When the Cincinnati Bengals fell to 0-2 last year, pundits were proudly calling them “frauds” and/or some touting them as sufferers of the dreaded “Super Bowl hangover.” While they didn’t make it back to the big dance, the Bengals shut the mouths of many by yet again making it to the AFC Championship Game.
This year’s preseason and training camp had similar oddities for the Bengals, as Joe Burrow yet again missed out on a “normal” summer. A calf strain robbed him of nearly five weeks of work, while many other starters rested during exhibitions to preserve health.
And, like clockwork, when the Bengals’ offense absolutely sputtered last week in Cleveland, familiar questions on the summertime strategy have surfaced. Of course, things like injuries, appendicitis, and pandemics are outside of a coach’s control, but many others could have received game snaps—and, yes, awareness of further injury risk is obvious.
So many questions came from a 21-point season-opening divisional loss on the road. But, unlike last year, the 2023 chorus line coming out of the Week 1 debacle is “They’ll be fine”.
That belief will be tested heavily this week as the ever-ferocious Baltimore Ravens come to The Queen City. Fresh off of a five-sack, 16-point confidence-builder in the opener against the Texans, Baltimore returns to the city where their hearts were last broken...twice.
While the stakes aren’t as high as they were this past January, Ravens Flock won’t soon forget Sam Hubbard and the “Fumble in the Jungle” when these two teams last met. It’s going to be part of the fuel they hope propels them to a victory and a 2-0 start.
Unlike the past two meetings, the Ravens are sporting their exciting quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who is fresh off of his own newly-signed contract. He’s 6-1 in his career versus Cincinnati, with three contests missed because of injury and one as a rookie while sitting behind Joe Flacco at the beginning of 2018.
However, whether it’s Jackson, Josh Johnson, or Tyler Huntley under center, Cincinnati has enjoyed a recent domination of the series to the count of 4-1 the past two seasons, bringing about queries on where the balance of power truly lies in this rivalry.
And, if injuries were the reason (excuse) for the recent lack of success by Baltimore, they’re facing a similar storyline this week. Stud tight end Mark Andrews is questionable, while Marlon Humphrey, Tyler Linderbaum, Ronnie Stanley, J.K. Dobbins, and Marcus Williams are all out against the Bengals.
For the Bengals offense, it’s obvious they need to get the passing game going. “The Big Three” at wide receiver combined for just seven catches and 49 yards—that type of stat line won’t fly again this week.
Still, as Burrow’s calf makes its way back to 100 percent and gauging one of the effective elements of the offense last week, the Bengals may want to re-emphasize the run with Joe Mixon this week. That’s not to say taking the ball out of Burrow’s hands, but seeking balance and slowing down that Ravens pass rush that was so effective last week seems to be a solid decision.
Is there such a thing as “patiently rushing the passer”? If so, that is likely the mindset of Cincinnati’s defense this week, using spies on Jackson while containing the edges.
Of course, the risk associated with said patience is potentially forcing defensive backs to cover wideouts longer than usual. Last week, the high potential, albeit inexperienced group in the secondary, played their part in stifling the Browns passing attack and were involved in two turnovers.
And, like in this week’s matchup with Jackson, Cincinnati’s defense had to contend with a similarly versatile quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Last week’s steep test was a good precursor to this week, if anything else.
But, in years past, the fast Ravens receivers were not much more than a mirage. But, new additions Zay Flowers looks like the real deal, with Rashod Bateman and veteran Odell Beckham, Jr. sliding in as nice supplemental pieces, giving Baltimore’s receiving crew more teeth than just a tight end and Justin Tucker-centric approach we’ve seen so many times in the past.
Yet, despite who the quarterback has been, the Ravens just haven’t been scoring enough points to scare the Bengals. In the five games from 2021-2022, the Ravens have averaged just 18 points scored per game, with the apex being 21.
On the flip side, in that span, the Bengals are averaging 30 points per game against Baltimore in that same span, with 41 being hit twice (both in 2021) by Cincinnati. Jackson has just played in two of those five contests, but that’s something playing in the corner of the Bengals—this week and in the years ahead.
The AFC North is the most arduous and competitive division in football. While the Bengals and Steelers didn’t give off those vibes in Week 1, we know that the coaches, players, and overall roster talent will cause the four AFC North squads to cannibalize themselves in terms of the playoff picture.
Admittedly, that’s a bit of a cherry-picking of numbers with just the past two years as a sample size, but that’s when the Bengals turned a corner. And the disparity of scores with Cincinnati and certain other foes at that time could yield similar data.
I don’t mean to be flippant with what I’m about to say because the Ravens have won plenty of important games at the Bengals’ expense over the years. However, it seems when Cincinnati has a loaded roster and/or isn’t rebuilding, Baltimore has trouble with them.
Whether it’s in the evidence of the past two years’ sample size as opposed to Zac Taylor’s first two years as head coach or in Marvin Lewis’ overall success against his former employer, the Bengals have been a thorn in the Ravens’ side.
Essentially, when the Bengals have a good roster and/or are competitive, they give Baltimore fits. When Cincinnati is rebuilding or struggling, the Ravens thoroughly dominate them.
You can check out the track record, as well as the ebbs and flows, here for more supportive evidence. And, for the record, Cincinnati’s lack of historical sustained success has made this a bit more overall lopsided to Baltimore. But look at the Bengals’ successful seasons and runs, and you’ll see a pattern.
That being said, most believe that the Bengals will be one of the teams in it late this year and may have yet another deep playoff run in them. Given the recent record between these two, the recent injuries accrued by the Ravens (and the uber-quick transitional period they are currently experiencing with them), and the historical data favoring the Bengals when their roster is in good shape, I’m inclined to go with the Bengals this week.
I didn’t note the emotions of a home opener and the team’s want for vengeance this week above, but that kind of goes without saying. This game has the Bengals as 3.5-point favorites via DraftKings, and I think the pendulum swings wildly in this one.
Either the Bengals disappoint immensely and start with a familiar 0-2 start to the season, or begin their trail of living up to their roster talent and taking advantage of the unfortunate injury woes hitting the Ravens
Bengals 27, Ravens 20