After watching Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson dominate the Bengals twice last season, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo used a mix of his old and new weapons to craft a different, faster and more versatile defense that was good enough to get the win.
Two problems. They didn't get going until 15 minutes into the game and while the 20 points they allowed was good enough to beat the Ravens, the Bengals offense never had a shot against the blitzes Baltimore was able to unleash once they got up 17-0.
"Like I said at the beginning of the week, I think that we had a really good game plan going into it to stop that zone read and the quarterback stuff," said free safety Jessie Bates III. "But we didn't do well on third down, which we didn't really emphasize on. (It's) emphasized every week, but we didn't do that well today.
"I think we did a good job defensively. But when you're playing against really good teams like this, the room for error is just really small. I don't care how our offense isn't playing up to our standard, but I don't care how bad that is. We just have to keep it close; we've got to keep it close within how many points our offense is scoring."
Anarumo deployed elements of a 4-4, usually with four linemen, three linebackers and strong safety Vonn Bell in the box. He used mainly the speed of slot cornerback Darius Phillips and rookie linebacker Logan Wilson to spy Jackson and stalk his every move on the perimeter. He also started end Carl Lawson in place of Carlos Dunlap in the early downs, using Dunlap mainly on third downs. (Dunlap got his first sack of the season). He made sure the Bengals jammed up the middle on Jackson. And they held the NFL MVP's offense to a field goal in the final 45 minutes.
"That's what we knew coming into the game. (Ravens tight end Mark Andrews) gets the ball in the middle of the field, and that's where all their completions come from," Bates said. "So, we're packing the middle of the field for sure. (Jackson) threw it outside the numbers, but unfortunately, we got off to a slow start."
The Bengals got a balanced effort with four defenders getting at least six tackles, led by eight from middle linebacker Josh Bynes in his return to Baltimore.
Phillips was all over the place, blitzing and covering. He hit Jackson twice and he had two passes defensed. Bates, who had seven tackles and two passes tipped, indicated the Bengals were going to stay in a base defense against three receivers to load up against the run. But that apparently changed when Phillips came out flying.
"Darius showed up. He's a gamer," Bates said. "I'm not surprised at all that he showed up well."
They also aren't surprised at how Wilson is playing. That's why they took him in the third round. He racked up his second interception in as many games when he saw how the Ravens offensive line deployed on a huge third-and-10 from the Bengals 27 down, 17-0. Instead of blitzing, Wilson dropped and Jackson threw it right at him.
"There were some plays I was spying him. It's kind of surreal, to be honest, to be in a position where you're about to tackle Lamar Jackson because you see him on Sundays all the time," Wilson said. "Especially the last couple years where he's really stepped up his game. He's a force to be reckoned with. I think he's a little bummed up with his knee. He's definitely very shifty and can get away from anyone, so it definitely was a tough job."
When the defense looks back they'll rue that drive that allowed the Ravens to go up 10-0. Anarumo had them right where they wanted them. Four third downs of at least five yards. And Jackson completed them all sitting in the pocket, right where the Bengals wanted him.
On third-and-five wide receiver Hollywood Brown got loose on cornerback LeShaun Sims for 16 yards. On third-and-seven, Andrews stopped in front of Bates in a zone and dove for a nine-yard catch. On third-and-14 Andrews ran away from Bell over the middle and Jackson put it right on his numbers at the sticks. Then on third down from the 5, Andrews boxed out Bell for the touchdown.
"It's just as simple as not letting him get the ball," Bates said. "We know where Lamar wants to go. Either '15' (Hollywood Brown) or '89' (Andrews). It showed up today as well. That's all he was really throwing to, was '15' or '89.' We didn't make the plays where it was at that point in time."
The Bengals continue to play un-complementary ball. Last week the offense had plenty to build on that with those 505 yards. But they could only get 205 this week and didn't help the defense. Now the defense has plenty to build for next week in Indianapolis.
"We just didn't do well on the pass game on third down. I feel like we stopped the run early," Bates said. "I think they had the little reverse (42 yards) that kind of gashed us a little bit at the beginning, but other than that, we executed the game plan very well. Obviously, their team scored more points than us, and that's a loss. So, we can really continue to go back to the drawing board."