If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there’s no team that should respect Lamar Jackson more than the Cincinnati Bengals. November 10th, 2019 should be all the evidence needed to prove that.
In the midst of his MVP season, Jackson steamrolled a Bengals team with Ryan Finley at quarterback, and a defense that proved to be as effective as Finley was. It was the Bengals’ ninth-straight loss of the year, and while it was a necessary wound to suffer in order to draft Joe Burrow, it was a scar that head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo could not ignore going forward.
For the next two years, the Bengals rebuilt Anarumo’s defense from the ground up. They added athletes for all three levels who could play in space and fit multiple roles. The unit used to be defined by its stiffness and lack of versatility. It’s now a cohesive and ever-changing configuration without athletic limitations. Their edges can rush and hold gaps from multiple stances. Their linebackers and safeties can make deep drops in coverage while also acting as force players at the line.
Take a good look at these personnel changes and you’ll realize they were made to contain No. 8 for the Baltimore Ravens.
One of the survivors of this turnover was Sam Hubbard, who played against Jackson before Taylor even arrived in Cincinnati.
Hubbard came from the same NFL Draft that saw the Ravens trade back into the first round to select Jackson as the heir to Joe Flacco. Jackson’s time behind Flacco ended when none other than the Bengals came to Baltimore in Week 11 of that 2018 season. While he was anything but prolific throwing the ball that day, Jackson ran for 119 yards on 26 carries against Cincinnati’s defense.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Bengals’ highest-graded defender from that game was Hubbard. In 32 snaps, the rookie defensive end recored a sack and five solo tackles, three of them being stops for the defense.
There was no question Hubbard was going to be more involved in the defense going forward. With Anarumo taking over the unit the following year, Hubbard became a full-time starter and one of the foundational pieces in their biannual attempts to take down Jackson. They would require a lot more than just Hubbard to be successful.
Jackson simply owned the Bengals the first five times he played them. He didn’t have to be dominant as both a passer and runner. If he was limited in one phase, he just overpowered them in the other. He was turning a once competitive divisional rivalry into a laughing affair all by himself.
The Bengals poured essentially all their resources into fixing this problem. Now, Hubbard is one of two defensive starters remaining from that 2018 squad.
This past Sunday was the ultimate proving ground. Hubbard and Co. walked into Baltimore to face a 5-1 Ravens team that was surging on the shoulders of their MVP quarterback. Despite the plethora of injuries the Ravens had suffered beforehand, they were still producing like a top-10 offense. Their winning formula was withstanding the harsh nature of the game.
Until they met this version of the Bengals.
In their first win against the Ravens since Week 2 of 2018, the Bengals held Jackson’s offense to just 17 points and season-lows for EPA per play (-0.15) and success rate (34%). Jackson still managed to make things happen here and there, but Anarumo’s guys limited the game’s most dangerous offensive player for three-and-a-half quarters. The only reason it wasn’t four quarters is because Jackson was taken out of the game during garbage time. That had only ever happened to him when the Ravens were winning, not losing.
There’s plenty of praise to go around for Cincinnati’s defense, but the box score matched the eye test in determining an MVP. Hubbard finished with 2.5 sacks, eight pressures, and two run stops. I could think of no better player to highlight for this week’s breakdown.
Though he was drafted after Jackson, we can’t definitively say that was a part of the discussion for the Bengals when they selected Hubbard in the third round. Hubbard is a Cincinnati kid born and raised, and the Bengals needed long-term answers at defensive end with Michael Johnson nearing retirement. It was an ideal fit for those reasons alone.
But in regards to defending Jackson, in this scheme, he fits like a glove. And its players like him who validate the coaching and scheming abilities Anarumo really has.
Beating the Ravens won’t always be this easy; they’re the epitome of evolving with the game. The Bengals gave them tremendous teaching tape on how to slow down what they do best. It’s safe to say they’ll find new answers in time.
It’s a good thing Hubbard isn’t going anywhere.