No receiver in recent history has given the Ravens more issues than A.J. Green.
During the first 17 minutes of the Bengals' 34-23 victory Thursday night, the end zone became Green's personal playground. He scored three touchdowns on three consecutive drives, staking the Bengals to a 21-point lead from which the Ravens never recovered.
A Pro Bowler in all seven of his NFL seasons, Green is a difficult matchup for every team, but for the Ravens he has been a special kind of nightmare.
He has scored nine touchdowns against Baltimore since 2011, more than any other receiver during that time. Green became the first receiver to score three touchdowns against the Ravens since current Ravens receiver Michael Crabtree, who scored three touchdowns against Baltimore while playing for the Oakland Raiders in 2016.
The Ravens slowed Green in the second half, but it was too little too late. The Ravens defense entered this game planning to make a statement, but it was Green who had the final say. No matter what coverages the Ravens used on Green early, they didn't work. Green finished with just five catches, but the damage he did to the Ravens early was devastating.
"You double him some, you rotate the coverage to him some, we did all that," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a great player."
Baltimore's inability to contain Green raises concern, particularly with cornerback Jimmy Smith in the middle of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's conduct code. Smith's suspension will last two more games – Week 3 at home against the Broncos, and Week 4 on the road against the Steelers. Both of those teams feature potential game-breaking receivers in Demaryius Thomas (Broncos) and Antonio Brown (Steelers).
The Ravens felt they were better equipped to cope with Smith's absence this year, and it looked that way against the Buffalo Bills, when starting corners Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr both had excellent games, as did slot corner Tavon Young. But the Bengals are not the Bills. And Green is a special receiver.
Green's first touchdown was a 4-yard reception when he was matched against Young and beat him running across the back of the end zone. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton scrambled to his right to buy time, and Green is simply too good to keep bottled up that long. Safety Eric Weddle said it was a good play-call by the Bengals that caught the Ravens in zero-coverage, meaning no help for Young.
Green's second touchdown was a 25-yard reception that displayed his tremendous ability. The Ravens dropped linebacker Terrell Suggs into shallow coverage, but the throw squeaked past him and Green made a tough catch in traffic with Young draped all over him.
He got the angle on Young running a slant pattern, and the 5-foot-9 Young failed to bring down Green after the catch. From that point it was a footrace, and Green easily outran Carr and Weddle to the end zone.
"I'm the deep safety, I've got to somehow get him down," Weddle said. "Odds are I'm probably not, but it's on me just as much as anyone else. We wanted to contain 18 (Green) and 28 (running back Joe Mixon). We didn't."
Green's final touchdown was a 7-yard catch that he made against Humphrey. Dalton kept the throw low and away from Humphrey, and Green went low to make the catch. Weddle said the Ravens had a good call on the play and Humphrey knows he should have been underneath the throw.
Watching Green go off against them irritated the Ravens' secondary.
"I'm not sure how many yards he had, but it seemed like when he got in the red zone it was just touchdown, touchdown, touchdown," Humphrey said. "We have to be more aware of him, try to eliminate him."
The Ravens defensive problems were compounded by the loss of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who left the game after the first defensive series with a bone bruise in his knee. Mosley's absence left the Ravens' defense more vulnerable in the middle of the field, an area that Dalton and Green both attacked.
"C.J.'s a big piece, it seems like we were a little bit scrambled," Humphrey said. "Missing a guy like that makes a big difference. You're kind of out there scrambling, and all of a sudden you're like, 'C.J.'s not out there.'''
However, Weddle still felt the defense should have done a better job, on Green and overall.
"You play like crap in the first half, all three phases, and that's what's going to happen," Weddle said. "We battled back and fought our tails off in the second half. But too big of a hole."
In Week 1, the Ravens did not give up a first down in the first half against the Buffalo Bills. Four days later, the Ravens gave up three touchdowns to Green in one half.
Where does that leave the Ravens' defense?
"It's a 16-game season, you're not going to play great week in and week out, but you've got to find ways to win," Weddle said. "We didn't do that tonight."
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