The Ravens rarely take teams lightly, but the Bengals took them by surprise last season, as they did with many in the NFL. In the same way that Cincinnati’s 2-2 record indicates the rest of the league has been more ready for the Bengals this year, the Ravens will similarly be better prepared to take on last season’s Cinderella team.
The Bengals will still be a tough out, and the Ravens will need to be at their best to stop this at-home-loss rot – here’s how they escape with a winning record from this first divisional contest…
Offensive keys to the game
Stop the cuttlefish
Cuttlefish are able to adapt the appearance of their skin, both the color and the texture, to protect themselves against predators. They take in information from their surroundings and use it to change their appearance. They are remarkable creatures, just like this Cincinnati Bengals defense.
I’ve written a “love letter” to Lou Anarumo, Defensive Coordinator for the Bengals, in previous Battle Plans, but the more I study this defense, the more I like what I see from the Staten Island native. It’s a unit that has turned into one of the most consistent in the NFL.
They are top ten in most categories as a defense and have a remarkably consistent starting eleven that are able to play a multitude of different roles, allowing Anarumo to call games that suit the assignment in front of them.
Much like the cuttlefish’s ability to adapt, Anarumo’s unit has an innate ability to absorb information from their opponent early in the game and start to adjust on the fly, without changing personnel, to what the offense is doing. Defending today’s NFL offenses, particularly in the AFC, is a lot like the challenge that creatures like cuttlefish face against a myriad of predators in vast oceans.
The key to this for the Bengals’ defense and Anarumo is in the secondary. Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and yes, Eli Apple, form a starting five on the back end that could rival many in the league. What makes them so good is how long they have played together and for Anarumo – who is a Defensive Backs coach first and foremost.
As a Daxton Hill fan in this most recent draft, I’m excited to see what Anarumo can do with Hill’s versatility, athleticism and physicality, but that will have to wait. Anarumo treasures experience, both in the league and in his system, most. The familiarity that the five just mentioned have with Anarumo and NFL offenses allow them to adjust to whatever the offense is throwing at them.
More than this adaptability is a cuttlefish-like ability to disguise what they are doing – rotating coverage, split-field coverage, zone/man and a multitude of smaller coverage adjustments, all combined to keep the offense guessing.
This defense that effectively shut down the Ravens last season, by eventually adjusting to the Ravens’ Plan A quickly and neutralizing what Baltimore wanted to do. Those that have been able to have success offensively against Cincinnati, are offenses that can also adapt quickly and change their mode of attack at will.
Last season the Ravens were very good at breaking down idiosyncratic defenses; they were able to set a plan to attack defenses that were very good at one thing – with the notable exception of the Dolphins-style blitz approach. The Bengals were so effective against them because they presented a more sophisticated challenge, a defense that kept them guessing and changed their approach from play to play.
The Ravens are a different beast this season though, and far more ready for the challenge of breaking down this Bengals defense than in the past. That is because they have added impressive variety to their offense this season. Greg Roman should take some credit for evolving his approach and utilizing even more of Lamar Jackson’s unique skill set.
But this week is the Ravens’ new-look offense’s most intimidating challenge. Leslie Frazier and the Buffalo Bills were certainly a threat, but being so banged up in the secondary contributed hugely to the way the Ravens were able to move the ball with relative success, against an always formidable Buffalo defense.
The next section will talk about a specific area to attack, but there are very few discernible weaknesses on this defense. Therefore, the Ravens need to be ready to combat the biggest strength of the Bengals’ defense – their adaptability – with enough variety, intelligently called from the booth by Roman.
The main weapon that the Bengals won’t have seen from Baltimore before, is the under-center offense that the Ravens have installed with some success this season. Teams that are too reliant on this type of offense, especially on play action from under center, can struggle against Cincinnati, because of the disguise on their coverage. But happily the Ravens have added this element to their game as an extra string to their bow, rather than the whole instrument.
There have been some things written in recent weeks about the Ravens’ inability to run the ball from this under-center look, but I believe the approach is more about window-dressing than it being the fulcrum of their offense. Firstly, it’s a small sample size and we probably can’t infer season-long conclusions from it, but the success they have found in passing from under-center, opens up other elements of the playbook and puts defenses in a different bind than what they are used to when facing the Ravens.
When you already have to prepare for Baltimore’s complex rushing offense, as well as the read-option, as well as Jackson’s unique abilities, also having to be ready for a traditional drop-back type of offense can be a headache too far.
The Ravens cannot afford to overly lean on one method of attack this week, but mixing in some of the under-center offense will be a key to this game. In fact, the Ravens have a history of spending their off-season resources, either schematic preparation or player acquisition, tooling up for their biggest divisional foe.
I’m sure the variety that Roman and Jackson will be able to deploy in this game, were specifically prepared for games against the Bengals, to allow their offense to keep up with Joe Burrow.
I’ve already written about how Anarumo prioritizes consistency, particularly with his personnel. He has it across most of this unit but there is one place that he doesn’t.
The Bengals’ impressive run last year was partly built on an array of free-agent signings that almost exclusively panned out. Two of these were in the middle of their defense in AFC North limpet crab (continuing the sea-creature theme) Larry Ogunjobi, and the run-stuffing behemoth DJ Reader.
