8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Ravens -3, Over/Under: 48.5
With roughly a quarter of the regular season in the books, a number of teams have yet to truly establish themselves, which is the case tonight in Baltimore, as the Ravens play host to the (reigning AFC Champion) Cincinnati Bengals in a key division battle from M&T Bank Stadium. After a watershed campaign in which they won their first playoff game since 1991 and advanced all the way to their third Super Bowl in franchise history, the Bengals (2-2, T-1st in AFC North) have had a difficult time carrying that momentum into 2022. Indeed, Cincinnati lost their first two outings of the campaign against a pair of teams that they were heavily favored to defeat; (Head Coach) Zac Taylor’s troops fell 23-20 to the struggling Steelers in a turnover-laden affair in the opener, before completely underestimating the injury-ravaged Cowboys in a 20-17 ousting in Northern Texas. Through those two contests, they had one hell of a time protecting (young Quarterback) Joe Burrow, who was sacked an NFL-high FIFTY-ONE times last season, including another NINETEEN during that playoff run, prompting the club to overhaul their Offensive Line with three new starters added via free agency. Unfortunately, this group has yet to develop the requisite chemistry to keep their Quarterback upright, yielding a whopping THIRTEEN sacks in those two defeats alone, which led to FIVE turnovers against Pittsburgh, all but one of which were interceptions tossed by Burrow (pictured below). With that said, it’s been a different story altogether over the last two weeks, which coincidentally saw Cincy beat the Jets (27-12) and most recently the Dolphins (27-15) on a short week. In this case, Burrow suffered just three sacks with five touchdowns and most importantly ZERO turnovers, providing the faithful in Southern Ohio with hope that that disappointing start was simply a blip on the proverbial radar. With that said, there are still a number of concerns for the Bengals at this juncture of the campaign. First and foremost, they may have cleaned up their protection, but the Offensive Line has yet to create much room for the ground game to produce; after rushing for 133 yards on thirty-four carries in the opener, they have churned out just 225 yards on a paltry 2.7 yards per carry over the last three games. A bit of balance would go a long way towards keeping Burrow clean, while also improving upon what has thus far been an underachieving performance within the red zone, where they’ve scored a touchdown on just 53.8% of their opportunities (22nd Overall). Another issue has been the connection (or lack thereof) with (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Ja’Marr Chase; the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year has been subject to far more attention from opposing defenses this year, and as a result is well off his pace from 2021, averaging more catches (6.3) but fewer yards per reception (11.7, which is down from 18.0), with only two touchdowns. To put that into perspective, he had four scores in as many games to kick off the previous campaign. Perhaps a meeting with the Ravens will energize him, for in two encounters he has utterly eviscerated their defense with fifteen receptions on twenty targets for 326 yards and a touchdown.
When we last saw the Bengals, they managed to claw their way back to .500 with a 27-15 victory over the previously unbeaten Dolphins last Thursday night. While this matchup was marred by an unfortunate head injury to (Miami Quarterback) Tua Tagovailoa, which drew a maelstrom of criticism around the league for how his team handled his health coming into the matchup, it provided some very encouraging signs that Cincinnati was indeed on their way towards getting back to being the team that they were over the second half of 2021. Taylor’s charges wished to make a point on their opening drive, which they did in traveling seventy-five yards downfield in nine plays, with (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Joe Mixon jaunting five yards through the middle of the defense into the end zone to take an early lead. After holding the visitors to a field goal on the ensuing drive, the hosts would intercept Tagovailoa two possessions later, eventually leading to one of those huge chunk-plays that Cincy was known for a year ago, as Burrow connected with (young Receiver) Tee Higgins for a 59-yard touchdown along the left sideline. The ‘Fins would then call upon (veteran journeyman) Teddy Bridgewater to replace Tua, leading to a touchdown drive of their own shortly before halftime. Following intermission, both teams would punt on their first two drives of the second half before drilling respective field goals, though it would be the Bengals’ Defense that would clamp down on the Dolphins’ explosive passing game; (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo’s unit has been criminally underrated for over a year now, and once again proved their chops, as (veteran Safety) Vonn Bell picked off Bridgewater on a deep attempt down the middle of the field, setting up a quick two-yard toss from Burrow to (veteran Tight End) Hayden Hurst for the score. In the end, Cincinnati met little resistance against a tough Miami Defense, piling up 371 total yards