The AFC North is the NFL's version of demolition derby and when the Bengals play at first-place Baltimore Thursday night (8:15-Amazon Prime) they'll try to knock out some dents as well as take a bumper off the Ravens' playoff bus still driving with the NFL's No. 2 defense despite Sunday's smashup with Cleveland.
"I think it feels like a playoff game in November," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan on a Monday his fellow Bengals coaches are basically shoehorning three days of work into a day. "Usually when we play them, it's going to come down to probably the last possession or two. It's usually how all these games against have gone. And you're just mentally ready for it."
Last year, they played three and they split the two that came down to the last snap, including the Bengals win in the Wild Card Game that was played at Paycor Stadium because they beat the Ravens the week before to win the AFC North.
It was the second straight year Cincinnati had fended off Baltimore to take the division with late-season wins over a Ravens team without injured MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson. But now it looks like the script has been flipped.
Jackson is healthy but the Bengals' two key players against him, Pro Bowl right end Trey Hendrickson (knee) and left end Sam Hubbard (ankle) are reportedly unlikely to play. Although the Bengals didn't practice Monday, their estimated injury report had both not practicing.
Hubbard and Hendrickson are assigned to hold the edge against Jackson's dangerous option game. Jackson is 7-1 against the Bengals with his only loss in 2021 in a game Hubbard had 2.5 sacks and five tackles and Hendrickson had a sack.
Hubbard, who has led all NFL defensive ends in tackles since he came into the league in 2018, is considered one of the league's top run defenders. He didn't play Sunday when Texans running back Devin Singletary racked up 150 yards, the third most in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's five seasons. The top two games belong to Ravens' Jackson (152) and running back J.K. Dobbins (160).
"He's irreplaceable in that position," Anarumo said. "Let's start with communication and helping everybody with, hey, this might happen, that might happen. He's like linebacker Germaine (Pratt) for the backend guys. So we miss him there and then just his physical presence. He's one of the top edge run defenders in the league and it's hard to replace those guys. But we have to … and we've got to do better."
The Bengals have beefed up the position that is so key in their division. When they signed Hendrickson in 2021, they also drafted edgers Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample in the third-and fourth rounds, respectively, and last year they drafted Myles Murphy in the first round.
On Sunday, Sample led the way with five tackles in a season-high 50 snaps, Murphy had an assist on a career-high 27 plays, and Ossai didn't get on the stat sheet in 21 snaps. That's one playoff the most he's played this season after playing a combined 13 snaps the previous two weeks. None of them got to the quarterback and Anarumo is looking for improvement.
"It's not just on them. I think they had really good moments," Anarumo said. "But as a whole, that group needs to step up, especially, who knows, with Trey, if they're both out, then those guys have to step up."
Sample and Murphy each have a sack and Ossai is looking for his first of the year.
"I go back to what's held Joseph back as just his injuries, but he's shown, he showed flashes yesterday of some good things," Anarumo said.
Head coach Zac Taylor thinks Murphy is settling into the pro game with help from Hubbard and Hendrickson. Murphy talked last week how both guys have taken the time to watch tape with him in position coach Marion Hobby's office.
"I think just the experience overall of seeing the different tackles he's going to play against and tight ends and the different looks," Taylor said. "I think he's continuing to grow. It's obviously a really good room led by Coach Hobby and those other ends in the room to learn from. They do a great job sharing the information and helping those young guys continue to develop."
ATMOSPHERE: Taylor hasn't lost a prime-time game at rollicking Paycor Stadium, but he's looking for his first one on the road. It's been a while since the Bengals won one. They beat Andy Reid's Eagles on Dec. 13, 2012, which, by the way, came four days after a last-snap field goal at Paycor capped Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's fourth-quarter comeback.
And that's what Lamar Jackson did in the Sunday night game in Baltimore last season. Quarterback Joe Burrow snuck in the go-ahead touchdown with 1:38 left for a 17-16 lead before Jackson drove them 50 yards for a last-snap field goal.
"You can picture the environment. I think that's a plus," Taylor said. "Great game. The leads changed hands there in the last minute of the game. So we know what we're walking into. Our guys will be prepared for that."
The numbers aren't as bad as they used to be for Thursday night visitors. Per Jay Morrison, the Stat Masterson of Pro Football Network, since the Thursday night games went regular in 2006, home teams are 132-88, and since 2000, 136-93. But since 2020, home teams are 27-28. Burrow is 2-1 on Thursday night and Jackson is 2-2.
JA'MARR UNLISTED: The NFL injury gurus kept pelting cyberspace with Bengals' bad news Monday afternoon. Wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) is reportedly out of this one, too.
But Pro Bowl running mate Ja'Marr Chase (back), who went into Sunday's game questionable, wasn't listed on the injury report and Taylor said Monday it looks like he's going the right way.
