As Super Bowl week kicks off for the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens will be looking for answers on what it will take to beat them.
Cincinnati announced itself as a serious problem to the rest of the NFL, capturing the AFC North, winning the AFC Championship and reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years. Along the way, the Bengals had two convincing wins against the Ravens, outscoring them 82-38.
Baltimore isn't used to being dominated by a division rival, and Cincinnati has youth on its side, as well as talent. Excluding their punter and long snapper, the Bengals have just four players on their current active roster who have reached 30 years old.
Their dynamic offense led by Joe Burrow (25 years old), Ja'Marr Chase (21), Tee Higgins (23), Tyler Boyd (27), and Joe Mixon (28) isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, the Bengals could become even more explosive if they improve their offensive line.
As the Ravens retool their roster this offseason, consideration will be given to matching up better with the Bengals, who have joined the AFC's elite.
"I think we have to look at all the best teams, and how do we beat the best teams," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "Obviously, the Bengals are one of the best teams right now. They're a very tough team to defend. They have excellent skill position players. They've improved quite a bit, and they've got a quarterback that's fantastic. So, we'll have to find ways of adjusting what we do to play them most efficiently and effectively, and we'll do that.
"[It's] not unlike challenges that we've had in the past. In the early part of (Head Coach) John's [Harbaugh] tenure as a head coach, the Steelers were a great team. They still are, but in a lot of ways, we had to find a way to compete and beat those guys. So, it's always evolving; it's always changing. You look at the very best teams whether it's, over the last 15 years, the Patriots, the Chiefs, the Steelers, now the Bengals, and find a way to beat those guys."
The Bengals' excellence at the skill positions allows them to create mismatches that lead to big plays. In their 41-17 loss to Cincinnati in Week 5, the Ravens couldn't contain Chase, who caught eight passes for 201 yards, including an 82-yard house call. With Pro Bowl corner Marcus Peters out for the season, Chase was defended primarily by All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who was honest enough to admit that he was outplayed by Cincinnati's dynamic rookie receiver. "I lost that matchup," Humphrey said.
By Week 16, Humphrey was also out for the season, and while Chase (seven catches, 125 yards) did major damage again, Higgins (12 catches, 194 yards, two touchdowns) had a breakout game and Burrow threw for a career-high 525 yards and four touchdowns.
Having Peters and Humphrey back healthy next season will give the Ravens a better chance to defend Cincinnati's playmakers. But the Ravens need to improve their ability to force turnovers under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald. Only the Jets and Jaguars forced fewer turnovers than the Ravens, who had just 15 takeaways in 2021.
The Ravens will be in the market for playmaking corners and safeties who can force Burrow into more mistakes. Burrow led the AFC North in interceptions (47) and was sacked 51 times, more than any NFL quarterback. The Ravens, who finished 25th in overall defense and last against the pass, need to improve their pass rush and pass defense to return to the playoffs.
"Our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us, and I would love to see us make the play this year coming up – intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive," DeCosta said. "If the opportunity presents itself and we see a dynamic corner or a dynamic safety, of course, that would be something that would be attractive to us. When you play these teams – when you play the Steelers, when you play the Browns, when you play the Bengals – twice a year and you see their skill players, it becomes imperative that we always have a strong back end, with good players and depth."
The Bengals had a five-year run (2011-15) when they made the playoffs every year, but they never won a postseason game during that stretch. This new addition of the Bengals has taken the 2021 playoffs by storm, winning three straight playoff games, including the last two when they were underdogs on the road.
Cincinnati is building, and DeCosta thinks their roster will only continue to improve.
"They find talent. They've got a lot of good personnel. Over the years, I have probably had as much admiration for the Bengals for how they build their team … They find talent, and [Bengals director of player personnel] Duke Tobin should really be a G.M," DeCosta said. "The Bengals have always been a team that, [when] I look at what they do personnel-wise, I really think they're one of the best."
Head Coach John Harbaugh doesn't know if the Bengals or Rams will win the Super Bowl, but he knows the resurgence of the Bengals will make winning the AFC North even tougher.
"They're the defending AFC North Champ next year, coming in, they might be World Champions, and they deserve every accolade they get," Harbaugh said. "They've got a really good team, they're talented, they've got a great quarterback, obviously, they've got great receivers.
"So, right now, that's the standard, but it's not just them. Pittsburgh is still going to be Pittsburgh – you can bet on that. The Browns are a very talented team. I think our division is really good, and we're going to have to measure up."