Do the Bengals Finally Have an Answer for Lamar Jackson?

Baltimore’s star quarterback has beaten Cincinnati all five times he’s played them, but the Bengals appear to be a different team so far this year.

You might ask, Well, it was only the Lions, what does that prove? In and of itself, not a ton. Cincinnati’s 34-11 barbecuing of winless Detroit was a varsity vs JV-type destruction. The Bengals led 27-0 and 34-3, and the rare laugher meant that Sunday’s 3:30-4:30 EST window wasn’t fraught with nervous tension and accelerated heartbeats for one of the few times this season.

But beyond the victory that puts the Bengals at 4-2 on the year with a trip to division-leading Baltimore looming, the W was significant for what it said about the team and head coach Zac Taylor.

First of all, it’s been a while since the Bengals were capable of routing any team, winless or not. Last year’s victories came by 8, 11, 10, and 6 points. They beat the hapless Jets by 16 in 2019, 22-6, but for the last time they truly opened the proverbial can of whipass on a team, you have to go back to week four of 2017! That’s when the 0-3 Bengals demolished DeShone Kizer and the Browns 31-7, with the lone Cleveland score coming with about two minutes left in the game. Tyler Kroft had two receiving touchdowns that day; remember him? That’s how long ago it was.

Few in the national media even thought the Bengals would win in Detroit. The refrain most heard last week was, “Cincinnati shouldn’t be favored by 3 1/2 points on the road against anyone!” Detroit had botched eminently winnable games against the Ravens and Vikings, were playing hard for coach Dan Campbell, and, after all, they had to win some time. The Bengals were a great candidate to cave in after the mind-numbing loss in overtime against the Packers. People couldn’t wait to scream, “Same old Bengals!”

But they didn’t cave. In fact, the Bengals scored—for the first time all season!—on their opening drive. They delivered a turnover immediately after a Joe Burrow interception that went through the hands of Ja’Marr Chase. They got yet another bomb to Chase to jolt the offense awake just before halftime, and then thoroughly dominated the second half.

The focus and determination Cincinnati displayed, in sharp contrast to the effort the (admittedly injury-depleted) Lions did, was salutary. They could easily have been caught looking ahead to the game in Baltimore this Sunday or simply played down to a lesser team, a common happenstance in BengalLand in previous years.

That they did not is a credit to Taylor, who continues to show improvement on the sideline. We expect him to be a mini-McVay, a genius with the “strategery” and the play design and the overall offensive mastermindedness, and he isn’t that. But he doesn’t get enough credit for the (more important) part of head coaching: recognizing that he’s the coach of the entire team and not just the offense or, more specifically, Burrow. Taylor seems to be getting a grasp on the holistic aspect of his job. He’s talked a lot about “culture” and “accountability” and “tone-setting,” and through his first two years that appeared to mainly consist of alienating veterans from the Marvin Lewis era.

But 2021 thus far has proven that there is more to Zac than buzzwords picked up at online coaching seminars. The Bengals feel unified and unselfish. The signal play from the Lions stomping was a flat pass to Joe Mixon on fourth and 1 that turned into a touchdown thanks to a devastating block thrown far upfield by Chase, who motored ahead of Mixon to be in position to wipe out the only Detroit defender who could prevent six points. Mixon then went around telling all who would listen that it was “Ja’Marr’s touchdown.”

It’s the sort of team bonding play that’s critical for a young team and an inexperienced coach who’s suffered more than his share of ill fortune in his tenure in Cincinnati.

Of course, all the glad tidings around Paul Brown Stadium will be for naught if Lamar Jackson and the Ravens pummel the Bengals yet again on Sunday. Since he made his debut against Cincinnati in 2019, Jackson has beaten the Stripes all five times he’s faced them. The last three games have been decided by an average of 31.66 points. To be blunt, Baltimore has crapped all over the Bengals of late, a 180-degree turn from the hold Cincinnati had over the purple when Joe Flacco was QB.

Much of the Bengals defensive spending spree in the last two offseasons were aimed at stopping Jackson. It’s worked so far on non-Ravens opponents. After six games the Bengals are fifth in overall defensive DVOA and fourth against the run.

The Ravens have been balanced offensively this season, ranking 10th in both passing and rushing DVOA. But before last Sunday’s brutalizing of the Chargers, they were walking the tightrope seemingly every week, relying on Jackson to perform magic acts of ever-increasing difficulty. It would be nice to merely require him to pull off a miracle; so far Cincinnati has scarcely made him sweat.

The key element this Sunday, however, will be when the Bengals have the ball. Despite appearances to the contrary, Cincinnati’s offense continues to perform well below max efficiency. They seem to wait around for Burrow to hit Chase deep, plays that send volts of electricity through the attack. Thus revivified, they then score at will. But there are still long stretches when not much happens. Even last Sunday, Detroit hung around throughout the first half while the Bengals were stuck in neutral on offense. Then the J-J connection struck, and Frankenstein’s monster awoke.

The culprit is mainly mental mistakes, particularly ones made along the offensive line. Penalties, communication issues, failures to read the intentions of the defense properly—all things the line has improved on compared to last year, but there’s still work to be done. Unfortunately, Baltimore isn’t a great place to work out the remaining kinks.

Wink Martindale’s defense isn’t especially talented by Ravens’ standards, and they miss the playmaking of the departed Matt Judon and the injured Marcus Peters. But Martindale does an excellent job of attacking O-lines that fail to work well together. He flummoxed Justin Herbert and his protectors last week with a master class in confusing coverages, disguised blitzes, and schemed-up free pass rushers. Last season his relentless blitzes completely undid Burrow (Joe didn’t play in the second game, a mail-in job played on the season’s final Sunday), who was made to look like a helpless rookie for about the only time.

Obviously, that has to change. The best way to keep Jackson from doing his thing is to get ahead and possess the ball. The Bengals are just 20th in run DVOA, but they need to find a way to rush it well enough to keep the chains moving. The offense’s boom/bust nature needs to find some more consistent sustainability post haste.

When it comes time to pass, it will be interesting to see if Chase can take it to Baltimore they way A.J. Green did so often. As mentioned above, the offense already is taking its identity from the rookie wideout. Surely, the Ravens will be paying plenty of attention to Ja’Marr; his task is to make plays anyway.

This week is a far more discerning litmus test than the Green Bay game, despite the narrative around the showdown with Aaron Rodgers. This is a division rival, a recent bully, and a squad that Burrow and Chase (and presumably Taylor) will have to contend with not just this weekend but for years to come. Marvin Lewis made his bones in Baltimore, and he built his squads with the Ravens in mind (perhaps he should have paid more attention to Pittsburgh, but that’s a column for another time). The AFC North is different now, and the game has changed. But Baltimore is constant, like the North Star.

The Bengals proved a little something by waxing Detroit. Beat the Ravens Sunday or even play them down to the wire, and they’ll have proven something far more significant.

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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