No one has to tell the 4-2 Bengals anything about Sunday's game at 5-1 Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) for first place in the AFC North.
As Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Monday wincing at the Ravens defense of Dayton, Ohio's Wink Martindale, "Then there's Baltimore and they live in their own category."
Truer words were never spoken since Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson took ownership of this rivalry on Nov. 18, 2018 in his first NFL start, a much ballyhooed affair against the Bengals that produced a future NFL MVP.
Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals, beating them by an average of 32-11. He's torturing them with a 96.2 passer rating and 89 yards per game rushing in games his team averages 247 yards rushing on 6.3 per carry.
But the Bengals believe over the last two offseasons they've built a defense to slow him down and muscle their way back into AFC North contention.
After six weeks, a defense that finished last, 29th and 26th in those three seasons is ranked eighth. A defense that was ranked 29th, last and 29th against the run after Jackson got through with them is ranked eighth.
And they've allowed just 111 points, the third fewest in a six-game stretch to open the season in this century. Of the four other defenses that have allowed 111 or fewer, three finished in the top ten (2001, 2011, 2013) and the other one (2005) won a division title.
"It's a whole different mindset, a change in mindset. Everything is different," said strong safety Vonn Bell Monday of the defense that played the Ravens last year and this one. "It's night and day different. You can tell that on film with the guys that we brought in, with the guys that stayed and everybody bought in, and its one big family. We always hold each other accountable and we don't want to let that person down next to next to us. So, we're all playing as one tribe, and we go we go as the team goes, and that's what we're showing week in and week out."
Same old Ravens. Ridiculous running the ball (ranked fourth in the NFL) and Jackson brings' sidearm terror to a dangerous pass game that is on the cusp of the top ten at a lethal No. 11.
So the Bengals defense knows what can be said Sunday with an effort like they've offered all year. That they have arrived.
"Everybody knows what we have in the room," Bell said. "We just have to prove it week in and week out. We already know what's brewing. We've got guys oozing with confidence and wanting to make a play. This will be a stepping stone for us and I think we're going to be ready for it."
The Baltimore defense is just as imposing. Martindale always seems to make sure he's got units stingy against the run (fourth this year) to go with his mad-scientist blitzes that have put them in the top 10 for sacks and quarterback hits with the fourth most active blitz percentage in the league.
Callahan, who was with the Broncos when Martindale was their defensive coordinator, has high regard for the Trotwood-Madison High School product.
"We categorize a lot of things by family of the defense and systems of defense we face," Callahan said, "and you see a lot of different ones, and ones that are really good and things that give you headaches to prepare for and then there's Baltimore and they live in their own category. They do so many things and they do it well and they have a counter to everything they do, so you can't just dial in on one thing."
Callahan guarantees the Ravens are going to show something they haven't seen.
"Things come up by game, by team, so you don't necessarily see the same thing twice in a game plan package for them," Callahan said. "I think Wink is one of the best defensive coordinators in football. I am surprised Wink is not a head coach the way he runs that defense. And he's one of the guys I have as much respect for as anyone in this league as a coordinator, and it's going to be a lot of long nights here for the next three or four days."
But Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor have a couple of things in those midnight oil sessions that they didn't have in last year's games against Wink. Such as the AFC's leading passer, Joe Burrow with 16 NFL starts under his belt, and the most prolific rookie in the league in wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. And running back Joe Mixon, fourth in the NFL in rushing and tenth in scrimmage yards, played in only one of the games, as did Burrow.
Taylor is focused on preventing last year's melee in Baltimore, where Burrow got his first and only dose of the Ravens' ravenous blitz that unleashed a slew of free runners. He got sacked seven times, hit 15 times and stripped twice, losing the ball once.
"The easy things from the initial tape last year, the first game, were ball security was not good enough and we didn't have all 11 guys on the same page in protections," Taylor said. "Those were things that caused us issues there. It's a good defense. You saw that with this Los Angeles tape that they just had (Sunday's 34-6 wackage of Justin Herbert's Chargers). We know it's a great challenge for us. Our guys are excited for it. I won't go into much what our game plan will be this time around, but our offense just has a lot of confidence. We can run the ball, we can throw the ball, we've had, for the most part, pretty good communication in our protection stuff. The guys just trust each other."
EVANS WRITES A GREAT TALE: You can't make this stuff up. When it comes to the NFL, truth is always much more interesting. Take rookie running back Chris Evans' break-out game Sunday in Detroit.
When he arrived at Ford Field Sunday morning, his mind went back to 2019, the year he was suspended from the University of Michigan for plagiarism.
In order to raise money for his flag football youth organization, CE Stars, he worked security at a gate for the Lions-Giants game.
"So the last time I was at that stadium I was helping with SAFE security and had a polo on and I got to watch the game after everybody got in," Evans recalled. "Just that moment for me just going out there having that day the next time I was at that stadium is just… it felt good for me."
Why not? He went back to Michigan in style, catching his first pro touchdown on a 24-yard loft from Burrow, made the longest play of the game possible when he picked up the blitz on Chase's 53-yard catch and added three tackles on special teams while playing a career-high snaps from scrimmage and in the kicking game.
But it wasn't the first time he used his hands at Ford, an occasion he made sure he saw old college teammate Jabrill Peppers warm up for the Giants.
"They gave the first some amount of fans Lions gloves or something like cotton cheap little Lions gloves," Evans said. "I had to just stand there at the security thing and gave them out until we were supposed to give them out until they were all gone. I would slide two to somebody so I could get them off my hands or somebody had a couple people with them I would say just give a couple to your friends so I could go watch the game."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Rookie Trey Hill had a rocky welcome in his first NFL start at right guard, but Taylor liked the way he came back after he got pulled following the second series. He committed back-to-back penalties (a hold and false start) as well as missing a block on a wide zone run. So Taylor went back to rookie Jackson Carman, just off the COVID list on Friday after he had started the last three games.
"A rookie playing in his first game. There's some times you just need a breather," Taylor said. "We saw that against Pittsburgh when Jackson got his first opportunity."
Then Carman went down, literally, on the first drive of the second half, after his 23rd play. The snap before the Bengals converted the fourth-and-one for Mixon's 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown, Carman became dizzy. Hill came back in and Carman was done for the day with an illness even though he has tested negative for the last several days,
"He's going to continue to work back. It's not anything that should affect him long-term," Taylor said. "He did have COVID last week. He did test negative to be back in it (the roster). It's not easy to go out there and play like he did. Obviously it caught up to him at some point. But I think with a couple of days rest, he's going to be in great shape."
And Hill came back to get in on the TD. Later, he moved to center as Taylor emptied his bench and got snaps for backups Fred Johnson (13) and Isaiah Prince (10).
"When Trey went back in the game, he played very well. That was encouraging to see," Taylor said. "It's not unexpected for a rookie to go in there and have a couple of (bad) moments … After that, I thought that he settled down really nice and did nice job for us … it was good to see that progress he made over the course of the game."
Callahan said Carman's illness didn't impact the fourth-and-one.
"Jackson was sick on the field. He was kind of walking around, and so everyone's yelling at him to go down so we can get the clock stopped. If you're hurt, stay on the ground," Callahan said. "It doesn't do you any good to stand up and try to make it off the field when the clock's running. So when he finally sat down, they stopped the play clock at 17 seconds. Then when you get back on the field of play when they blow the whistle, it starts at the same time. So I think we ended up with 17 seconds on the clock after he went down, so it ended up being a little bit shorter time frame in between."