BALTIMORE - After his defense allowed Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to commit history in Sunday's 23-17 loss, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor asked that the numbers be forgotten.
As far as he's concerned, this thing became a culture war when he asked them to simply keep it a game at halftime. And they did it with gritty a checkerboard of new-look personnel and alignments that gave its offense plenty of chances in a final 44:12 they allowed two field goals during a withering assault of Jackson's 77 plays.
"After the first three drives, they gave up some plays, but, again, they buckled down and kept the points off the board, and that's what we needed from them," Taylor said. "We lost at one point three starters in the secondary. We had three D-linemen inactive, and we've got a bunch of guys out there fighting like crazy against an offense that's really well put together and, at the end of the day, they gave us a chance to win."
End of the day? If the Bengals offense hadn't turned the Ravens' most pedestrian defense in two decades into the second coming of Marvin Lewis' 2000 juggernaut, this game is quite winnable.
If it sounds like Taylor is trying to build a culture, he is. On that score, the players are with him. Asked if there is something brewing after allowing the seventh most rush yards in team history with 269, left end Carl Lawson thought so.
"It's definitely brewing as far as culture," said Lawson after his career-high 63 snaps. "We have to keep building. We're a young defense. That's no excuse, but we have to keep growing. We've got a lot of guys that buy in and I appreciate those guys."
But the one thing they can't get around is their horrific inability to stop the run, which is on the verge of becoming historic. It's a three-year trend that peaked on Sunday when they let Jackson run wild a week after Arizona rookie quarterback Kyler Murray led a charge of 266 yards. Last year, against these Ravens and the Saints, they allowed back-to-back 200-yard rush games. The last time they did that was 1979.
"You think you have stuff idled up, guys are going another way and sometimes you just miss tackles," said middle linebacker Preston Brown. "We've got to go to the drawing board and see how exactly people keep getting these runs. Every week you look up and there's a lot of rushing yards. That's something you never want to see. I don't think it's a scheme thing; coaches do a great job every week of preparing us. We've just got to make plays. So, we've just got to find ways to beat our blocks, to beat our man and tackle the man with the ball."
Of course, the Ravens running game has had its way with everybody this season, but Jackson is a monster against the Bengals. After he carved them for 115 yards in his first NFL start last season, he took them out with 155 yards Sunday on 16 carries before he took three knees to finish with 152. He became the first quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards and run for at least 100 yards in a regular-season game. After he went off for 111 in the first half to join Michael Vick as the only quarterback to rush for 100 in a half, he became just the fourth quarterback to rush for at least 150 yards in a game.
Right end Sam Hubbard: "You can't pick a side and win because he's going to step up and get out. You have to go speed to power. You always have vision on him. That's what makes it so hard to rush these guys."
Safety Jessie Bates III: "The biggest thing is when you're covering guys down field, it's him against the D-linemen, it's like a running back in the open field. That's the tough part."
Safety Shawn Williams: "He can hit the edge and run like no quarterback I have ever played, at least that I can remember at this moment. We just have to go back to the game plan for when we face him again. We kind of know the recipe. We have to stop them on first and second down, get them in third down, third down and long, keep [Lamar Jackson] in the pocket and make him throw to beat us. When he steps outside the pocket, he is as good as anyone. And today, he also made throws outside the pocket. So, they kind of won that today."
But, the Bengals defense did stop the bleeding in that final 44:12. And they were bleeding.
Early in the second quarter cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was lost with what looks to be a bad knee injury. Shawn Williams gutted through more than half the plays with a thigh injury that sent him in lock step off the field after one play. Cornerback William Jackson III came out for a series and they forced a punt with cornerbacks B.W. Webb, Tony McRae and Torry McTyer on his first seven Bengals snaps. Six defensive linemen, led by the inexhaustible sophomore right end Sam Hubbard's 69 plays, worked at least 42 snaps.
"There's young leadership stepping up on both sides of the ball," said Hubbard, who is one of those guys. "You don't see anybody turn on each other. There are guys that do things the right way. It's a promising sign."
But it was one of the defensive deans that rallied his teammates. Williams, a seventh-year player, has been limping for two weeks with a bad thigh. Last week he got off the cart and came back. On Sunday he came off the bench for five tackles. After the Ravens scored 17 points on their first three drives, Williams set the tone on the next series when he mirrored Jackson on the edge on second-and-three and dropped him for a three-yard loss that led to a punt.
"If you're a Bengals fan you should show a lot of appreciation for Shawn Williams because Shawn Williams is definitely an underrated player in this league," Lawson said. "He's a guy that doesn't get a lot of love, but we love him and appreciate the work he brings to the table each and every play. I never count him out. That's the mentality you have to have. If you want the organization where you want it to be. The fact he was out there says a lot about Shawn."
With Williams limping, third-year safety Brandon Wilson played 56 snaps, two more than all of last season, and he forced their only turnover, a fumble that turned into a field goal. Part of Wilson's work load was the injury, part of it was that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was throwing all kinds of players and schemes at Jackson. If these guys gave everything they had (Bates played 98 percent of the downs), Anarumo was emptying his own well with 19 guys playing at least 14 snaps. On many down he had one backer working with five linemen and five DBs.
He tried three linebackers in the first half for the first time all season and that didn't work. He went with one on some third downs in the second half and that seemed to work. Rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt had a career-high 31 snaps and while he looked a little tentative in coverage, he had five tackles.
Anarumo lined up Hubbard all over the place. On a second-and-six from the Bengals 31, he stood up in a gap and rushed on an incompletion. On the next snap safety Clayton Fejedelem's blitz forced a 49-yard field goal.
"We made a couple of adjustments," Hubbard said. "Initially guys were trying to do other people's jobs and we settled in and did our own job and that's how we got him stopped."
Hubbard said they spied Jackson a few times with one defender covering just him, but his athleticism took over. On the killer 18-play drive that took up 9:46 of the fourth quarter, he got 16 on a third-and-14 much like Murray broke up last week's game. Jackson simply put the ball down when he couldn't find anybody open and ran through the middle of the pocket.
"We cannot just tee off and rush," Williams said. "You have to be disciplined in your rush lanes. He does a good job of extending plays on third down and getting them the extra first down that they need."
But Williams wants to forget the numbers, too.
"We are getting better. We came out at times, and at first, it was a little shaky," Williams said. "We had to figure out what they were doing, but when we did, we did a pretty good job of adjusting."