Five thoughts on the Ravens' 23-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
This was a strange one. The Ravens' offense marched up and down the field all day while the Bengals' offense didn't produce a touchdown for 58 1/2 minutes, yet the score was close and the outcome in doubt until the Ravens held the ball for nearly 10 minutes of the fourth quarter on a clinching drive. Yeah, strange. The winless Bengals hung around because they ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, their defense made a few stops and the Ravens' offense stopped itself with mistakes. But the Ravens never really sweated the outcome because, quite simply, they have Lamar Jackson, who dazzled and demoralized the Bengals with his finest rushing day as a pro while also passing for 236 yards. A few more games like this could push him into the MVP conversation. Big picture, it didn't matter how the Ravens won, just that they did as they head into a tougher part of their schedule. But they took steps forward both on offense and defense while getting the win they needed, and I'm sure they won't complain about taking a two-game lead in the AFC North.
As the Ravens celebrated, Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda offered perspective in the locker room. "We're still finding ourselves in all three phases," he said, referring to the offense, defense and special teams. It is particularly true with the defense, where a substantial makeover that started last week continued Sunday. This week's changes included safety Chuck Clark putting on the green dot play-calling helmet, L.J. Fort joining Josh Bynes as a major factor at inside linebacker, Clark and DeShon Elliott taking over for Tony Jefferson and newcomer Jihad Ward making enough noise as a pass rusher that he was on the field during late critical drives. Bynes, Fort and Ward weren't even on the team two weeks ago. Between those changes and others from last week, the defense continues to rebound from its bottoming-out against Cleveland two weeks ago. Sunday, the unit completely shut down the Bengals' rushing game and kept the Bengals' wideouts from making big plays. The pass rush continues to struggle, as Baltimore didn't register a sack for the first 57 minutes. And yes, it was convenient that Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton never really challenged the Ravens downfield. But progress is progress.
Though the Ravens' offense is complex, it could be summed up neatly through five games: Jackson runs, hands off to Mark Ingram II and throws to Mark Andrews and Marquise "Hollywood Brown." Most of those elements were in play again Sunday, especially Jackson's running, which decided the game. But the Ravens seemed determined to use the occasion to start diversifying the offense, i.e., incorporating more guys and making the unit less predictable. That mission was accomplished. Ingram still led the running backs in carries with 12, but Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill had almost as many between them (11) and averaged almost six yards per attempt. On the passing side, Jackson still targeted Andrews more than anyone, but hey, he was wide open all day. Otherwise, with Brown inactive due to an ankle injury, Jackson had no choice but to aim for his other wide receivers – a step in the right direction. Miles Boykin, Willie Snead IV, Seth Roberts and Chris Moore combined for nine catches on 13 targets. The offense is going to need them.
Jackson's 152-yard rushing performance came on 19 carries, which is a lot – more than the Ravens want from him on a weekly basis, no doubt. You could see why as the game unfolded and Jackson took more hits, and more harder hits, than he'd absorbed in any other game in 2019. My prediction is it'll lead to a new round of analysis from national talking heads suggesting Jackson is doomed to get injured if he keeps it up. Is it possible? Sure. But honestly, I think the whole conversation is becoming dated and close to irrelevant. Jackson doesn't run this much every week; he just takes what the defense is giving him, which changes from week to week, and given the Bengals' weak edge-setting, a day of running was a no-brainer Sunday. But he might run just four times next week, depending on how the Seattle Seahawks play him. In any case, if you're watching, he's pretty careful about when to expose himself to hits, and bottom line, his running is a unique, remarkable weapon that sets the Ravens' offense apart. More, please.
Quick Hits: The Ravens hadn't allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in more than eight years when the Bengals' Brandon Wilson brought back Sunday's game-opener. … On Jackson's first rushing attempt of the game, he gained more yards (36) than the Bengals gained on the ground all afternoon (33). … Given how easily the Ravens rolled to touchdowns on their first two possessions, it's pretty shocking they never made it back to the end zone the rest of the game. That's two weeks in a row that fast starts have given way to mistakes and field goals as the game wore on, which is far from ideal, but the Ravens did win both games. … The Bengals took aim at cornerback Maurice Canady, but he kept receivers in front of him and led the defense with nine solo tackles. No other member of the defense had more than three solo tackles.