But Ogunjobi has found new AFC North pastures, and Reader was recently put on injured reserve. And while this defense is still very efficient at defending the run, they are 28th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric when defending runs up the middle.
After the first two weeks of the season, you’d be concerned that this wouldn’t marry up well with the Ravens’ strength, given the struggles with running the football. But recent weeks have provided a glimmer of hope on the horizon and the return of JK Dobbins has galvanized a Ravens rushing attack that looked like it was destined for another down year, the likes of which we saw last year with the 2017 Fantasy Football All-Stars leading the backfield.
Undoubtedly, the Ravens have lots of ways to run the ball up the gut, into the middle of this defense, and they will deploy many – I’d particularly like to see plenty of Fullback Insert with Pat Ricard as a lead blocker this week to get someone up to the second level against Cincinnati’s under-rated linebackers. But I’d like to focus specifically on the Veer and Inverted Veer, which is often Baltimore’s most explosive way of attacking the middle of a defense with their running game.
Without Dobbins, the veer option and inverted veer were sidelined. The elimination of the threat of Dobbins’ explosiveness and speed meant both plays were blunted and defenses could over-compensate for the threat of Lamar as a runner. With Dobbins out there too, both outcomes to the veer, where the QB either keeps it or hands it off to the runner after reading a play-side defender, need to be respected.
The especially explosive version of this, the inverted veer, which I’ve certainly referenced in Battle Plans before, has seen limited game exposure since Dobbins’ injury. It was one of the most potent weapons in the Ravens’ arsenal but they needed the threat of Dobbins getting outside the defense to run it and keep defenders suitably off Lamar on the inside path.
The threat of Lamar running the ball was sorely missed in these matchups last year and the Ravens would be wise to create some ways to get him the football and use his legs as one of the many things Cincy needs to be ready for this week.
Be ready for the blitz
This is a small detail but one that is absolutely crucial to the Ravens’ chances in this game. The Bengals are blitzing teams at a very low rate this season but have a very high rate of success when they do.
Anarumo has mastered his craft as I’ve written throughout this piece, but I’m reserving the most skillful element to his play-calling to last. The holy grail for Defensive Coordinators is success in this kind of metric. It makes clear that Anarumo is picking his moments carefully and disguising his intentions in the same way he does with his coverages.
Extending the cuttlefish metaphor, they use their methods of deception not just to defend against predators, but also to go on the attack when their adversary least expects it. This can be applied to the Cincinnati defense under Anarumo too.
The Ravens Offensive Line has some inexperience on the left-hand side with the likely combination of Daniel Faalele, Ben Powers and Tyler Linderbaum. You can bet that Anarumo is readying himself to attack that side of the line with his blitz packages. Ricard has proven useful as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield in recent games. The Ravens may want to use that success to keep him on the field in obvious passing situations and keep him in, on occasion, to help protect Jackson.
The other two people who will need to neutralize this threat are Dobbins, who will need to be clear on his assignment when in pass protection, something that only really comes with experience for backs – and we must remember that Dobbins is still very young, having only one year of rotational NFL experience under his belt.
But also, Jackson needs to continue the progress he has made in identifying the blitz this season and ensure that he makes the defender that he’s accountable for, miss.
2 High and Don’t Rotate Out
This Bengals offense ripped through last year’s iteration of the Ravens defense. There were so many handicaps that the Ravens had to face down last season when taking on such a formidable force, but they had no answer for a Bengals offense that made so many teams look feeble on their surprising run through the AFC.
They were stopped at the water’s edge of a Super Bowl trophy, and this was in spite of Burrow taking enough sacks that made you concerned for the former Heisman Trophy winner’s safety again. The selection of Ja’Marr Chase, in the face of pass protection memes, seemingly vindicated given the dominance he showed in his rookie year.
Yet, despite the weapons and the off-season investment in his Offensive Line, the Bengals offense has not found much rhythm this year, and remains in the bottom five of the league in DVOA.
I recall writing about the Bengals in the Battle Plans leading up to these teams’ first encounter last season, referencing the need for Zac Taylor’s offense to start firing on all cylinders. He was brought in, with all the hype of a Sean McVay coaching tree hire, with the expectation that the offense would be transformed. With Burrow in tow, fully recovered from a torn ACL, and a myriad of receiving options, it seemed inevitable that he would replicate his mentor’s success.
But he was struggling back then, and eventually found his rhythm on the back of the impressive talent that the Bengals assembled, as well as the Ravens’ tackling issues in that game specifically.
Fast-forward to this year and the Bengals come into this game with similar issues, only this time buoyed by the success of 2021, with therefore less overall question marks. However, there are still challenges with this offense that stem from Taylor’s play-calling and the overall design of the offense.
Starting in the passing game – the Ravens can find success keeping two safeties back in coverage to counteract Burrow and the Bengals passing game this week. I’ve written extensively now about the Ravens’ two-high shell and they’ve done many things from that shell in recent weeks. This is a week to stay dogmatically in Cover 2 when a pass is likely.