and keeping the chains moving in converting 8-of-15 third downs. Granted, the run game was far from successful (67 yards), but it wasn’t for a lack of trying with their thirty attempts keeping the visiting side honest enough for Burrow to operate clear of pressure. The 25-year-old completed 20-of-31 passes for 287 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with no turnover, one sack, and just three pressures. That long catch and score from Higgins saw him lead the team with 124 yards on seven receptions, while Chase hauled in four catches for eighty-one yards. Bell’s two interceptions were game changers, sapping any momentum that the ‘Fins were able to muster. Looking forward to tonight’s encounter with the Ravens, they are 7-3 straight-up in their last ten away games, including a stellar 8-2 against the spread, and a commanding 4-1 against the spread in their last five trips to Baltimore. Furthermore, these cats have fancied being branded underdogs by the oddsmakers, covering all but two of their last ten outings in that role. The Bengals swept the season series with their division rival last season, both straight-up and against the spread, outscoring them by a combined FORTY-FIVE points. Burrow was particularly effective in those two victories, completing 71.4% of his passes for a staggering 941 yards on a ridiculous 107 net yards per attempt and SEVEN touchdowns, including a franchise record 525 yards and four touchdowns in their last meeting, a 41-21 affair in Cincinnati last December. On the injury front, (veteran Defensive Tackle) D.J. Reader has been placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, while Higgins is listed as questionable for tonight’s showdown with a sore ankle.
Meanwhile, there is an argument to be made that the Ravens (2-2, T-1st in AFC North) could be undefeated if not for a pair of sizeable collapses that have left even their most faithful supporters scratching their heads. In touring the entirety of the AFC East through their first four outings, Baltimore looked strong in victories over the Jets (24-9) and Patriots (37-26), though looked even mightier (at least during portions of) their two defeats to the Dolphins (42-38), and most recently the Bills (23-20). In their home opener against Miami, (Head Coach) John Harbaugh’s charges raced out to a commanding 28-7 lead, outgaining the visitors 295-166 in the first half alone. However, a pair of COSTLY breakdowns in coverage from (Safeties) Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams led to touchdowns of forty-eight and sixty yards, turning the tide in favor of the ‘Fins, who ended the afternoon on a 28-3 run, outgaining the hosts 266-103 along the way. The home side relinquished 547 total yards, 461 of which came through the air, as (new Defensive Coordinator) Mike Macdonald came under fire for that performance. It would be much of the same against Buffalo, but before we get to that affair, let’s take a look at what has been ailing these birds, shall we? Though no team suffered more notable injuries last year than the Ravens, Harbaugh clearly felt that a change needed to happen on the defensive side of the football, as he relieved (former DC) Don Martindale of his duties and replaced him with Macdonald, who had served in that same capacity under Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, at the university of Michigan. Through four games, the learning curve has proven to be pretty steep; Baltimore has allowed 25.0 points per game (23rd Overall) on 425.1 total yards (30th Overall), including a league-worst 315.3 yards against the pass (32nd Overall) on 6.8 net yards per attempt (23rd Overall), with eight passing touchdowns (25th Overall), though they have mitigated matters with an NFL-best seven interceptions (1st Overall). While (Cornerbacks) Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are arguably the most formidable tandem in the league, there has been a noticeable lack of playmakers in the front seven, particularly along the Defensive Line where they have struggled to generate much pressure without the benefit of the blitz. Thus far, they rank twenty-first in sacks (8), and twenty-seventh in both hurry percentage (18.9%) and sack percentage (4.3%), despite blitzing on 27.6% of their defensive snaps, the tenth-highest rate in the NFL. For a franchise that has a rich history steeped in defense, this has been a culture shock for the denizens of charm city, while also undermining what has been nothing short of a revenge tour for (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Lamar Jackson. The electrifying dual-threat missed five games due to illness and injury last season, and after an offseason dominated by ongoing talks for a contract renewal, has returned visibly stronger than before; the 25-year-old has been in torrid form thus far, with a combined 302.3 yards from scrimmage per game, and already ELEVEN passing touchdowns, which equates to a score on 9.4% of his passes, which in turn is greater than that of his MVP campaign of 2019. Jackson (pictured below) completed an efficient 21-of-29 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns in that matchup with Miami, while rushing for another 119 yards and a score in the losing effort, which as you’ll soon read has become something of a trend of late.
