In a mild upset, the Baltimore Ravens came out for the second half of their game against Cincinnati trailing – albeit by a modest 13-10 score. It took them very little time to rectify the situation.
Three plays and 1:40 after they received the second-half kickoff, the Ravens were in the end zone – courtesy of a marvelous catch in the very back of the end zone by Marquise Brown. Now, it was 17-13 Baltimore.
From that point of the contest, one of those teams was done scoring, while the other would keep piling on points – and it wasn’t the team that most of us probably expected. It was, in fact, the Ravens who were done scoring, and the upstart Cincinnati Bengals – who had spent the last several years as Baltimore’s private punching bag – who kept gashing the Raven’s once-proud defense with an improbable bevy of big plays, roaring their way to an eye-opening 41-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).
The Ravens never knew what hit them.
The astonishing thing wasn’t just all the points the Bengals scored. It was how fast they were doing it that made everyone’s head spin.
Bengals at WARP Speed
On Sunday, they hit them for five touchdowns – all of them from outside the red zone, and four of them coming on plays of 32 yards or more. During the rout, they put together three different touchdown “drives” of at least 64 yards, none of which involved more than 4 plays. Those three drives consumed a total of 9 plays and took 4:30 off the clock. The 9 plays accounted for 229 yards – an average of 25.4 yards per play.
Those three drives were part of a much longer streak, in which Cincinnati scored 6 times (the 5 touchdowns and a field goal) in 7 possessions. Those 7 drives combined to cover 448 yards in but 35 plays (12.8 yards per play). The aggregate time of possession of those 7 drives was 13:13.
It didn’t look like it would play that way in the beginning. Throughout the first quarter – which ended with Cincy up 3-0 – the Bengals struggled to keep Baltimore blitzers out of their backfield. Additionally, they repeatedly tried (with no notable success) to take advantage of Anthony Averett in coverage.
For the first fifteen minutes, Baltimore had the clear look of being the better team.
But this young Cincinnati team has suddenly gotten more physical than I remember them in a long time. After they fixed some miscommunication in the offensive line, they dampened down the Baltimore blitz. Then, when the Bengals turned to another matchup – everything came together for them.
Renewing Old Acquaintances
It was a big day for second-year quarterback Joe Burrow – who averaged 18.09 yards per completion on his way to 416 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. It was as big a day – if not bigger – for his ex-college, and now current pro-teammate Ja’Marr Chase.
Matched against decorated corner Marlon Humphrey, Chase was limited to 1 catch for 9 yards until about a minute and a half remained in the first half. Then, in the waning seconds of the half, the Bengals made a discovery that would alter the trajectory of the rest of the game.
They discovered that Humphrey couldn’t cover Chase.
Ja’Marr caught 3 passes for 45 yards in the two-minute drill that moved Cincy close enough for the field goal just before the half. And then, the kid went off in the second half.
Targeted 6 times in the final 30 minutes, Chase caught 4 of the passes. He earned 146 yards on those catches, including the signature play of the day. After catching a deep curl-in in some traffic up the right sideline, Ja’Marr spun out of about three different tackles and broke free – completing the 82-yard touchdown pass that pushed the Cincy lead to 27-17 with 5:48 left in the third.
Chase ended his afternoon with 201 receiving yards, and the difference was his physicality. He cleared Humphry a couple of times on some crossing routes, but for the most part Marlon stayed pretty close. For the 10 passes thrown in his direction, Ja’Marr’s average separation from his nearest defender (mostly Humphrey) was a modest 2.11 yards (the NFL average is 2.88). But being close to Chase isn’t good enough. Ja’Marr is a big kid with above-the-rim skills who spent the bulk of the afternoon taking balls away from Humphrey.
Cincinnati racked up 321 yards of offense in the second half alone – on their way to 520 for the game. After halftime, they out-rushed the Ravens 93-52, something you won’t see happen all that often.
In the press conferences after the game, the young Bengals seemed not at all surprised by the outcome. They, evidently, expected to win the game – and expect to be in this for the long haul. This could turn into a nice little rivalry.
