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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF RAVENS-BENGALS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio as the Baltimore Ravens will face the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s what you should know:

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 25: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with tight end Mark Andrews #89 of the Baltimore Ravens after Andrews’ touchdown during the second quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 25, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)


RAVENS WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE

Before the 2019 season began, longtime Ravens head coach John Harbaugh promoted former Bills and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman to replace the outgoing Marty Mornhinweg. Roman was charged with maximizing the talent at his disposal and he has more than done so by helping quarterback Lamar Jackson win the league’s Most Valuable Player award that same season.

Jackson had a lot of questions going into his draft year but most of those concerns have been answered. According to Bucky Brooks of nfl.com, “As a passer, Jackson has shown tremendous progress. He has significantly improved his completion rate and passer rating while displaying a better overall feel for the game from the pocket. He’s at his best throwing the ball down the seams or on in-breaking routes between the numbers on traditional dropbacks and play-action passes. Although he remains a work in progress on throws to the outside, the Ravens have built their offense around the strengths of his game and by allowing him to be himself.”

Although Baltimore’s passing offense is West Coast-based, Jackson isn’t quite at the level needed to execute some of the scheme’s more complicated pass designs just yet. Thus the Ravens have created defined reads for him through clever usage of offensive sets, play-action and simple route concepts in order to give him confidence right off the bat. Those passes are typically thrown to wide receivers like speedsters Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay (both out with foot injuries), Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins.

Used even more so than their receivers are tight ends Mark Andrews (who can attack both the intermediate and vertical levels of defenses) and Isaiah Likely. Those two will be on the field at any given time, as the Ravens are one of the league leaders in usage of 12 (one back, two tight ends), 22 (two backs, two tight ends), 21 (two backs, one tight end) and 13 (one back, three tight ends) personnel. But they aren’t just weapons in the passing game – they’re also utilized heavily on the ground as blockers for Jackson and running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Kenyan Drake and fullback Patrick Ricard.

Roman had experience working with mobile quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick and had previously installed successful concepts for both of his former signal-callers like sweeps, zone-read options, triple options, quarterback counters and RPOs. Jackson used those same ideas and took them to another level in 2019, as he shattered Michael Vick’s league record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and became the first passer in NFL history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for 35 or more touchdowns.

The Ravens were also the first team to average 200 rushing and passing yards per game in one campaign and set a new standard for rushing yardage in a season with 3,296. 2020 saw many of the same results, as Jackson became the first signal caller to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive years and Baltimore also put up 3,071 yards – the first team ever to accumulate 3,000 yards on the ground in back-to-back years. 2021’s output wasn’t quite as good as in past years due to multiple injuries, but the Ravens are back to their old form again ending the 2022 campaign with 2,720 yards rushing (good for second-best in the NFL).

Baltimore’s offensive line is characterized by man-blocking, pulling guards and power runs, and stalwarts Ronnie Stanley, Morgan Moses, Kevin Zeitler, Ben Powers and rookie Tyler Linderbaum are the team’s building blocks up front.

BALTIMORE, MD – NOVEMBER 20: Roquan Smith #18 and Calais Campbell #93 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrate after a play during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


BALTIMORE’S DEFENSE STILL A GOOD UNIT

Traditionally the more-discussed unit on their team thanks to legendary coaches and players on that side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense is being overshadowed for once. Not to be outdone by their counterparts on offense, the Ravens continue to have one of the better group of defenders in football – finishing 2022 10th in total defense, tied for fifth in sacks, third against the run and in points allowed but were just 26th in defending the pass. Additionally, they were in the middle of the pack in interceptions and they do all of this while blitzing at one of the highest rates in the league and mostly do so on overload and fire zone rushes out of single-high coverage looks.

Coordinated by Mike MacDonald, the Ravens have never been lacking in talent among their front seven and this year has been no exception. Defensive linemen Michael Pierce (out for the year with a biceps injury), Broderick Washington, Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike are solid run-stuffers and veterans Odafe Oweh, Justin Houston, Tyus Bowser and Jason Pierre-Paul are the team’s best pass rushers. Patrick Queen and former Chicago Bear Roquan Smith are their inside linebackers and are one of the best duos in the NFL – they can cover and stop the run with ease out of multiple front looks.

Baltimore’s secondary is as talented as ever, especially at cornerback. Gambling ballhawk Marcus Peters’ presence has given MacDonald options on how to deploy Marlon Humphrey, Kevon Seymour and Brandon Stephens (Humphrey is adept at playing in the slot and on the boundary). All can execute man and zone coverages well. Safeties Chuck Clark, Marcus Williams and rookie Kyle Hamilton are moved around often in pre-snap disguises and are used often in dime and “big” nickel packages.

CINCINNATI, OHIO – OCTOBER 23: Joe Mixon #28, Ja’Marr Chase #1, and Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals meet in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Paycor Stadium on October 23, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)


BENGALS’ OFFENSE CONTINUING SUCCESS IN 2022

The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Naturally, Taylor employs a version of his former colleague Sean McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of play-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on handoffs and to have more room to run routes on the field.

At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a strong sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback, is consistently accurate and moves well within the pocket. He’s aggressive when attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and executes well out of empty sets – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a Super Bowl within two years.

Those movement skills came in handy in his first two pro seasons as Burrow operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of their line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince were not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there wasn’t – leading to hurried throws and interceptions.

Entering this past offseason the Bengals addressed those issues by replacing Spain, Hopkins, Andeniji and Prince in their starting lineup with rookie Cordell Volson and free agent signings Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. Those additions have bolstered the Bengals – while they got off to a rocky start by surrendering three sacks or more in five of Cincinnati’s first eight games, they’ve given up just 12 sacks in their last eight outings (perhaps not coincidentally, all were wins). With Collins now out with a torn ACL, that newfound success will be put to the test with either Andeniji or Prince returning to the starting lineup.

While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career a year ago with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme, especially on first down where the Bengals like to give him the rock, and Mixon has played well again this year while also setting career highs in all receiving categories.

Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished his rookie season last year with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on vertical routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short patterns.

Chase, Higgins and Boyd are so prolific, in fact, that they are one of just two trios in the NFL (along with Jacksonville’s Christian Kirk, Marvin Jones and Evan Engram) to each rank in the top-25 in receiving yards and are a major reason why the Bengals were one of the league leaders in yards after the catch. Hayden Hurst is their tight end.

Cincinnati was seventh in points per game, fifth in passing and eighth in total yards per game heading into the playoffs.

CINCINNATI, OH – DECEMBER 11: Jessie Bates III #30 of the Cincinnati Bengals lines up before a play during an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns at Paycor Stadium on December 11, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED

Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based (especially with coverages involving two high safeties, such as Cover Two, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they may not be among the league leaders in many statistical categories, they are good situationally, adapt well to their opponents, are fundamentally sound and well-coached. Additionally, they also disguise their coverages well and have multiple front packages.

Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, lived up to his free agent contract with a career-high 14 sacks a year ago (he had eight this year while battling through a broken wrist) and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill. These four execute a lot of creative pass rush concepts along the line of scrimmage, including stunts, twists and shifting from four to three man-rush looks before the snap. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.

The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie (out for the season with a knee injury), Cam Taylor-Britt and Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends in man coverage on third down). Slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge, and their safeties are the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.

Anarumo’s charges were sixth in points allowed, seventh against the run, 16th in total yards given up and 18th in interceptions but just 23rd against the pass and 29th in sacks in the regular season.

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