Every week brings a different challenge for teams in the NFL, and for the Ravens, this week, the challenge is about as straightforward as it gets:
Don’t make the rest of your season that much harder by losing at home to a winless team.
No matter how you do it, avoid getting upset.
The first commandment in the NFL is “thou shalt take what the schedule offers.” And for a first-place team, which the Ravens are, a home game against an 0-5 opponent is, no question, an example of the schedule offering a great shot at a win.
Yes, that winless opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals, who have given the Ravens all sorts of trouble over the years, winning two of the past three games and eight of the past 11 in the rivalry. But they’re off to a rocky start under Zac Taylor, a first-year head coach who replaced nemesis Marvin Lewis.
How do the Ravens avoid the upset? Some big plays from quarterback Lamar Jackson would help, as would a stout performance from the defensive interior against Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon, who can’t be allowed to run wild, as Cleveland’s Nick Chubb did in the Ravens’ last home game.
But as I break down this matchup, I see the performance of the Ravens’ offensive line as especially pivotal.
The Bengals are struggling, but they still have players who have repeatedly given Baltimore trouble over the years, especially up front on defense with tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap. Between those two Pro Bowl-level performers, second-year end Sam Hubbard and edge rusher Carl Lawson, the Bengals’ pass rush is undeniably dangerous, even with Dunlap set to miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury.
The Bengals’ rush hasn’t delivered on its potential yet, having amassed just six sacks in five games. (Hubbard leads the team with three.) But that has created a sense of urgency.
“We have to generate a pass rush and put some pressure on these guys,” Taylor said earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are coming off a game in which steady pressure from the opposing pass rush almost did them in. Although they still won in overtime at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ energetic rush sacked Jackson five times and pressured him on many dropbacks. Baltimore didn’t score a touchdown in the game’s final 45 minutes.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, a strong pass rush can be the great equalizer in any matchup. With two of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton’s favorite targets, A.J. Green and John Ross, both out with injuries Sunday, I envision the Bengals’ defense carrying them if they’re able to mount an upset bid, with their semi-desperate, talented rush leading the way.
If the Ravens can negate that rush and give Jackson time to operate, the odds of an upset shrink considerably.
What can we expect Sunday from the Ravens’ offensive line and overall pass protection? Let’s just say the picture is still developing.
There’s certainly plenty to like about the O-line in 2019. The Ravens are averaging 192.2 rushing yards per game, good for a No. 2 league ranking. The blocking obviously is a huge part of that.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley has taken what Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman called a “gigantic” step forward this year. He has the NFL’s highest pass-blocking grade through five games, according to Pro Football Focus, which also ranks guard Marshal Yanda and center Matt Skura high in pass protection. (FYI, the sack Yanda allowed last week was the first he had allowed since Week 7 of the 2015 season, according to PFF.)
But the line’s overall pass-protection numbers aren’t so rosy. Only eight other teams have allowed more sacks this season than the Ravens, who have given up 15, or three per game on average. According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore is No. 23 in the league in adjusted sack rate, which measures overall protection.
It would be helpful, downright important, if the line pushed that ranking higher this week with a solid performance against Cincinnati’s rush, which, despite its numbers, poses a serious threat.