Worries for the Ravens
At 5-2, Baltimore isn’t in any particular trouble. But they come out of this bashing with a couple of worries.
First is their defense again. One week after they looked like the Ravens of old in taking apart the LA Charger offense, they were hurt with big plays again.
In seven games, Baltimore has surrendered 21 touchdowns – 12 of them on plays of 20 yards or more. All of last year, they only allowed 37 touchdowns – only 7 of those on plays of 20 or more yards (and 1 of those was an interception return).
Last year, only 5 opposing passers managed passer ratings against the Ravens of 100 or better (with Baltimore losing 4 of those 5 games). This year, that’s already happened three times in the first seven games. Of the 11 passers from last year who didn’t manage a 100 point rating, only one of them led his team to more than 30 points against Baltimore. (That was Baker Mayfield, who led Cleveland to 42 points in Week 14, in spite of a passer rating of just 87.5.) This year that’s already happened once in the four games that the Ravens have not allowed a 100 point passing day to an opposing quarterback. On opening night, Derek Carr finished his game with just an 89.5 rating, but still sent the Raiders to a 33-27 win (albeit that was an overtime game).
Against the Bengals, as soon as their communication issues were solved, they were able to regularly pick up the Baltimore blitzes, essentially leaving the Raven secondary out to dry. Cincinnati is a division foe, so they’ve seen Baltimore’s blitz package quite a lot. On Sunday, that familiarity may have given them an advantage.
At any rate, the Ravens currently sit at sixteenth defensively in points allowed, and twenty-fourth in yardage given up. They are also sixteenth in opposing passer rating (96.1). It’s a concern. Allowing 23.4 points per game will take its toll on the season if it keeps up.
The other issue –again – is the passing game.
Jackson and the Passing Game
As Cincinnati kept piling on the points, it took Baltimore more and more out of its running game, and put the onus on Lamar Jackson and the air attack. While Cincinnati was scoring 6 times in 7 drives, Baltimore’s final 7 drives led to no points and just 146 yards on 36 plays (4.06 yards per). Jackson completed only 4 of his final 13 passes. According to Sportsradar (who handles the Advanced Stats tracking for the football reference page linked to above), 13 of Lamar’s 30 actual passes (minus a throw-away) were labelled as “bad,” meaning that the receiver didn’t have a reasonable chance to make the catch. That’s fully 43.3% of those passes.
Two things happened to Jackson that influenced his sub-50% passing performance. One that was unusual and one that has been a recurring issue all year.
The enduring problem occurs when Lamar has to throw quickly. Against Cincy, when he had more than 2.5 seconds to throw, Jackson did quite well. He only completed 10 of 19, but did so throwing for 203 yards and a touchdown – a 108.0 passer rating. For the season – when provided with more than 2.5 seconds to make a throw – Lamar carries a 120.8 passer rating, with a 9-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But it’s when he has to make that quick decision of where to go with the ball that his performance suffers. Lamar was 5-for-12 for just 54 yards when he had less than 2.5 seconds to throw on Sunday – a 55.6 rating. For the season, Lamar holds a 73.5 rating when throwing the ball in less than 2.5 seconds, with a 1-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Bengals also frustrated Jackson by occasionally playing close man coverage against his underneath receivers. I don’t really understand why other teams don’t do this – and, frankly why Cincy didn’t do more of this. So much of Jackson’s success in the passing game comes from dropping underneath passes to uncovered receivers. The Bengals didn’t make that all that easy for Lamar on Sunday, and he finished 4 for 12 on passes from 0 to 10 yards from scrimmage – an area of the field in which he generally thrives. He was 10 for 12 in that region against the Chargers the week before.
Again, no reason to push the panic button in Baltimore. But these are causes for concern.
On the Other Coast
On Monday Night – on the other side of the continent – the exact opposite game was playing out. Here, on the dampened turf of Lumen Field in Seattle, the New Orleans Saints survived the Seahawks by a 13-10 score (gamebook) (summary).
