BALTIMORE – When the Bengals’ Brandon Wilson returned the game’s opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, the Ravens probably sensed more of that bad karma that had led to a 3-8 record against the Bengals in the previous 11 meetings.
But this Ravens team has Lamar Jackson, and from the first drive to the last, he was the difference as the Ravens held off the winless Bengals, 23-17, in a game that, despite early dominance by the Ravens, wasn’t decided until the Bengals failed on an onside kick attempt with 1:28 remaining.
Jackson finished with 19 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown and completed 21 of 33 passes for 236 yards. He became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era with more than 150 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a regular-season game.
“He’s special,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “That’s the only way to describe him. He does everything. And he makes everyone else look good. …It’s exciting to be able to play with a guy like that.”
Here are five quick observations about the win, which gives the Ravens (4-2) a two-game cushion in the AFC North:
1. Lamar Jackson is a different kind of weapon.
After the Bengals jolted the Ravens with a game-opening kickoff return touchdown, Jackson promptly scampered 36 yards on the Ravens’ second play, then capped that possession with a read-option keeper for a 21-yard touchdown.
That set the tone for a day in which Jackson would account for 78 percent of the Ravens offense – totaling 152 of their 269 rushing yards and throwing for 236 yards.
Jackson turned a couple of would-be sacks into some of his longest runs, and kept the Bengals guessing all afternoon. More than once, a Bengals defender crashed hard on a fake to a running back as Jackson kept the ball and broke outside.
“They really didn’t want us to run the ball up inside with our running backs,” coach John Harbaugh said, “so that opened up some other things.”
Jackson wasn’t spectacular through the air, but he was solid and most important, he did not turn the ball over, going 21 for 33 for 236 yards with no interceptions.
The Ravens know they can’t be a one-man band on offense, but on a day when the Bengals tried to shut down the inside running game, and when top rookie receiver Marquise Brown was sidelined by a foot injury, Jackson showed just what kind of game-changing talent he is.
“We’ve played couple of good athletes,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor. “He’s one of the rarest I’ve seen in person. Just one little crease and he’s got 30 yards on you.”
2. Mark Andrews continues on a Pro Bowl trajectory.
With rookie receiver Marquise Brown sidelined by an ankle injury, Mark Andrews again showed that he is this team’s most complete playmaker who isn’t named Lamar Jackson.
Andrews finished with six catches for 99 yards, and inexplicably was left all alone by the Bengals secondary more than once. Andrews has quickly developed into Jackson’s go-to receiver on third down and now leads the Ravens with 34 catches for 410 yards.
Without Brown, the Ravens lack of a downfield passing game was apparent; no receiver caught a pass of more than 18 yards, and no Ravens receivers other than Brown can stretch the defense. That puts more pressure on the intermediate passing game, but Andrews has been up to the task all season.
Andrews’ aggressiveness got the better of him as he coughed up a fumble trying to hurdle a defender, which has become something of a sport for Ravens tight ends. Although he said the fumble was “not acceptable,” he said he isn’t about to stop being “an aggressive player.”
3. Josh Bynes is becoming one of the more compelling story lines on this team.
Two weeks ago, Josh Bynes was basically on his couch waiting for a chance to get back in the league. Cut last spring by the Arizona Cardinals, he sat out all of training camp as 32 teams passed on the chance to sign him. He attended a few workouts and then waited for his phone to ring.
Now, he’s the Ravens starting middle linebacker and had a hand in an interception for the second straight week. Last week at Pittsburgh, Bynes picked off a pass by Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels in a Wildcat formation. This week, Bynes tipped a pass that was picked off in the red zone by Marlon Humphrey, thwarting an early Cincinnati drive.
Bynes is emblematic of a Ravens defensive roster that is very much in flux. With Patrick Onwuasor sidelined by a knee injury, the Ravens started two inside linebackers — Bynes and L.J. Fort – who were not with the team two weeks ago. Defensive end Jihad Ward, signed earlier this week, saw significant action as well.
Harbaugh credited all three with being pros who have experience and were ready when their number was called, but it also is an indictment on the Ravens current group of inside linebackers and it speaks to a defensive roster that seems to be still searching for answers.
4. That narrative about the Ravens deep secondary seems ages ago.
Remember back in training camp when the Ravens were boasting they had one of the deepest, talented secondary groups in the league? Well toward the end of this game, special teams ace Justin Bethel — who didn’t play a down on defense in 2018 and was at the bottom of the cornerback depth chart this summer — was thrust into action as Dalton led the Bengals on a touchdown drive.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith was missing his fifth straight game, and cornerback Maurice Canady had also left with an unspecified injury. Meanwhile, safety Tony Jefferson is out for the season with a knee injury, and backup safety DeShon Elliott left with an injury.
That left Bethel, Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark all playing key secondary roles late in the game, not the way the Ravens would have drawn it up in August.
To his credit, Clark by all accounts excelled taking over for Jefferson both as a starting safety and as the defensive communicator with the headset helmet. The third-year safety is widely viewed as one of the most intelligent players on the field and looks primed for a major role for the remainder of the season.
“I feel like I’ve been here getting prepared for it for the past three years,” Clark said. “Now that it’s finally time, just take it and run with it.”
5. The Ravens two-game lead in the AFC North is still tenuous.
This opening third of the season was always viewed as the softer portion of the Ravens schedule, with games against the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals in the first six week – teams that have a collective record of 2-14-1.
That has allowed them to build a two-game lead in the AFC North, but if they are to hold that lead, they will need to be better. Beginning with next week’s game at Seattle, the Ravens face teams with winning records in six of the next seven weeks – including the undefeated New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football after the bye week.
To be sure, the Ravens should feel good about the fact that they have a two-game divisional lead and a win at Heinz Field in their back pocket. But their flaws, especially on defense, could be badly exposed against some of the explosive offenses they will be seeing over the next six weeks if they aren’t corrected, and the Browns (2-4), who lost to Seattle in Week 6, have a much more forgiving schedule over the second half of the season.
The AFC North race is most definitely still on.
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