On Sunday, the Ravens face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.
“I feel like we’re always playing them,” running back Gus Edwards said Wednesday.
It sure seems that way. The Ravens ended last season with back-to-back road losses to Cincinnati: a Week 18 defeat in a largely meaningless game, then a topsy-turvy wild-card-round playoff loss. After a nice respite Sunday — a Week 1 home opener — the Ravens (1-0) are heading back to Cincinnati (0-1) for their AFC North opener. Here’s what to watch in their Week 2 matchup.
1. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson wasn’t actually watching when Tyler Huntley fumbled away a possible touchdown in the team’s playoff loss to the Bengals. Jackson was walking to the bathroom when he heard cheers coming from his TV.
“I’m like, ‘What happened? What happened?’” Jackson, sidelined by a PCL injury late last season, recalled Wednesday. “I looked, and [No.] 94 [defensive end Sam Hubbard] was running the other way, so I almost hit my screen.”
Of all the possible outcomes the Ravens faced when Huntley lined up at the Bengals’ 1-yard line on third-and-goal, the game tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter, a 98-yard fumble return touchdown was among the most unlikely — not just because of the sheer ridiculousness of the play, but also because of how the Ravens had acquitted themselves in the low red zone. Their offense had scored on all six of their six goal-to-go drives since 2021 against the Bengals, punching in four touchdowns and kicking two field goals.
But Cincinnati’s second-half goal-line defense, anchored by star nose tackle D.J. Reader, is a different beast. Over the past two years, the Bengals have had the best goal-to-go defense in the NFL, allowing a touchdown on only 39.4% of their drives, more than 20 points better than the second-place Denver Broncos (60% touchdown rate). The Ravens found that out the hard way.
Now they’ll have to find answers with an injury-depleted offensive line. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) and center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle) are expected to be ruled out of Sunday’s game. The offense’s only unsuccessful goal-to-go drive in Week 1, after three straight touchdowns against Houston, came after both had left in the fourth quarter with injuries.
2. The Bengals haven’t been afraid to send the house at Jackson. In their two meetings with the quarterback over the past two seasons, Cincinnati called a “Cover 0″ blitz — man-to-man coverage across the board with no safety help — an astounding 10 times, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Jackson got rid of the ball quickly, averaging 2.15 seconds from snap to throw. He just struggled to hit open receivers, finishing 2-for-9 for 10 yards and taking one sack.
The Ravens’ retooled screen game could discourage all-out-blitz packages from Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, but Jackson had trouble at times in Week 1 when the Texans loaded up the box on obvious passing downs. It’s an area where the Ravens are still searching for lasting solutions. After struggling mightily in 2021 against Cover 0 looks, Jackson went 13-for-29 for 159 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions (73.1 passer rating) last season, averaging a poor minus-0.46 expected points added per drop-back, according to NGS.
“Everybody had a hand, including myself, in terms of mistakes and how we do it better,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Thursday of the Ravens’ Week 1 presnap execution. “I think that’s the first thing. He’d [Jackson] be the first to admit that we can all do it better, and he can do it better. That’s part of it. The difference is, the ball’s in his hands every snap, and the play call’s in my hands every snap.
“So you’re constantly trying to evaluate what you can fix, what he can fix, what offensively we can [fix]. And it’s not broken. We just need to get better at the simplest of things to allow yourself to function at a high level, because that’s the drag. That’s all the drag that stops you from, ‘Almost, God, if we just would’ve done this.’ That’s not where you want to be. You want to get out of that zone of the almost or, ‘Boy, if we just would’ve done this.’”
3. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s return to Cincinnati has the kind of narrative intrigue that few in the NFL can conjure.
First, the injuries: The last two times Beckham played the Bengals, he suffered season-ending ACL tears. In October 2020, during his second season with the Cleveland Browns, he hurt his knee while tracking down a cornerback following an interception. And in February 2022, during Super Bowl LVI, Beckham’s knee gave out again on a second-quarter crossing route in the Los Angeles Rams’ eventual victory over Cincinnati.
“One an injury and one a Super Bowl,” Beckham joked Thursday. “So I’m good with that.”
Second, the online mini-drama: In August, Beckham said in an interview with NBC Sports that, if not for his injury in the Super Bowl, he might’ve finished with 15 catches and “maybe 250 yards.” He speculated the Rams would’ve beaten the Bengals, 42-17.
Innocuous enough — except, apparently, for Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Boyd. “Woulda coulda shoulda,” he wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) after seeing Beckham’s claims. Beckham later responded in an Instagram comment, writing: “I do have the ring u coulda woulda shoulda had….. and that’s a fact Brodie.”
4. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who missed most of training camp with a calf injury, has been a full participant in every Cincinnati practice over the past two weeks. Whether he’s actually back to full strength is another matter.
In the 50 snaps Burrow played in Sunday’s 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, he lined up in the shotgun 49 times. He never rolled out. He never scrambled. According to Sports Info Solutions, he attempted just one pass on a drop-back of more than three steps. His average time to throw (2.32 seconds) was the eighth fastest of his career, according to TruMedia.
Asked after the loss to the Browns how his calf felt, Burrow said: “It felt good enough. Felt good enough.” His numbers — a career-low 82 passing yards and 45.2% accuracy — said otherwise.
It was Burrow’s feet that helped swing momentum back in the Bengals’ favor in their playoff meeting l. The Ravens led 10-9 early in the third quarter when Burrow rolled out to the right on third-and-1, avoided a sack by inside linebacker Roquan Smith and escaped back up the middle for a 4-yard gain. Cincinnati’s drive ended with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Burrow for a 15-10 lead that grew to 17-10 after a 2-point conversion.
“When you play against Burrow, one of the great quarterbacks in our league right now, you just have to prepare for everything,” outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said Thursday. “We’ve got to be one unit out there.”
5. As the Ravens move on from the loss of safety Marcus Williams (pectoral injury) and wait for the return of cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot surgery), defensive back Brandon Stephens has quickly become one of the defense’s most important players.
The 2021 third-round pick played all 77 defensive snaps Sunday against Houston, lining up at outside cornerback almost exclusively. The tests he’ll face in Cincinnati, though, could be among the most difficult of his career. Stephens is expected to match up against star wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, both of whom are coming off disappointing Week 1 showings. Chase had five receptions for 39 yards against Cleveland, while Higgins was held without a catch despite being targeted eight times.
Stephens was expected to play a prominent role in the Ravens’ late-season games against Cincinnati last season, but he fell ill at the team hotel before their Week 18 game and wasn’t activated for the playoff game.
“I was dealing with a little sickness, but it hurt not to be out there with my guys the last two games of the season, with it being against Cincinnati,” Stephens said Thursday. “But I’m just glad to be back.”
Stephens is one of the Ravens’ most athletic defensive backs, but he’s struggled over his career to make plays on the ball. Browns cornerbacks were able to disrupt the Bengals’ passing attack in Week 1 by sticking to their wide receivers downfield, sometimes in man coverage, and locating the ball as it arrived. That’s easier said than done, especially against the explosive Chase and the 6-foot-4 Higgins.
“The Bengals are the best at back-shoulders and access throws [where the quarterback and receiver have a range of options to attack the leverage of the cornerback] and 9-balls [go routes],” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “They’re probably the best in the business at doing it, so when you are in those situations, your technique is at a premium. It’s one-on-one football.”