Sunday afternoon was rough, to say the least. Not only did the Bengals lose to the Ravens at home in their season debut, but they were also shut down and turned the ball over six total times (if you also include a turnover on downs).
The offensive line was a predictable mess and Andy Dalton had one of the worst games of his pro career. The defense though, while unspectacular, got the job done for the most part, considering they received no help from their offense.
Despite rushing for almost 160 yards in 32 carries, which was good for a 5-yard clip, the Ravens were kept in check for the first half. Joe Flacco only completed nine of his 17 passes for 121 yards on the afternoon, but 48 of those yards came via a touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin. Flacco also threw a pick to Nick Vigil, who after putting on a show in preseason proved that he belonged in the big leagues.
The Bengals defense only notched one sack, but with Baltimore up big for the entire second half, the opportunities to put pressure on their quarterback were few and far between. Cincinnati’s defense was also missing key pieces in Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones and Shawn Williams, who all could have helped contain the Ravens ground game.
John Sheeran took care of the linemen, as usual, so we’ll focus on the rest of the defense here.
The Bengals didn’t change much in the first game of 2017. They basically play cover 2 or cover 3 and hope that their front four can get to the quarterback. The unit tries to limit big plays, while forcing the opponents to throw short, with the thought being that a mistake will be made on an errant deep throw to their talented secondary.
For the most part, that is what they did on Sunday and it worked until Dalton’s third interception of the afternoon. It gave the Ravens excellent field position at Cincinnati’s 2-yard line and Baltimore scored on the next play to take a 17-0 lead.
That kind of defense—bend-but-not-break—was very successful in the past few years when the Bengals offense was putting up points. In the Ravens’ first drive, for example, they survived giving up a few first downs from running back Danny Woodhead in the passing game to limit the Ravens to a field goal, despite having a 1st-and-10 from Cincinnati’s 11-yard line. They were happy to give Woodhead these catches to keep things in front of them.
The Ravens got their second touchdown of the day, as they were able to milk the clock for almost 10 minutes, running the football 14 times, essentially finishing the game. Some rushes they used against Cincinnati’s defense were mind-boggling:
But, other runs showed a Ravens offense outplaying a conservative Bengals defense that was without Burfict, who is one of their captains and is the soul of the defense. Vincent Rey is a good backup, but he doesn’t make the “wow” plays guys like Burfict and others bring to the unit. And Clayton Fejedelem, replacing Williams at safety, didn’t impact the game much even when he was close to the line of scrimmage, which was disappointing after a promising preseason from the second-year safety.
Instead of loading the box, the Bengals were concerned the Ravens could beat them with a play action pass and they paid the price, giving up yard after yard to Baltimore’s running backs. It may not have been the soundest of strategies, given the score and Flacco just coming back from a herniated disc in his neck.
The most frustrating play came on third down from this particular drive. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther called for his best edge rusher, Carlos Dunlap, to drop into coverage and the unit didn’t adjust despite clear signs that the play was going elsewhere. The Ravens needed four yards and ended up getting six. Three players missing a tackle didn’t help matters, either.
The defensive front was, I believe, solid, for the most part, which is a good sign for the future considering many young guys like Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson, Chris Smith, Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings were heavily involved. When they didn’t get pressure though, the Bengals lacked playmakers to stop the Ravens offense. Vigil got a pick and he has looked pretty good in coverage, but the Ravens only completed nine total passes limiting the praise off of the tipped pick. Almost every single tackle for a loss or defensive stop came from the above-mentioned players, though.
The unit did try to be aggressive a few times to try to turn things around, but Flacco outsmarted them and turned a pick play into a 48-yard touchdown against cover 0. What particularly hurt was that this was in a third-and-seven right after the two-minute warning in the second quarter.
Considering he way this defense is designed, at least until Burfict comes back, it needs the offense to keep the game close. They work hard, they bend but don’t break, but ultimately they are much more effective when the score is close or they have the lead. A top-flight quarterback and/or one who didn’t sit out all of the summer could have made matters far worse than they were on Sunday.
But, the Ravens were right to avoid risk with Flacco, who looked far from his elite form and they were more than happy to take what the risk-averting Bengals defense gave them on Sunday. Which was, in essence, often giving them two high safety looks—even when Baltimore was refusing to throw the ball.
The Bengals now have to play again on short rest and against a team a bit similar to the Ravens, albeit with a much worse offensive line. Deshaun Watson, a rookie quarterback that didn’t get the opportunity to get ready for this in the summer, but will get the start against the veteran Bengals defense, who is also getting Jones back from suspension. The unit should take advantage of it, but they will also need the offense to put up some points, or at least to not surrender turnovers at their own 2-yard line before halftime.
It’s encouraging though, that Thursday’s game looks like a great matchup for their revamped defensive line, which could lead to turnovers and also shorter drives for the Texans. Houston’s offensive line gave up 10 sacks to the Jaguars last week, so guys like Dunlap, Geno Atkins and the newbies should be licking their chops.
Pressure will go a long way to get a win, which, despite only being the second week of the season, looks increasingly important for the Bengals after their disastrous performance in Week 1.