We’ll see those Lamar Jackson highlights for God knows how long. But there are two plays from Sunday’s 49-13 loss to the Ravens that make the Bengals think they could have something in rookie quarterback Ryan Finley.
Play 1: His second series. Third-and-11 from the Bengals 45. They’re in the shotgun and, as advertised, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is sending everybody but Ray Lewis. Vet safety Earl Thomas is the second DB blitzing late and Finley guns it to wide receiver Tyler Boyd running a terrific route across the middle against one of the Ravens’ bottomless supply of press man corners. This time it is Marlon Humphrey, Boyd’s personal body guard on Sunday.
“We’ve got a max protection on. We get zero blitz,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is saying Monday. “So we’ve got seven guys coming, the eighth guy (Thomas) is his. The eighth guy adds on to the protection. He’s screaming right at his face … The protection is good, Finley has the last guy. The guy is right in his face. He slides like that, really quick to the left. Slides left and hits TB in stride for a first down. A huge third down early in the game. That was to me a moment, that’s where you go, ‘OK, this kid’s got something to him. He’s got something we can work with.’ It was really impressive.”
Play 2: Last series of the first half. First-and-five from the Baltimore 36. Finley had just committed a cardinal sin on the previous series, but a typical one for a rookie quarterback. He had checked into an out route to wide receiver Alex Erickson against another zero blitz in the red zone and hurried a bad ball (inside) with the play clock ticking to one and one of those cornerbacks, this one Marcus Peters, was all over it for a pick-six.
About two minutes later he gets the same all-in blitz look and with Peters draped on wide receiver Auden Tate on the same side, he hits him with a quick throw on a stop route and this time Tate bulls Peters for 11 yards.
“And he throws right back at Peters,” Callahan is saying. “He got the right protection call, got it picked it up … dude showed no fear in going right back at him. Nothing negatively affected him that way where he just went right back down the field. So he responded the way you want to see a quarterback respond to some adversity in a game. Because it's going to happen. You're going to make mistakes. Things aren't going to go your way. And it's how does a guy come back and respond on the next drive, and I thought he answered that bell with flying colors really, just to go back right back down the field and not flinch and put points on the board.”
Callahan and head coach-play caller Zac Taylor oversaw quite a different offense Sunday than the one they crafted in the offseason and training camp.
Not only was Finley the quarterback and not nine-year man Andy Dalton, but they ripped up the running game and gave the Ravens more power plays and gap schemes than they showed last month.
Different? Running back Joe Mixon, carrying the ball 12.5 times per game in the first half of the season, had a career-high 30 carries. With Erickson joining injured wide receivers A.J. Green and John Ross on the sidelines early, it had a pre-season opener feel with Tate, Boyd and rookie wide receiver Stanley Morgan working with Finley.
So the coaches weren’t all that concerned that Finley’s signature accuracy wasn’t always there Sunday in hitting just 53 percent of his throws after that 73.4 percent preseason. (If you want to get nostalgic, don’t those first-round Baltimore corners make you think back to the Bengals defenses of 2013-15 when nobody could pass on them?)
“I thought there were some decisions he would certainly like to have back,” Taylor said. (Baltimore) has a talented secondary. Four of those guys that they roll out there are, to me, Pro Bowl-level players. That’s a tough test in your first matchup. There were times where (Finley) extended plays and gave guys a chance. We didn’t make it work, so the completion percentage is going to drop a little bit. For the most part, he gave us a chance and did some really positive things.”
There were a lot of reasons to run it Sunday. At the top of the list was making sure they didn’t come out of it with a shell-shocked rookie QB dropping back 45 times against the NFL’s heaviest blitz team after getting down 14-0 in the first 11 minutes.
“That’s not smart football for a young quarterback. “There’s some guys that can handle that. Andy’s handled it a couple of times this year,” Callahan says. “But to put him in that position versus a team that’s going to blitz the hell out of him is probably not fair to him. So we were trying to manage that with the fact that we were trying to score points. It’s a tough spot to be in.”
That’s not to say they’ll roll out the same deal next week in Oakland against old friend Paul Guenther, the former Bengals defensive coordinator. If Martindale dials up the blitz more than anybody in the league, Guenther may do it less than anybody. Callahan promises a completely different game plan. But with rookie tight end Drew Sample going out early with an ankle injury, the Bengals were resolute in sticking with three-receiver sets even though they had only three receivers. They went 11 personnel about 85 percent of the time Sunday.
But the Bengals seem intent on running it to get Mixon going and helping Finley. And while Callahan isn’t sold on time of possession being the end all and be all, he knows it helps when the Bengals keep it more than 36 minutes like they did Sunday.
But he’s also right. It’s not a lock. In the Bengals’ top 20 time of possession games this century (where they kept it at least 37:50), they lost four and tied one.
How weird was Sunday? It was the first time in ten years the Bengals rushed it at least 40 times and lost and only the fourth time this century.
“We’ve always intended to run the ball,” Callahan says. “Sixty-two carries in the last two games we’ve played, that’s really more of what we’re trying to get to — the 20-plus carries a game, 25, 30. If you get 30 carries a game, in most cases, you’re usually controlling the tempo of the game. Obviously, the game yesterday was strange in that regard. But most of the time, when you’re carrying the ball like that, you’re controlling the tempo, you’re controlling the clock.”
The best way to describe Finley’s debut is interesting. And maybe the most interesting thing is that Callahan thinks this thing is going to happen fast, given Finley’s brains and tape study.
“I think he’s going to make a pretty good jump here in the next week or two,” Callahan says. “We’re just filling a bank-full of things you can learn from. There’s no other way to get the experience and get it. And he’s doing it at a rapid rate. I think there’s a lot of improvement. I think it will happen pretty quickly and he’s so open to it. I think it will happen fast.”