1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Bengals -3.5, Over/Under: 46.5
Division rivals clash in a crucial early encounter, as the new-look Baltimore Ravens hit the road to Paycor Stadium to face the Cincinnati Bengals, who are looking to find their rhythm following a poor start in last weekend’s opener. My, oh my, what a difference a year makes. This time last fall, the general feeling around the Ravens (1-0, T-1st n AFC North) was that of pessimism, as (star Quarterback) Lamar Jackson was embroiled in a lengthy contract standoff with the franchise as he entered the final season of his initial rookie deal. That saga loomed over the team like a black cloud for months, intensifying as the 2019 MVP was sidelined for the final five games of the regular season due to a knee injury, marking the second consecutive campaign in which Jackson (pictured below) had to be shelved down the stretch. Fortunately for all parties involved, the 26-year-old finally came to terms with the blackbirds on a mammoth 5-year, $260 million contract ($185 million guaranteed) shortly before the NFL Draft, creating a sense of relief that passed throughout the club and fanbase. However, it is not just a happy Jackson that has the Ravens feeling good about themselves, but a revamped offense designed to take the team from the heavy ground & pound era of the past five years to a more contemporary passing attack helmed by (new Offensive Coordinator) Todd Monken. Simply put (Head Coach) John Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta want to keep their QB healthy moving forward, particularly now that he is accounting for such a large portion of their total salary, and one of the ways to do so is by keeping him out of the line of fire and taking advantage of his other skills. Monken spent the last three years coordinating the attack for (two-time National Champion) Georgia, while playing that same role for the Browns and Buccaneers prior to his transition to the collegiate level. Baltimore added (former Pro-Bowl Wideout) Odell Beckham Jr. in free agency and drafted (sparkplug Receiver) Zay Flowers with the twenty-second overall pick in last April’s Draft in an effort to provide Jackson with more weapons and help facilitate the transition to a more traditional passing game. So, how did the offense look in their grand opening last weekend, you ask? Well, Sunday’s 25-9 victory over the Texans was very much a mixed bag for the blackbirds, who managed just 265 total yards on eighteen first downs, rushing for 110 yards and three scores on thirty-two attempts against an opponent that fielded statistically the worst run defense in the league a year ago. It is clear that at this stage of process that Monken & Co are still figuring things out, evidenced by THIRTEEN penalties for a loss of 106 yards with a pair of turnovers juxtaposed by some strong touchdown drives. In his first start since early December, Jackson completed 17-of-22 passes for 169 yards and an interception, while rushing for thirty-eight yards with a pair of fumbles (one lost) on six carries, visibly working his way through the proverbial rust. However, the player that made biggest impact was the aforementioned Flowers, who hauled in nine receptions on ten targets for seventy-eight yards, exhibiting a strong connection with his Quarterback along with an energy and burst that hasn’t been seen in the Ravens’ Receiving Corps in quite some time. It will be interesting to see just how much Baltimore leans into this new passing game, for the old adage “remember what got you here” is worth mentioning at this point. Since drafting Jackson in 2018, no team has averaged more rushing yards than Harbaugh’s troops, churning out a whopping 171.3 yards per game via the run, with the dual-threat QB accounting for 63.0 yards per contest, equating to 4,475 yards, the most any player at his position has ever amassed in a five-year span.
From a betting perspective, the Ravens went 9-9 against the spread last season, including 7-3 in that regard on the road, covering each of their two tips to Cincinnati to close the campaign. They kicked off 2023 on the right foot for bettors, covering that victory over the Texans, despite being the biggest favorites of the weekend (-9.5). However, they are a middling 5-5 against the spread in their last ten outings dating back to last year, though have been excellent as an underdog, covering all but two of their last ten contests when receiving points from the oddsmakers. That notion extends to this particular matchup with the Bengals, whom they’ve covered the line against on four of their last five occasions as an underdog. With that being said, consistency has been a bit of an issue for Harbaugh’s men, at least from a spread POV, as Baltimore is a disappointing 3-12-1 in their last sixteen games following an ATS victory, which applies to this afternoon’s trip to Cincy. Speaking of this particular matchup, the home team has won in seven of the last ten meetings (straight-up), including each of the last four, while the underdog has covered four of the last five clashes. The aforementioned Jackson is 6-2 in his career against the Bengals, completing 59.9% of his passes for an average of 166.6 yards on 6.88 net yards per attempt, with ten touchdowns opposed to four interceptions, while rushing for another 73.5 yards on 6.46 yards per carry with two more scores. However, he participated in only one of their three meetings last season (due to that sprained MCL that sidelined him throughout December and January), a narrow 19-17 victory at M&T Bank Stadium last October, amassing 232 total yards, a touchdown and an interception. On the injury front, the Ravens are far from healthy, with a number of key players dealing with various ailments. (Starting Tailback) J.K. Dobbins tore his Achilles in last weekend’s opener and will miss the rest of the season, while (Offensive Linemen) Ronnie Stanley and Tyler Linderbaum are both listed as questionable with lower-body maladies. Furthermore, (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Mark Andrews is also listed as questionable after missing the opener with a lingering quad strain. On defense, the Secondary could be a major issue, as (Cornerbacks) Marlon Humphrey Trayvon Mullen, and Damarrion Williams are all out indefinitely with various injuries, while (veteran Safety) questionable with a tender pectoral muscle.
