Play Action Deep Shots
The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the NFL. Their 17 sacks rank 31st out of 32 NFL teams. They rank 27th in ESPN’s “Team Pass Rush Win Rate” statistic, and rank 31st in total hurries and pressures. Their sack leader, Carl Lawson, has 5.5 on the season. Sam Hubbard and Jordan Evans are tied for second on the team with two sacks each. No other player on the team has tallied more than one sack this season. In short, the 2020 Bengals are a very poor pass rushing team.
When Lamar Jackson drops back to pass on Sunday, he is unlikely to experience much pressure at the hands of the Cincinnati defense. Greg Roman & the Ravens’ offense need to take full advantage of the Bengals’ inability to create pressure by dialing up some deep shots. Over the course of the last few games, Jackson has shown some encouraging progress in his connections with Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin. If Jackson can connect on a few play action shots to his top receivers on Sunday, the Ravens should leave Cincinnati with a win.
But in doing so…
William Jackson III, Cincinnati’s 2016 1st round pick, is one of the Bengals’ best players. He has an impressive 11 pass breakups and is highly thought of around the NFL. Jackson is a true number one corner who relishes the opportunity to cover the opponents’ number one receiving option.
In the Bengals’ Week 16 matchup against the Texans, Jackson III suffered a concussion. He didn’t practice on Wednesday and may not be cleared through the NFL’s concussion protocol in time to play against the Ravens on Sunday. If that is the case, it is expected that LeShaun Sims would be Jackson’s replacement. Sims, a 5th round pick by the Titans in 2016, has started a total of 20 games over his five-year career. If Jackson III plays on Sunday, I would suggest that Lamar be careful about throwing his direction. If he doesn’t, Jackson and Greg Roman need to work together to target Williams’ replacement, Sims, early and often.
Third-year Safety Jessie Bates III has been one of the Bengals’ biggest bright spots this season. Bates, taken out of Wake Forest in the 2018 NFL Draft, leads all NFL safeties with 15 pass breakups with one week to go in the regular season. Bates leads the Cincinnati defense in solo tackles (73) and interceptions (3). Bates’ play to this point in the 2020 season has been good enough that he’s considered to be a Pro Bowl snub.
The Bengals’ pass rush is bad (see above). The Bengals are likely to be without their top CB (see above). When the Ravens’ offense takes the field in Cincinnati on Sunday, Jessie Bates will be the defender who presents the biggest threat to their success. He’s the Bengals’ best player in coverage and makes the most tackles. Jackson doesn’t have to avoid Bates for the duration of the game, but he absolutely has to be aware of where Bates is on the field at all times. If any Bengals’ defender is going to make a play that puts the Ravens’ playoff hopes in jeopardy, it is likely to be Bates.
Dime Dime Dime
With the 48th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bengals selected Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon. After quickly establishing himself as the Bengals’ top RB, Mixon took it a step further and is known as one of the league’s most productive runners. In 2018, Mixon’s 1168 rush yards was 4th most in the NFL. In 2019, Mixon ranked 9th with 1197 yards on the ground. After a successful start to his career in Cincinnati, Mixon signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension with the Bengals before the start of the 2020 season.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, Mixon was unable to replicate the success of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. In Week 6, Mixon suffered a foot injury that ultimately cost him the rest of his 2020 campaign. While Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine have had some success on the ground, the Bengals rushing attack just isn’t the same when Mixon is on the bench.
Free from concern about Mixon, the Ravens defense should spend a lot of time in the Dime defense on Sunday. Against a WR group led by Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, Wink Martindale can’t be scared to commit most of his resources to stopping the pass. Personnel groupings consisting of four CB/two S or three CB/three S should be used on the vast majority of Baltimore’s defensive snaps against the Bengals.
Protect Against Verticals
At full strength, the Bengals offense has some very dangerous weapons. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Bengals’ offense will be far from at full strength on Sunday. Joe Burrow, the 1st pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, is out from the knee injury that ended his rookie season early. We just went over Mixon’s situation. Arguably Cincinnati’s best WR, Tyler Boyd, is questionable for Sunday’s game as he recovers from a concussion.
A successful vertical passing game is the Bengals’ best chance to spoil the Ravens’ playoff hopes. In their Week 16 game against the Texans, Cincinnati QB Brandon Allen had perhaps the game of his career when he completed 29 of his 37 passing attempts (78.4%) for 371 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Boyd plays, Allen will hope to exploit the Ravens’ recent string of CB injuries by connecting with Boyd, Higgins and Green down the field.
To protect against the Bengals’ vertical passing attack, the Ravens should deploy some Cover 4 defense. In Cover 4, the two outside CBs and two deep safeties are each responsible for one quarter of the deep part of the field. Instead of leaving CBs in man coverage or hoping the one safety can cover the middle of the field, Cover 4 commits extra defensive backs deep to help ensure that big plays don’t get by them. The Bengals’ best chance to win is the deep passing attack. The Ravens should make that as difficult as possible.
Blitz the Defensive Backs
In Week 5, the Bengals traveled to Baltimore for the first of their two divisional clashes with the Ravens. In his first game against his new division rival, Joe Burrow had a very uncomfortable game in the pocket. He was sacked seven times and threw for a season low 183 yards. The seven sacks is still a season high for Wink Martindale’s unit. The most impressive part of the performance came from which Baltimore defenders put sacks in the box score. Patrick Queen, Pernell McPhee and five Ravens’ defensive backs (Humphrey, Peters, Smith, Clark and Elliott) each recorded a single sack.
Against the Bengals’ offense, one would expect the Ravens to utilize a lot of personnel groupings heavy on the defensive backs (see above). Having six or more defensive backs on the field at one time can help protect against a talented group of WRs, but Wink Martindale can’t get away from who he is and stop bringing pressure. Bringing extra blitzers off the edge will challenge the Bengals’ offensive line and force Brandon Allen to get the ball out of his hands before deep shots can develop down the field.
Martindale should learn from his own history and blitz his defensive backs in Cincinnati on Sunday.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Bengals’ LT Fred Johnson versus Ravens’ OLB Tyus Bowser
All NFL teams have to deal with injuries. The Bengals are no exception. Like the Ravens, the Bengals are being forced to finish their season without their star left tackle. Jonah Williams, the Bengals 1st round pick in 2019, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. With Williams out, the Ravens can expect to see Fred Johnson lining up at LT in Cincinnati on Sunday. Johnson, an undrafted signee of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019, is out of his league at LT. He was a college RG who is still learning his way as a professional blindside protector. Tyus Bowser is looking to land himself a big contract this offseason.
A big game from Bowser against Johnson could secure the Ravens a playoff spot and secure himself a nice deal.