The Bengals have been rather predictable early on this season with their run/pass tells. When the Bengals spread their receivers out and keep Burrow in shotgun, they generally pass the ball. That means the Ravens can stay in two-high, in not just obvious passing down situations.
There is no need for variety in their coverage this week. I wrote last week about how the Ravens cannot always sit back in two-high against Josh Allen because he will take the short completions and beat you with a thousand papercuts. Burrow is less patient and will look to drive the ball down the field in all circumstances. If the Ravens remain committed to Cover 2 and stick to it, then the Bengals passing offense will have less success than normal.
Two things are crucial for this to work. No matter how tempting it is to inject some variety, the Ravens must stick to their guns. The Dolphins last week, ran some middle of the field closed coverages and got their single Post Safety to be mostly fixated on Chase. Burrow recognized this immediately and Tee Higgins feasted on the other side. Higgins is one of the most talented second options in the league and can destroy you. Cover 2 will allow for balanced coverage that recognizes the talent balanced across the Bengals’ receiving options.
Secondly, the Ravens must not play too much off-coverage and must tackle far more effectively than they did a year ago. The Bengals have begun to install plays that get the ball into Chase’s hands quickly and allow him to go after a secondary with his yards-after-catch ability. Chase can destroy the very best press coverage in the NFL so safety help is crucial when pressing him at the line of scrimmage in order to take away any shorter, easier completions to him.
Don’t respect play-action and stop the run
One of the main reasons for the Bengals lack of success on offense this year, is their relative lack of success running the football. Because of their slightly obvious splits just mentioned, they have found themselves running into loaded boxes and teams are not respecting their largely predictable zone running game.
They don’t run much play action and therefore it’s difficult to respect that element of their game. They don’t run the ball effectively out of 11 personnel. The Ravens defense should be able to cover the Bengals’ secondary weapons in the passing game, including Hayden Hurst, so they should certainly look to attack the Bengals running game when the tendencies suggest run.
This kind of downhill attack at a running game that isn’t well disguised should play into the Ravens’ hands, personnel wise. Patrick Queen is at his best when he’s coming forward against the running game and can attack the line of scrimmage. He can do this with relative reckless abandon this week.
You could see the Bengals start to run more RPOs to get their run game out of 11 personnel going but they will not yet have installed this as a major element of their offense. The Ravens should be ready for only a sprinkling of this.
Attack the OL
The Bengals rightly invested significant off-season resources in their Offensive Line. But it did look like the rebuilding of this unit was done with less-than-stellar pieces. The Bengals picked up Alex Cappa from an impressive Tampa Bay Offensive Line, Ted Karras from the Patriots and the marquee pick-up La’el Collins at the Right Tackle spot.
They clearly upgraded at many positions and at least removed the potential for multiple weak links in the chain but these are all adequate upgrades, not quantum leaps in Offensive Line play. And they aren’t playing particularly well to start the season.
O-ring theory is built off the approach that NASA took many years ago to solving an issue that had catastrophic consequences for their Space Shuttle Challenger. Two redundant O-ring seals were the cause of a disaster that claimed the lives of seven astronauts. NASA then spent significant resources creating the very best O-rings (a simple piece of engineering kit) money could buy to ensure it never happened again. You now find businesses using this theory of taking the weakest part of your operation and, not just making small iterative improvements but, making drastic alterations to make it the strongest element of what they do.
The Bengals could have used this thinking in their re-make of the Offensive Line, because of the way Burrow plays. He is always looking for the big, down-the-field chunk play. Despite this Offensive Line being improved, and decreasing the pressure rate Burrow is facing, they are still allowing a high percentage of sacks due to Burrow’s play style. It will undoubtedly bring him periods of success in the league as it already has, but it also presents an opportunity for the Ravens.
This team has needed the blitz in recent weeks to get pressure on quarterbacks. Blitzes must be applied sparingly against the Bengals, but when they do, it would behoove them to attack the rookie Cordell Volson and Jonah Williams on the left-hand side most frequently. However, success this week will rely mostly on Odafe Oweh continuing to show the signs of life visible in the Bills game, and Jason Pierre-Paul continuing to settle in as a pass-rusher for when the Ravens try to get home with four.
Matchup of the Week
Mark Andrews vs Logan Wilson
Andrews will undoubtedly see a variety of coverages and defenders this week and the Bengals may choose to use their longest DB, Tre Flowers, on Andrews in man coverage. But Logan Wilson never comes off the field for the Bengals and will be tasked with stopping the Ravens top receiving threat. This is one area where the Ravens match up remarkably well with the Bengals as one of the few weaknesses of their defense is in defending Tight Ends.
Without Rashod Bateman though, Andrews will surely see even more focus from the Bengals. They rarely break their structure too much, to focus on one player, so the Ravens should look to force-feed Andrews early strategically, to try and get the Bengals to break that very effective structure to slow down what looks like the Ravens only receiving weapon to be concerned about. If they can do this, then they can surprise Cincinnati with Devin Duvernay, or Dobbins out of the backfield. And, this would be an ideal game for Isaiah Likely to find his regular season feet.
Either with a monster game, or as a decoy for the Ravens impressive early passing game, Andrews is crucial in this game.