We knew it would be sloppy. We knew Andrew Luck would find a way to kill the Bengals, because he always does. And we knew any win in the NFL is tough, especially on the road.
For all those reasons, the Bengals’ 34-23 victory at Indianapolis in Sunday’s season opener was impressive and important, with plenty of signs for optimism. Now if they can only build upon it.
In the season preview I mentioned that, because of how the 2018 schedule broke, this was a more vital opener than usual. Lose it, then fall to the Ravens this Thursday, and nine months of maneuvers and preparations would go up in smoke and the Bengals would be just where they were last year, albeit with a better offensive coordinator.
Games with the Ravens and away to Carolina and Atlanta won’t be easy at all, and the season can still go sideways. But banking that first W takes an enormous amount of pressure off.
I also wrote about what a young team the Bengals are fielding this season, and with young teams, winning tight games tends to be contagious. Those were some good habits I saw developing in players like Joe Mixon, Billy Price, and Sam Hubbard down the stretch, not to mention the enormous role Clayton Fejedelem played, even beyond his game-icing fumble return.
Perhaps the best thing about the game was the resiliency the team displayed. Down 13 with Luck’s story of redemption already being sent to the printing press, with every penalty and bad break seemingly going Indy’s way, the Bengals could easily have folded up like an accordion. Instead, they completely dominated the last 20 minutes and came up with the huge play just when they needed it. That is of course the opposite of the way the team has played in the previous two seasons in particular, and speaks to the depth created in part by the high volume of roster turnover. Cincinnati was unquestionably the fresher team in the fourth quarter. And for a franchise that so often plays as though it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, the resolve on display was quite refreshing.
Of course, it was only one game, and now comes a far sterner test from our old pals in purple. Baltimore looked like its 2000 Super Bowl-winning version against the hapless Bills, smearing them 47-3. If Buffalo truly wanted to repay the Bengals for last year’s largesse, they would find a way to get Cincinnati on their schedule this year. Wow, were they awful on Sunday, and they don’t figure to get much better, certainly not with Nathan Peterman at the helm.
The Ravens know the Bengals are a much different animal than the Bills (pun pretty much intended). Cincinnati has had good success against the Ravens in the last few years (though the all-time series is deadlocked at 22-22), with last season’s 20-0 disaster in the opener a clear outlier. A similar result seems unlikely, as the Bengals won’t play this game with one hand tied behind their back on offense. But Baltimore’s defense is tremendous, and scoring points won’t be nearly as easy as it was when the teams clashed in the memorable finale in Charm City last year.
The main point of concern, of course, is the right side of the Bengals’ O-line. Guard Alex Redmond had some errors of execution and errors of omission against the Colts, as to be expected from a young player. He at least had some positive moments to counter that. Right tackle Bobby Hart, however, is as atrocious as advertised. He made Margus Hunt (Margus Hunt!) look like Dwight Freeney. Hunt looked like Lurch when he played in stripes, but with an XFL-caliber tackle in front of him he played quick and nasty.
The Ravens will bring challenges in the trenches even for the far superior left side of the line. Terrell Suggs is so happy that Andrew Whitworth is out west he can’t control his saliva. Like the Bengals, the Ravens sport a deep and quality rotation of D-linemen. Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams completely dominated Buffalo with their physical strength inside. Pierce is also a fine mover in traffic, and the two will be a tough matchup for the Clint Boling/Price/Redmond troika. Mixon may flash back to a year ago, when there was little space for him to run. Look for Joe to be featured in the passing attack even more than he was last week, when he caught five balls for 54 yards.
The key as ever will be Andy Dalton, in particular his ability to keep his head up and make secondary reads when the pocket collapses, because it will. He looked improved in this aspect Sunday, particularly on a key third down pass to Tyler Boyd in the fourth quarter that kept the Bengals’ last drive going. But there are still far too many times when Dalton misses plays because he either gives up too quickly or can’t redirect to the improvisations his receivers make. Having John Ross impact the Ravens deep will be important. A fundamental part of Baltimore’s defensive identity is moving safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson all over the pitch. If they sacrifice some of that freedom because they’re forced to shade deep, it will help open up other areas of the field.
Defensively, Luck carved up the Bengals underneath, hitting endless curl and crossing routes. In part, that was what the Cincinnati scheme was allowing, and their Cover 4 shell looks did take away deep plays. The Ravens’ new receiving corps (Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead) all caught a touchdown pass on Sunday, but they will have to prove that they can get open against a team that isn’t Triple-A like the Bills are. The Bengals corners—William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard, and Dre Kirkpatrick—weren’t the problem Sunday.
The more likely guys to watch out for are the multiple tight ends Baltimore sends out, though top draft pick Hayden Hurst will miss the game with injury. Ravens QB Joe Flacco had a good preseason and was excellent against the Bills, but the Bengals have had plenty of success stopping him, mainly by playing tight coverage and winning battles across the secondary. On Sunday, Baltimore flashed a ton more creativity and moved much more pre-snap than we’ve seen in recent seasons, and their receivers consistently got open against the Buffalo zones. Linebackers Jordan Evans and Nick Vigil will be tested by these looks. They had good games overall against Indy and will have to play well again.
It will be important for the Bengals to pressure Flacco without getting any roughing penalties. The vaunted pass rush was stymied in part by Luck’s quick delivery and excellent pocket movement, but also by the refs. It wasn’t so much that the calls Luck got in his favor were egregious, though the last one on Carlos Dunlap showed that unless pass rushers can repeal the law of gravity it’s gonna be hell on them all year. The problem was that Dalton didn’t get the same consideration, even when a Colt twisted his helmet around so much it threatened to turn Dalton into an owl. Flacco doesn’t have the same amount of “let’s preserve this guy” respect from the league as Luck (he’s closer to Andy D. in that respect), and the home QB usually gets the benefit of close calls, so let’s hope there is more equity on Thursday night.
Ah yes, I got this far without mentioning the dreaded “P” word: primetime. No need to dive into the bummers we’ve all suffered through when the entire nation is tuning in. The good news is that many of these young impact players have no history with that particular curse. Let’s pray that isn’t a talking point come Friday morning, cause I know I’m tired of it.
Maybe I’m foolishly optimistic, but I think the Bengals can bring the Ravens crashing back down to earth. I know Baltimore is desperate for payback after Dalton-to-Boyd cost them a playoff berth, but teams that look as sensational in the opener as the Ravens did vs. Buffalo seldom repeat that performance in Week 2. That’s what makes the NFL so unpredictable and so compelling. It should be a close one, as most games between these teams are—12 of the last 16 matchups have been decided by eight points or fewer. If someone steps up to make a late Fejedelem (my new word for big play), Cincinnati can achieve that coveted 2-0 start.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.