Meanwhile, the theme of handsomely paid Quarterbacks getting off to slow starts applies to the Bengals (0-1, T-Last in AFC North) as well, who for the third consecutive September appear to be stumbling out of the opening gates. Since 2021, Cincinnati is just 1-4 in Weeks One and Two, with the offense slow to get going in particular. We all remember last season when (Head Coach) Zac Taylor’s charges fell to the Steelers and Cowboys, as (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Joe Burrow was intercepted FIVE times in those outings. Part of the reason for those struggles was undoubtedly rust, as Burrow (pictured below) was held out of the abridged preseason rehabbing from offseason knee surgery. Fastforward a year and the more things change, the more they stay the same; the 26-year-old suffered a calf strain early in Training Camp, sidelining him throughout the preseason once again. Now, we can debate all day on the merits of how valuable preseason snaps are, but it is rather ridiculous to argue that these guys can simply walk onto the gridiron in week one and appear to be in midseason form, particularly Quarterbacks. However, preseason absence aside, the Bengals nonetheless made Burrow the highest-paid player in NFL history, signing him to a staggering 5-year, $275 million extension, consisting of $219 million in total guarantees. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a better time to be a QB in today’s NFL, folks. So, with all that being said, how did Burrow & Co perform in last weekend’s opener, you ask? Well, if the Ravens were a mixed bag last Sunday, then these cats were toothless in their 3-24 defeat at Cleveland. On a rainy, windy afternoon, the visitors never looked in synch at any point of the contest, amassing a mere 142 total yards on just six first downs, possessing the football for a scant 24:10 of game time. Cincy punted on each of their first seven drives of the first half, with only two of them lasting longer than three plays. It wouldn’t get much better after intermission, for after finally getting on the board via (Kicker) Evan McPherson’s 42-year-old field goal, he would miss his only other attempt on their next possession before failing to surpass seventeen yards on any of their final five drives of the day. It was definitely a forgettable showing for Burrow, who completed 14-of-31 passes for just eighty-two yards, while taking a pair of sacks, with seven hits and nine pressures. Perhaps it was rust or maybe it was the rainy conditions, but no matter how you slice it, the signal-caller was off his game; a third of his passes were wide of their mark (33.3%), while he was pressured on 27.3% of his drop-backs, which as we’ve seen with this team in the past has been a lingering issue. Since 2021, no Quarterback has been sacked (94), hit (103), and pressured (265) more than Burrow. Taylor and (General Manager) Duke Tobin made moves to address this weakness in the offseason, signing (four-time Pro-Bowl Tackle) Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency. The former Chief and Raven has been a flexible Linemen over the course of his career, excelling on either flank in protection of (MVP QBs) Patrick Mahomes and the aforementioned Jackson, and figures to immediately bolster the Bengals’ Line, allowing (former first-round pick) Jonah Williams, to transition from the blindside to the right.
From a betting perspective, the Bengals were a stellar 13-6 against the spread last season, though as we covered earlier have gotten off to slow starts in each of the previous two years, both straight-up and against the spread. Remember, they kicked off the 2022 campaign with a pair of losses in both regards despite being favored in each of their first two games. Cincinnati is 6-4 against the spread in their last ten games overall dating back to last season, while covering the line in seven of their last ten outings contested at Paycor Stadium. Taylor’s troops have matched that mark over their last ten when favored by the oddsmakers, though have failed to cover all but one of their last four encounters with the Ravens in that regard. With that being said, this is a team that covered seven of their last eight games as a home favorite between 3.5-10.0 points, which is the case tonight. Looking at this particular matchup, the aforementioned Burrow is 3-2 all-time versus Baltimore, completing 67.0% of his passes for 311.2 yards on 7.57 net yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns opposed to three interceptions, while suffering fifteen sacks and a pair of lost fumbles. In last winter’s 24-17 Wild Card Weekend victory over the blackbirds, he went 23-for-32 with 209 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing) with four sacks. On the injury front, the Bengals are in better shape than their opponent, with (starting Linebacker) Logan Wilson listed as probable with a tender ankle, while (Defensive Ends) Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample have both been limited throughout the week of practice with ailing ankles of his own, which could play a factor in keeping the mobile Jackson contained within the pocket.