In the second half of the Cincinnati-Baltimore game, the Bengals outgained the Ravens 321 yards to 221. In Seattle, both teams combined to gain 165 yards in the second half (87 for the Saints and 78 for the Hawks). Each team managed one field goal after halftime – a half that featured only one play of more than 20 yards.
But the highlight of the game was a spectacular second-quarter drive.
Trailing 7-0, New Orleans took possession of the ball on its own 12-yard line with 14:39 left in the half. Nineteen plays and 10:16 later, the drive petered out on the Seattle two-yard line, where Brian Johnson produced the first field goal of his NFL career (from 21 yards).
The drive included 11 running plays for 34 yards, but even that’s deceptive. Eighteen of those yards came on a Winston scramble. The ten actual called running plays only earned 16 yards. Jameis was 5 of 7 passing for 58 yards on the drive. New Orleans also lost 6 yards on an exchange of penalties. The Saints went 0-for-3 on third down during the drive (the teams were a combined 1-for-11 on third down in the first half), but converted two fourth-and-ones with quarterback sneaks.
The 86 yards that New Orleans gained on that drive nearly equaled the 87 they would gain in the entire second half – and, yes, it was very much in keeping with the meme of the game that this extensive drive would end with a field goal attempt.
The Seahawks managed 219 total yards for the game, with 84 of those (38.4%) coming on one play. Early in the first quarter, D.K. Metcalf worked his way behind the coverage of Marshon Lattimore for the long touchdown that gave the Hawks a brief lead – and would be their only touchdown on the night.
Seattle’s conservative game plan (27 called runs v 28 called passes in a game they lost) is understandable when you remember that Seattle was without star quarterback Russell Wilson. In his absence, they were cautious with backup Geno Smith.
With 1:34 left in the third quarter, Seattle recovered a fumble on the Saint 32. They were trailing 10-7 at that time. Instead of pressing the issue and looking for the touchdown that would put them ahead, Seattle ran twice, missed a short pass, and kicked the tying field goal. Now 2-5, the Seahawks are facing long odds to gain entrance to the playoff field. Getting their quarterback back will help.
Saints Under Wraps, Too
As to the Saints, they have been extremely run-centric all season as they wait for new quarterback Jameis Winston to grow into the role.
Entering the contest, Winston had thrown only 116 passes on the season – ranking him thirty-first of the 32 qualifying passers in the league. New Orleans is – in essence – rebuilding Jameis after the damage done to him in Tampa Bay.
Winston ended up throwing 35 passes Monday evening – his most as a Saint, and the second game in a row in which he had thrown the ball 30 times. Through the first four weeks, Jameis hadn’t made more than 23 pass attempts in any game, so it looks like New Orleans is, perhaps, starting to take the wraps off a little.
There was some first-half success dropping the ball off to Alvin Kamara. He caught 8 passes for 109 yards and New Orleans’ only touchdown in the first half. The second half was more of a muddle. Jameis was also under 50% (6 for 15), throwing for just 58 yards (3.87 per attempted pass), so you would think that New Orleans leaves with some offensive concerns as well.
In a sense, the Saints are also missing key contributions from a quarterback. In their case, though, it’s their backup QB Taysom Hill – who has missed a couple of games with a concussion. This is clearly a more diverse and dangerous offense when Hill is around doing all of the things that Taysom Hill does.
Now 4-2, New Orleans faces the stiff part of their season. With their bye week behind them, over the next eight weeks the Saints will play six games against teams currently at or above .500 – including many of the top ranked teams in the league. The stretch will begin and end with games against the defending champions in Tampa Bay (the Bucs are currently 6-1). They will also play the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys, the 5-2 Tennessee Titans and the 4-2 Buffalo Bills. In between Tampa Bay this week and Tennessee in Week 10, New Orleans will welcome an Atlanta Falcon team that pushed itself back to the .500 mark (they are currently 3-3) after a rough start.
So we will see quite soon what this team made of in its first season post-Drew Brees.