Despite not practicing one day and being limited in the other two days of practice last week, Chase had five catches for 124 yards. But Callahan said the unknown of Chase's status prevented them from using him on screens and motions.
"We sort of game planned thinking we weren't going to have him," Callahan said. "Some of those things take reps and time and even though Joe and Ja'Marr have played a lot of football together, you still don't like going into a game, throwing things that maybe have some nuance and some timing to them when you haven't repped them. There's a challenge when guys don't practice during the week and trying to make sure you have everything ready to roll for a game day. The full bag of tricks maybe wasn't fully applicable in the game just because of the injury situation. We still found ways to get him the ball, but it wasn't like we were planning on having him fully healthy, ready to roll."
Did Burrow ever get him the ball on a scramble drill for the ages? With Burrow moving left and unleashing a 64-yard touchdown to Chase breaking off his route to stay in stride with Burrow. The CBS cameras caught Callahan dazed in the press box with defensive assistant Louie Cioffi patting him on the chest.
"I feel like I say it every week, but that's probably one of the best throws I've seen in a long time," Callahan said. "I mean, just on the move and Ja'Marr's reaction is what was special about it. He was just on a simple under route. Joe could have thrown the ball on that one. That's kind of how the progression started. But then he just felt like, I'm going to buy a little time here and see if I can make a play. And he rolls out and really it was JaMarr's reaction that was special because he kind of wheels up and sees the void and just hits it and it ends up being a, (64)-yard touchdown."
PLAYAKER JOE: Burrow doesn't throw many interceptions. He threw two Sunday in the fourth quarter, one of them in the red zone. Only his third red-zone pick in two years. But Callahan is fine with it because it will be recalled the Bengals were down ten when he threw them as time melted away.
The first one, Callahan said, he had pressure in his face and threw it high and slightly behind tight end Drew Sample. Then, in the red zone at the Texans 14, he was flushed out of the pocket and racing to the right sideline and while he could have dumped it to running back Joe Mixon, there were only four minutes left and he thought he had a shot in the end zone.
"You can always point out there's a conservative option here, but he was not in the conservative mode at that point, and neither were we," Callahan said. "He's going to make a whole lot more right decisions than he is wrong ones. You point out where it could have been different and then you move on because his aggressiveness and playmaking is part of the reason we were able to get back in that game.
"You sort of live and die by it if that's where you're in the game. And, unfortunately, we were in that spot where we had to try to climb back. And those interceptions happen sometimes … But I'm not going to second-guess him when he's trying to be aggressive and make a play for the team … If that was just a normal first-and-10 and we were in a tie ball game, that would've been probably an overly aggressive decision. But where we were in the game, it was necessary."
LOU'S FIX: Anarumo was not happy Monday. Not after the Texans became the first team with a 350-yard passer, 150-yard rusher and 150-yard receiver in the same game since Hall-of-Famers Peyton Manning and Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Torrance Small did it for 1998 Colts. Manning was a rookie just like Houston's C.J. Stroud.
Plus, Stroud hit eight passes of at least 20 yards.
Anarumo said the open receivers weren't a product or poor man or zone.
"It was more scramble stuff and just finding a guy. Like every team calls it, a plaster drill. You just get on your guy and stay on him. And we lost him yesterday, in particular, 85 (Noah Brown with seven catches for 172 yards) every time. One time we passed one (through a zone) when we shouldn't have," Anarumo said.
"It's always a combination of coverage and rush working together and we got out of sorts there on a little bit of both. One time we didn't rush well enough, another time we didn't cover them well enough. And there were other times we did well, but it certainly wasn't enough, that's for sure."
PRATT OK ON LAST PLAY: Missed tackles were also a problem. Anarumo didn't give a number and didn't have a reason, but he said it was comparable to the Oct. 1 game in Tennessee, where Pro Football Focus had them for 14. PFF said the Bengals had four on Sunday, which no doubt would surprise Anarumo. But he had no problem with linebacker Germaine Pratt trying to strip Noah Brown on the last scrimmage play of the game.
Pratt and safety Nick Scott converged on Brown at the Bengals 33, which would have forced emergency kicker Matt Ammendola to win the game with his first NFL 50-yarder. But Brown squirted out of the tackle for 13 more yards as Pratt tried to rip out the ball.
"He was the second guy in. Nick was there first. We teach the second guy in to go after the ball," Anarumo said. "Who knew the guy was going to split both of them? We've certainly got to get him on the ground. That's job A one A. If he was there first and just punching at it, that's different. But he was the second man in. That's how you get some of those plays."
And who makes more of them than Pratt, author of some of the biggest turnovers in Bengals history? Just last Sunday night he and Scott combined on a red-zone turnover early in the fourth quarter to stop a Bills' drive that would have cut it to 21-17. Pratt knocked the ball away from a guy Scott tackled.
The way they see it, it's the defensive equivalent of Burrow staying aggressive to make plays.