The last time the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals shared the same field, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton became a folk hero … in Buffalo. Dalton’s game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd dashed the Ravens’ playoff dreams and thrust the Bills into the postseason .
It’s tough to imagine the Ravens bouncing back from that game with a better performance than the one they put together last week against … the Bills. Baltimore stomped Buffalo 47-3 in a game that was somehow still not quite as close as it sounds. The Ravens made the Bills look like they did not belong on a professional football field. Baltimore out-gained the Bills by 216 yards, achieved more than twice as many first downs on the ground, through the air, and overall, and scored points all six times they entered the red zone while holding the Bills scoreless on their sole trip inside the 20.
Meanwhile, the Bengals played a strong game against the Colts, storming back with a 17-point fourth quarter to come away with a double-digit win. Andy Dalton spread the ball around. Joe Mixon had the best game of his career. The defense held Andrew Luck to just 6.0 yards per attempt and also came away with two turnovers and a touchdown. The win was not quite as dominant as the Ravens’, but it was a good, solid way to begin the 2018 campaign.
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One of these two teams will be moving to 2-0 this week, while the other will be playing catch up. How will it all go down on ‘Thursday Night Football’ (8:20 p.m., NFL Network) and what should the conscientious observer be watching for? Read on to find out.
When the Ravens have the ball
Joe Flacco is back! The Ravens’ starter is coming off his best regular-season game since 2014. Flacco completed 25 of 34 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns, and was not intercepted. His 121.7 passer rating was the best mark he posted during a regular-season game since October 2014. It was his first time throwing three touchdown passes without being picked off since that game as well — and that’s something he’s done only eight times in his career. Among the 74 players in NFL history with at least eight such games, Flacco is one of 24 whose team has won every single time he’s accomplished the feat. (The Patriots are 53-2 when Tom Brady throws at least three touchdowns without getting picked. That seems way more impressive than the Ravens going 8-0 when Flacco does so.)
All that being said, I’m not sure what conclusions we can or should be drawing from a game the Ravens played against a team that appears to be barely an NFL unit. It’s also important to note that Flacco did not really challenge Buffalo’s cornerback tandem all that much. More than half of Flacco’s throws in Week 1 went to his tight ends or running backs.
As such, he did not push the ball downfield very often. The average depth on his throws was just 7.1 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, 25th among the 35 quarterbacks who played at least one quarter of their team’s snaps in Week 1.
The Bengals arguably have an even stronger group of cornerbacks than the Bills. William Jackson III is coming off a spectacular rookie season during which he allowed a 34.9 percent catch rate, per Pro Football Focus, and just a 36.1 opponent’s passer rating. Both of those figures ranked among the very best in the NFL. Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard did not fare quite as well last season as Jackson, but they both allowed below-average passer ratings to opponents when targeted in coverage, even while they were targeted far more often than Jackson.
It’s tough to know which corner will match up with which Ravens receiver because Baltimore moved them around quite often in Week 1, but we know that the receiver to the offense’s right side of the field will see Jackson, the receiver to the left will see Kirkpatrick, and the slot man will see Dennard.
It’s possible Flacco could again heavily target his tight ends and backs, but Cincinnati’s defense isn’t likely to give up quite as much yardage after the catch as Buffalo’s did last week.
Of course, Baltimore would likely prefer that its offense be based around its rushing attack. Alex Collins had 15 or more carries in nine of the final 11 games of last season, including the finale against the Bengals, where he toted the rock 20 times for 78 yards. Collins didn’t touch the ball all that much last week, but it was a weird game where Baltimore had things in hand pretty early and moved away from its usual rotation. The Ravens will likely attempt to work him in early and often in order to control the line of scrimmage against a strong defensive front, and get Flacco into more advantageous third-down situations where his preference for targeting tight ends and running backs on check-downs will still allow them to pick up a conversion.
