggest unknown, rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, who will make his first career start in place of Bengals veteran Andy Dalton.
There is also uncertainty born of familiarity. These teams met just four weeks ago, in a 23-17 Ravens win. Only one Ravens opponent all last season got a do-over. Jackson played each of his three AFC North rivals twice, but he faced the Pittsburgh Steelers both times only as a backup, as a gadget option. His first start was against Cincinnati, which didn’t know how to stop the Ravens’ ground game. His final regular-season start was against the Cleveland Browns, who proved equally clueless. It wasn’t until the playoffs that the Ravens dipped their toe back into the same pool.
So if there’s any defense on the Ravens’ schedule that knows what not to do, it’s the Bengals. They have firsthand experience.
“That would be something that we would have to take into consideration. I probably should have thought of that,” Harbaugh said Wednesday, tongue firmly in cheek. “I realize we're playing them a second time, and we're trying to figure out exactly how they'll play us in what way and trying to be prepared for that. So we probably are doing that without making the comparison to last year, which we are loath to do.”
That season-ending defeat underscored a few harsh truths about the Ravens offense, none of which team officials weren’t already aware of. Jackson needed to improve as a passer. The offensive line was vulnerable. Marty Mornhinweg was probably better suited to oversee a different kind of offense.
They had not faced the same Chargers defense at M&T Bank Stadium, either. Out of necessity, their guests’ strategy changed. Decimated by injuries at linebacker, the Chargers lined up with seven defensive backs on all but one of their 59 plays, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Their front four, led by star edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, mucked up inside running lanes, and their speed elsewhere in the box contained Jackson.
The Chargers finished with seven sacks and allowed just 90 rushing yards, close to half of what they’d surrendered in Carson, California, two weeks earlier. But Ravens players said this past week that the loss was more a failure of execution than a miscalculation in game-planning.
“We just didn’t bring our 'A' game that day, across the board,” said James Hurst, who started at left guard. “Everyone made mistakes. It was a struggle, and it just wasn’t a good game. That definitely happens in playoff games, so it’s magnified even more.”
“I think we learned a lot from that game, understanding how teams might want to change up their defensive approach,” center Matt Skura said. “And, yeah, I think we're better adjusted to make those changes on the run, too.”
If the Ravens have learned anything this season about opponents’ defensive strategies, it’s that they can’t seem to agree on one strategy. Skura said that “every single team this year has been doing something different every week.”
Part of that is because of personnel limitations. Part of that is because the Ravens themselves evolve. Their tendencies and play schemes remain a moving target, even through Week 9. The Ravens’ win over the Patriots featured new wrinkles on offense, like a pair of option plays with Jackson and running back Mark Ingram II last seen in 2018.
It can be a lot to process. Inside linebacker L.J. Fort said that when he studies film, he takes the most time preparing for an offense’s “bread-and-butter plays.” Given the breadth of NFL playbooks, there are so few certainties about what’s in store any given Sunday. “Everything else comes down to doing what we’re good at and just letting the game unfold,” he said.
Still, rematches are different. There’s almost a hyper-self-awareness to the strategizing, defensive end Chris Wormley explained. Even if the Bengals know how they’ve fared against the Ravens’ strong and weak points, the Ravens know that Cincinnati knows. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the unit’s self-study process “has to” change in weeks like this.
“They kind of saw what you really wanted to do against them the first time. Is that what you want to do the second time?” he said. “Very often, these division games are, the second time, very different types of games. They play out a lot differently. So it behooves us to put together the right plan and really work through it. Because you can’t just say, ‘Hey, this play worked this first time,’ or, ‘This approach worked.’ They’re just coming off a bye week. I’m sure they have a different approach as well.”
The Bengals’ problem is that a win might require a run-stopping transplant. The Chargers finished No. 10 in the NFL last season in rush defense, according to Football Outsider’s efficiency rankings. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is No. 29.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said in a conference call Thursday that “anytime you play an opponent for the second time, there are always things you feel like you learned.” But the bar is not high. Jackson’s rushed for a combined 271 yards and over 6 yards per carry in his two starts against Cincinnati, and two of the Ravens’ three highest rushing totals overall since he took over have come against the Bengals.
Jackson doesn’t know what he’ll face Sunday — new or old schemes, light or heavy boxes, man or zone coverage. It might not matter.
“I’m not over there in Cincinnati,” he said. “I can only prepare over here.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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