Inhale… exhale… yeah, that was a tough one. One of the more intriguing matchups coming into Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season saw the Cincinnati Bengals come into M&T Bank stadium and deliver a 41-17 throttling to the divisional-rival Baltimore Ravens. The game was highly-competitive through the first two-and-a-half quarters of play with Baltimore taking a 17-13 lead with 13:20 left in the 3rd quarter courtesy of a thrilling 39-yard touchdown strike from Lamar Jackson to Hollywood Brown. However, The Bengals took control of the game on the next drive and never looked back, outscoring the Ravens 28-0 in the final 28 minutes of the game to earn the win leapfrog Baltimore as the preeminent team in the AFC North.
The Bengals snapped their five-game losing streak to the Ravens in incredible fashion and it has to be said that they are deserving of their status as the #1 team in the AFC North division as well as being in the conversation for one of the best teams in the conference with Buffalo and Tennessee. Bengals rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase also deserves praise as he earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for taking Marlon Humphrey behind the woodshed Sunday afternoon torching the Ravens best defensive player time and time again racking up eight catches for 201 yards including an 82-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter. The Bengals 1st-round wideout now has the 2nd most receiving yards in the league with 754 which is also the most by any receiver through the first seven games of their career in NFL history.
Now that I’ve properly given the Bengals their much-deserved praise, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of what areas the birds of Baltimore were exposed in that led to the disappointing outcome against the big cats of Cincy. I need to preface everything I’m about to say with that fact that this loss was demoralizing to watch as I looked on incredulously from the stands inside M&T Bank stadium as the Bengals absolutely dominated the Ravens in the 2nd half. I, however, am going to chalk this loss up to The Flock having an off-game rather than a precursor of things to come in future games. Additionally, I believe the Ravens overall will be fine heading into the 2nd half of the season as long as they address the following recurring themes that have plagued the charm city football team through the first seven weeks of the season.
Starting with the offense, the Ravens offensive line play has been nothing short of abysmal thus far this season. Bengals linebacker Sam Hubbard and free-agent addition DE Trey Hendrickson lived in Baltimore’s backfield on Sunday, sacking Jackson five times and rarely letting the dynamic playmaker get comfortable in the pocket. After Sunday’s contest, Jackson is now tied as the 2nd most sacked QB in the league just one shy of Bears’ QB Justin Fields.
While injuries have certainly played their part this season as Ronnie Stanley and rookie guard Ben Cleveland currently sit on IR as well as tackle Patrick Mekari suffering a high-ankle sprain forcing him out of Sunday’s contest, offensive line is one of the Ravens’ most glaring weaknesses as a team and will continue to be unless players get healthy or Baltimore finds impactful free agents looking for work. On that end, the team announced Wednesday that they’ve signed 29-year-old former Bengals first-round tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to bolster the O-Line in the wake of Mekari’s injury.
Outside of the injuries, the linemen who are out there such as Bradley Bozeman, Alejandro Villanueva, and co. haven’t provided their QB with enough time on a consistent enough basis for Jackson to be able to make the plays he’s capable of making. The addition of TE Nick Boyle returning from IR should significantly improve Baltimore’s run-blocking.
Speaking of the running game, I believe, by and large, the Ravens’ rushing attack is not the teams’ biggest issue as the team currently racks up 149.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks 4th in the NFL. Taking a deeper look into the numbers however shows that Jackson accounts for 96.5 of those yards. While Jackson leading the Ravens’ rushing attack is the most likely avenue for success, it’s not the most sustainable, and the team needs their current running backs to step up to relieve some of the pressure on Jackson’s shoulders. The return of Latavius Murray after the bye week should help that cause.
Lastly, Baltimore must do a better job of sustaining drives to get their defense some much-needed rest. The Ravens haven’t done a particularly good job picking up good yardage on 1st and 2nd downs this season which is forcing the team to try to convert 3rd-and-long situations. That hasn’t been their strong-suit seeing how they’ve only converted on 36% of all their 3rd downs this season, which ranks 24th in the league, according to teamrankings.com.
Switching to the defense, while Baltimore’s defense played well against teams like Denver and L.A., there’s a litany of recurring themes that have caused Baltimore’s defense to look like Swiss cheese at certain points in every other game this season.
The Ravens have shown a tendency in nearly every game this year to give up the big play. Further, these big plays aren’t coming from fringe players the Ravens hadn’t anticipated making splash plays, but rather from their opponents’ most potent weapon. So far this season, three QBs have thrown for 400+ yards on Baltimore’s secondary (Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, and Joe Burrow). Moreover, four players have posted 100+ receiving games on The Flock (Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, Jonathan Taylor, and Ja’Marr Chase). The Ravens have been largely able to limit opposing teams’ star players mostly because Baltimore usually boasts one of the best cornerback duos in the league in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. With Peters out for the year, the Ravens have noticeably given up more big plays in the passing game, as replacement corner Anthony Averett has flashed potential as he leads the team in interceptions (albeit with only two), but it’s a simple fact that Averett doesn’t have the raw coverage skills that Peters possesses.
Knowing this, I’m of the belief that Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale needs to switch up his usual man-to-man, blitz-heavy defensive scheme to playing more zone and only rushing three or four guys to limit the big plays Baltimore has been conceding to their opponents. The Ravens still have to go up against receivers such as Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, and Chase again. Baltimore will continue to get torched if they continue to play man-to-man, blitz-happy defense against the NFL’s most lethal QB-WR duos.
Final note on the defense: for the Ravens defense to return to their identity as one of the most fearsome groups in the league, Baltimore must readdress the fundamentals of the game, most notably, tackling. Too many times on Sunday were Bengals’ playmakers able to break and evade Ravens tackles on their way to big gains and touchdowns. While the NFL has some of the greatest athletes in the world in their ranks who’re more than capable of making defenders look silly, the Ravens defenders must reestablish themselves as a hard-nosed, fundamentally-strong football team if they are to become one of the league’s best defensive units yet again.
Looking forward, the Ravens enter their much-needed bye-week tied atop the AFC North with the Bengals with a 5-2 record. After their bye, however, the Ravens will look to bounce back in a big way against the Minnesota Vikings. The Minneapolis-based football team boast their own trio of playmakers in receivers Thielen, Jefferson and one of the most explosive running backs in the league, Dalvin Cook. I believe if the Ravens stack the box early in this game in the effort to shut down Minnesota’s run game and force the Vikings offense to by one-dimensional, The Flock could find success in this matchup. Conversely, if Baltimore fails to stop the run and the play-action passing game opens up for Cousins, The Ravens D could be in for another long afternoon.
In conclusion, the time is now for Baltimore to fix their feathers and pin-point areas for improvement heading into the 2nd half of the season. More so than any other team in the league, the Ravens are a team known for embodying the values that the city they represent embodies. Pride, passion, and grit is what the blue-collar city of Baltimore sees in their team and is a reflection of all the fans in the stadium as well as those watching at home. The popular mantra the team uses, “Play Like a Raven,” was diminished to nothing more than an arbitrary saying on Sunday as the team looked tired in the 4th quarter against the Bengals and appeared to flat out quit.
I want to guard against overreacting to one week, but Baltimore must rise up and reestablish what it means to “Play Like a Raven,” by performing with the values the team holds to its core if they’re going to set the right tone and make a run to the playoffs in the 2nd half of the season.
Until then, we rest, retool, and refocus for Minnesota.