When the Bengals have the ball
The most notable thing about the Bengals’ Week 1 offense was how their backfield work was divided up. For years, the Bengals have used a backfield committee. Check out the touches-per-game breakdown over the past few seasons.
|Year||RB 1||RB 2|
In Week 1, however, the Bengals operated with a true lead back for the first time since the 2012 season, when BenJarvis Green-Ellis averaged 18.8 touches per game and the next-closest running back on the team (Cedric Peerman) averaged just 3.4 per game. Joe Mixon received 17 carries in Week 1 compared to just one for Giovani Bernard. Mixon was also targeted seven times in the passing game to Bernard’s one. In total, Mixon had 22 touches for 149 yards and a score, while Bernard touched the ball twice and totaled nine yards. Mixon also out-snapped Bernard 44 to 12, giving him an 80-20 split of the snap-load.
Bernard has been a “second half of a timeshare” guy more often than not throughout his career, a role that suits him given his somewhat slighter stature and strength in the passing game; but Mixon brings the power skills of a Green-Ellis or Jeremy Hill while also having the capability to act as a pass-blocker or receiver out of the backfield. It’s possible they’ll want to ease his workload over the course of the season, but he does appear to have the skill set to handle the work alone. That’s worth considering within the context of this matchup. Baltimore has often been given run/pass clues when facing the Bengals based on who was lined up behind or next to quarterback Andy Dalton, but that may no longer be the case with Mixon in the mix.
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Dalton would benefit from some more unpredictability. He’s 7-6 in 13 career regular season games against the Ravens, but his passing performance against them has been below-average. Dalton has made at least three regular-season starts against 12 different opponents. His 57.0 completion percentage against the Ravens ranks seventh among that group, as does his 6.94 yards per attempt. His 3.14 percent touchdown rate, however, ranks 10th, and so does his 3.56 percent interception rate. And his 74.1 passer rating ranks 11th. The Ravens are also one of just two of those 12 teams against whom Dalton has a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It’s somewhat likely that Dalton will also benefit from the presence of one of his best weapons, who is rarely ever on the field. Tight end Tyler Eifert is finally healthy again, and there has been a noticeable uptick in certain areas of Dalton’s performance when Eifert has been on the field.
Specifically, Eifert’s presence has helped Dalton push the ball a bit further down the field. That’s no surprise. Eifert is a big-bodied (6-6, 255 pounds) threat over the middle of the field, and he excels at beating linebackers up the seam with his athleticism and beating them to the point of the catch. Interestingly enough, that specific trait is one the Ravens had some trouble with last season.
According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore’s second-ranked pass defense (by DVOA) was below-average at just three things: covering tight ends (29th), covering passes over the middle of the field (16th), and covering deep passes (24th). If Eifert can manage to play more than 40 percent of the snaps this week, he could potentially do some damage there.
Of course, Dalton’s not the only Bengal who has benefited from Eifert’s presence on the field. It’s arguable that Eifert has been even more of a boon for the production of star wideout A.J. Green.
Green is likely to see shadow coverage from Ravens corner Brandon Carr, who is taller and longer than opposite-side corner Marlon Humphrey. When the Ravens shadowed bigger receivers last year, it was often Carr who traveled with those players. Carr is still not that great in coverage, but has become much more of a playmaker in Baltimore than he was during his four years with the Dallas Cowboys. He had four interceptions and 12 passes defensed last season, and already had a pick and three deflections last week. Green is obviously a different animal to deal with in coverage than, say, Kelvin Benjamin, so Carr will have his work cut out for him this week.
But Carr’s uptick in turnovers is also emblematic of what this Ravens defense was about last season. Baltimore forced a turnover on 17.4 percent of opponent drives in 2017 — the highest rate in the league. The ability to force turnovers on such a great number of possessions has not been shown to be very consistent from year to year, however, so I’d caution against expecting the Ravens to rank first again just because they did last year.
What we should expect is for them to put a bunch of pressure on Dalton with their defensive front, because they have the players to do so. And if they are able to create that pressure, that could force Dalton to make the kind of mistakes we have gotten used to seeing him make over the years.
Pick: Ravens 20, Bengals 16