When we last saw the Ravens, it was a very similar story in last weekend’s showdown with the Bills, who coming into the season were branded by many as the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVII. As was the case with that debacle against Miami, the hosts raced out to another large lead, amassing a 20-3 advantage midway through the second quarter, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives followed by a pair of field goals from (All-Pro Kicker) Justin Tucker. Ironically, Baltimore’s Defense kicked things off with Humphrey intercepting (Bills Quarterback) Josh Allen on just his second pass of the afternoon, returning it twenty-six yards to the visitors’ four-yard line, leading to a short touchdown toss from Jackson to (young Tailback) J.K. Dobbins. However, their opponent would cut the deficit to ten points shortly before halftime, furiously marching seventy-six yards downfield in eleven plays. After emerging from intermission with a quick three and out to start the third quarter, the Bills built upon their momentum, drilling a field goal on their first drive post-halftime, before tying the score up with an 80-yard drive on their next possession. And this is where things REALLY got interesting, folks; Jackson was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter by (Bills Safety) Jordan Poyer, with the latter coming on a CRUCIAL fourth-and-goal two yards out from the end zone. After gaining just two yards on the previous play, Harbaugh opted to go for it rather than take a three-point lead with 4:15 left to play, as Jackson tried to get the ball to (young Receiver) Devin Duvernay in the right corner of the end zone, only for Poyer to jump in front of his target and claim the football. In an attempt to understand the coach’s logic in this situation, an incomplete pass would have meant that Buffalo would have taken over deep in their own territory, but Poyer’s interception and subsequent kneeling in the end zone meant that they would start their drive from the 20-yard line. From there, Allen piloted the visiting side seventy-seven yards downfield in twelve plays, with a key roughing the passer penalty helping advance the ball to the 26-yard line, eventually setting up the game-winning field goal, which (Kicker) Tyler Bass converted as time expired. In what was a rainy, windy day, the Ravens could amass just 296 total yards of offense, though absolutely dominated time of possession (38:10) thanks in large part to forcing a pair of turnovers and rushing for 162 yards on thirty-three attempts. With that said, those two late interceptions from Jackson were crushing, while nine penalties for seventy lost yards proved equally costly. For his efforts, the young Quarterback completed 20-of-29 passes for 144 yards, a touchdown and two picks, while rushing for another seventy-three yards on eleven carries, while Dobbins handled himself well in his second game back from an ACL injury that claimed his entire sophomore season, amassing sixty-three yards from scrimmage and two scores on seventeen touches. Looking to tonight’s matchup with the Bengals, the Ravens will be looking for revenge after getting embarrassed in those two meetings last season. Jackson only participated in the first, a 41-17 drubbing at M&T Bank Stadium, in which the Pro-Bowler threw for 257 yards and a touchdown despite just 15-of-31 passing, while rushing for another eighty-eight yards on twelve carries, though was sacked FIVE times in the affair. Baltimore is an even 5-5 straight-up in their last ten games as a favorite, while owning a 4-6 mark against the spread in those contests. On the injury front, Harbaugh’s troops could be without a number of players for this primetime showdown; (Left Tackle) Ronnie Stanley is getting closer to a return from an ailing ankle that has sidelined him for over a year, while both (Right Tackle) Ja’Wuan James and (Defensive Tackle) Michael Pierce are done for the season with a torn Achilles and torn biceps respectively. Furthermore, (veteran Edge-Rusher) Justin Houston is questionable with a tender groin, while (Center) Patrick Mekari carries that same designation with an ankle malady of his own, as (Sophomore Wideout) Rashod Bateman is out altogether with a sore foot.