The Bengals Look to Keep Rolling in Baltimore

Now that Cincinnati fans are breathing again at 2-2, the Ravens plan for Lamar Jackson to wreak havoc on Sunday Night Football.
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Cincinnati’s flawed but comfortable 27-15 win last Thursday night against Miami was enormous in the Queen City. It got the Bengals back to .500 after the “how in the hell did that happen?” 0-2 start to the season and amazingly into a first place tie in the AFC North, thanks to a winless Sunday from the division’s other teams. It quieted the clamor around the stumbling offense and the inopportune mistakes and the coaching/schematic inconsistencies and the plain bad luck. And it showed off a riotous Paycor Stadium crowd that got to enjoy not just the win but a Ring of Honor induction ceremony (congrats Ike and Big Willie!) and some snazzy all-white alternate uniforms as well. All in all, a great night.

Nationally, you wouldn’t know any of this happened. The Bengals’ triumph was completely subsumed by the Tua Tagovialoa concussion controversy. As you are no doubt aware, the Miami quarterback was knocked insensate by Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano on September 25, allowed by team and league to doctors to return to action, and then rocked once again in Cincinnati. Bengals lineman Josh Tupuo committed some Polynesian-on-Polynesian crime, sacking Tagovialoa and slamming him to the turf in a hard but legal hit. Tagovialoa had to be stretchered off the field in a neck brace.

Fortunately, it appears as though he isn’t severely injured, but the sequence was terrible optics for the Dolphins and the NFL and led to obvious questions about why he was allowed to return to the Buffalo game and why he was playing against the Bengals at all. The supposedly neutral neurological physician who examined him during the Bills game has been fired, an investigation is ongoing, and Tagovialoa’s status for a return to play is hazy at best.

Against all of that, Cincinnati’s climb back to 2-2 didn’t matter a heck of a lot. Except to us fans of the Stripes, of course.

As I said, the win was flawed, mainly in that the team still can’t run the football. The mini-bye created by playing on Thursday night will hopefully be spent trying to revive the moribund rushing attack. I’ve been on this theme since the offseason, and unfortunately the first month of games has only cemented the proposition that Joe Mixon is, well, running in cement. He is at the bottom of the league in most statistics that matter, especially troubling when you realize that only Saquon Barkley of the Giants has more attempts. Mix is 38th of 39 qualifiers in DYAR and 35th of 39 in DVOA. Nick Chubb, by contrast, with just one fewer carry, is first in both categories. And that’s on a team that is decidedly less explosive in the passing game.

Mixon reportedly held a meeting with the offensive line to discuss the rushing issues. The line has not been effective, clearly, but at Football Outsiders we try to separate the line from the backs as much as possible. The O-line ranks 27th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, which isn’t great of course. But the 3.80 ALY remains nearly a full yard above the standard 2.95 yards per carry number, a rate so abysmal it beggars belief.

Cincinnati runners (mainly Mixon, who has 82 attempts to 12 for Samaje Perine and 20 scrambles by Joe Burrow) are 30th in Open Field yards and dead last in Second Level yards. In other words, even when the line does its bit, Mixon can’t make anyone miss or explode into daylight. Even his lone big run of the season, the 31-yarder on 4th and inches in the opener against Pittsburgh, was defined by Minkah Fitzpatrick getting him down at the 4-yard-line and saving a touchdown. (Cincinnati couldn’t punch it in and settled for three points in the OT loss).

Needless to say, this is not sustainable. Cincinnati needs to establish some sense of a ground attack, starting with Sunday night’s important clash in Baltimore. The Ravens on paper are a good team to face when needing to break out of a rushing rut. They are 22nd against the run by DVOA and bottom third in most situational stats. Michael Pierce, the Ravens’ elite run stuffing nose tackle, is out for the season with injury (offsetting the absence of Cincinnati’s equivalent, D.J. Reader). Travis Jones, his rookie replacement, is as inconsistent as you’d expect from a player with 55 NFL snaps to his credit. And Ray Lewis is long gone from the inside linebacking corps, where the Ravens continue to struggle. Buffalo, a team with as weak a run game as the Bengals, put up 125 yards on 25 carries last weekend, though 70 of that was from Josh Allen on mostly designed quarterback keepers.

Joe Burrow isn’t built like Allen, but he’s certainly a dangerous runner. Snag is, the repeated hits he has taken in his short career in the passing game has left everyone gun shy about letting Joey run it. So it will be on Mixon, Perine, (free Chris Evans!) and the O-line to hog the ball and keep Lamar Jackson off the field.

For the first time since Jackson’s pro debut—against the Bengals, natch—I feel someone confident of Cincinnati’s ability to hold the Ravens’ mercurial QB in check. Some of that is based on last year’s encounter in Baltimore, when the Bengals and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo unveiled a tricky blitz scheme that derailed Jackson and was copied thereafter by other teams. Of course, the Ravens entered that game without its top running backs and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, leaving Jackson far more vulnerable. Stanley is supposed to be close to returning to action, after playing just once since November 2020. His presence, even if a rusty one, will be immense and will make Cincinnati’s job more difficult.

Handling Baltimore’s run game will be important, since their passing game has been dynamic so far. The Ravens lead the NFL in passing and offensive DVOA, even after Sunday’s meh effort in the rain against Buffalo. Another key in Cincinnati’s defending Baltimore is the use of colossal cornerback Tre Flowers on Mark Andrews, the All-Pro tight end. Control Andrews, and the Bengals’ secondary has the matchup advantage over the Ravens pass catchers. Devin Duvernay has three touchdowns but just 12 catches in four games. Rashod Bateman has a 50% catch rate and is nursing a foot injury. Jackson makes any receiver potentially dangerous, but through painful experience Cincinnati has been able to come up with schemes and personnel to slow him.

The Ravens are riding a five-game home losing streak and are angry after blowing a 17-point lead last week. Sunday Night Football has been extremely unfriendly to the Bengals (just one win since the inception of the NBC ratings powerhouse in 2006), and the Ravens are breaking out a special uniform of their own, the all-black number that the team is 17-5 while wearing, including six straight. The Ravens are still smarting from the twin shellackings Cincinnati handed them last year, games they will write off to injury. First place in the AFC North is on the line, and the Ravens will surely give their best.

If the Bengals are actually the for-real championship contender we think they are, they will be in this one to the end. Lose in yet another kick at the gun by three points? Hey, that’s the NFL. So long as they can find some semblance of a run game and battle to the wire, I’ll be happy enough.

Ahhh, who am I kidding? My motto is “Death to the Ravens,” after all. Let’s whomp those purple clowns, even if they’re wearing all black.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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