This is the greatest challenge yet for the Bengals and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The Ravens are a playoff team and the class of the AFC North. To get to where they want to be they need to be able to beat the Ravens, but can it be done?
Here are a few keys to success against Baltimore this weekend.
Option concepts are a huge component of the Ravens offense. Zone Reads and Power Reads put individual defenders on an island. If everyone does their job, the defense can get a stop, but if players focus on the ball rather than their responsibility, it can lead to huge plays.
Each defensive player must understand his role in each defensive call. That refers to a run fit on runs towards him and away from him and either a pass rush or coverage responsibility, but each defense also needs to have option responsibilities. If a player is assigned to the quarterback, he must play the quarterback and not try to tackle the running back and vice versa.
Defensive players must focus on their own job and trust the other 10 players on the field to do theirs. This gets more difficult after the offense gets a couple of big plays. If Lamar Jackson breaks a long run, trust can break down.
Win the Middle 8
Last week the Bengals scored on every drive in the 2nd half, starting off with touchdowns on their first 2 drives of the half.
This year the Bengals’ offense has been more productive as the game goes on. Scoring at the end of the 1st half and the beginning of the 2nd half would put them in a great position to win the game.
Last Week they won the middle 8 (last 4 minutes of the 1st half, first 4 minutes of the 2nd half) 14-6 and won the game. The Bengals’ defense gave up a field goal with just under 4 minutes in the 1st half and another just before the half ended, but then held the Jaguars to 3-and-outs on their first 2 drives of the 2nd half.
Win the Middle Range / Middle of the Field
Burrow has been one of the best in the league at hitting receivers on mid-range throws (10-19 yards), particularly over the middle of the field.
Many Bengals fans are familiar with Patrick Queen who is starting for the Ravens at middle linebacker. The LSU product was seen as a potential target for the Bengals with the 33rd overall selection, but went to the Ravens in Round 1.
Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt struggled at the beginning of his rookie season, but improved as the year went on. This year’s 3rd and 4th Round picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither have each flashed, but also made mistakes. The moral of the story: Linebacker is a difficult position and it takes time for rookies to acclimate.
Queen is very talented, but has struggled so far this season, particularly in the pass game. This opens up an opportunity over the middle of the field for Burrow to hit Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins on crossing routes in the 15-20 yard range.
Don’t leave points on the board
The game plan to beat Jackson is the similar to the game plan to beat Patrick Mahomes and a big part of it is limiting their opportunities while creating and taking advantage of your own. We’ll start with the latter here and the former will be the final key to winning the game.
So how do the Bengals create and take advantage of opportunities?
One way is to not only create turnovers, but score off of turnovers. The Bengals’ offense has not done a good job of capitalizing off of turnovers, but it’s not all on them. There is no reason why the defense can’t take the ball away from the Ravens and put it in the End Zone themselves.
Darius Phillips had a knack for this in college. He had 12 interceptions in college and scored touchdowns returning 5 of them. He also returned a fumble recovery for a 6th defensive score. Option based offenses like the Ravens will put the ball on the ground at times. The Bengals need to steal opportunities for Burrow and company or take matters into their own hands with a defensive score.
Scoring touchdowns not field goals in the Red Zone is another example of capitalizing on opportunities. The Bengals sit near the bottom of the league in Red Zone scoring, coming away with a touchdown on less than 40 percent of their Red Zone appearances. This needs to be remedied before the Bengals can beat good teams and unfortunately it looks like everybody in the AFC North is a good team.
Finally, they need to keep the drive alive. The Ravens understand this. That’s why they go for it on 4th down as often as they do.
The Bengals have been strong on 4th Down, but they rank near the bottom of the league in 3rd Down conversions. Even in Week 4, when the offense was at its best, they converted only 4 of 11 3rd Downs.
They need to keep drives moving and not blow the opportunity to put points on the board. Jackson and the Ravens offense will put points on the board. The defense can contain them, but not all day. The Bengals’ offense needs to keep up with the Ravens’ offense.
Limit Baltimore’s opportunities
Just as important as taking advantage of their own opportunities is limiting opportunities for Jackson and the Ravens’ offense.
As Denzel Washington said as Herman Boone in Remember the Titans, “...split veer. It’s like Novocaine. Give it time, always works.”
If you run the option (veer, Zone Read, Power Read, etc.) a big play will come in time. This defense needs to step up and make stops and keep Ravens punter Sam Koch busy all day. Get them off the field so they have fewer opportunities. Make plays in the backfield to force them into plus-yardage situations, making them one-dimensional.
Can the Bengals beat the Ravens? Absolutely, but to do it they will have to play their best football (by far) yet.