Five Things To Watch: Bengals vs. Ravens

Trey Hendrickson 091023
DE Trey Hendrickson takes down QB Deshaun Watson during the Bengals-Browns Week 1 game of the 2023 season on Sunday, September 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens in their home opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday. The game airs at 1 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Bengals' passing attack vs. Ravens secondary

Joe Burrow and the Bengals' potent passing attack will look to get back on schedule this week against a Ravens secondary that is not at full strength. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh already confirmed that starting safety Marcus Williams will not play against the Bengals after suffering a pectoral injury in Week 1. Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens' Pro Bowl cornerback, underwent foot surgery in mid-August and has not yet returned to practice.

In five regular-season starts against Baltimore, Burrow has averaged 311.2 passing yards and thrown nine TDs. That includes a Bengals single-game record 525 yards with four TDs in Week 16 of the 2021 season. His stable of receivers has also fared well in the AFC North rivalry, led by Ja'Marr Chase, whose 115.5 receiving yards per game are the most by any player ever versus the Ravens (minimum four games played). Working against Humphrey in the 2021 Week 7 matchup at Baltimore, Chase went for 201 yards on eight receptions, highlighted by an 82-yard catch and run to the end zone that still stands as a career long. Tee Higgins posted career highs in catches (12) and yards (194) with two scores in Burrow's record-setting day later that season.

After a performance in Cleveland last week that Burrow said, "isn't us," Sunday offers a chance for the offense to rebound and steer the Bengals to their first win.

2. Containing the Ravens' run game

Baltimore brings a high-powered rushing attack to Paycor Stadium, even with the loss of RB J.K. Dobbins, who sustained a season-ending Achilles injury in the season opener. The Ravens leaned on a balanced ground game against Houston in Week 1, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson's 38 rushing yards on six attempts (6.3 per carry).

Jackson poses one of the league's premier dual threats at the QB position. Last year he was a driving force in the Ravens ranking second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (160.0). Cincinnati, meanwhile, has ranked in the top seven in the NFL in rushing defense in each of the past two seasons under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Though he is no stranger to preparing for Jackson's skill set, Anarumo acknowledged the difficulty of going against the Baltimore offense, and now the challenge gets greater with a new offensive coordinator calling plays for the Ravens in Todd Monken.

"They still have all those runs that I'm quite sure that Lamar likes to run," Anarumo said. "So, we've got to prepare for it all."

3. Special teams showdown

The Bengals and Ravens each heavily emphasize the third phase of the game, and whichever side has a cleaner showing on special teams while capitalizing on kicking opportunities could emerge victorious Sunday.

On the Cincinnati side, Evan McPherson is 14 of 17 for his career on field goal attempts of 50 or more yards. He is also seven for eight overall on field goals and a perfect 15 of 15 on PAT's against the Ravens since he entered the league in 2021. In the punting game, Brad Robbins was met with harsh conditions in his NFL debut last week at Cleveland, and punted 10 times for 409 yards through the rain. Now with a game under his belt, a strong performance from Robbins would help the Bengals win the battle of field position, which can prove to be a key matchup between two evenly matched teams.

Baltimore's special teams has benefitted from the excellence of kicker Justin Tucker for over a decade. Now in his 12th season, Tucker has staked his claim as perhaps the greatest kicker of all time with a career field goal percentage of 90.5, the highest mark in league history. Tucker is also 44 of 48 lifetime on field goal tries against the Bengals while knocking through all 49 of his extra point attempts.

4. Elite linebackers on both sides

Though they won't square off against each other, two of the best linebacker duos in the league will be on display on Sunday in Cincinnati when the Bengals' Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson and the Ravens' Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen take to the field. Both Wilson (123) and Pratt (99) set career highs in tackles in 2022, while Smith and Queen teamed up for a combined 132 tackles after the Ravens acquired Smith midway through the season.

Pratt and Wilson combined for 19 stops in Week 1 at Cleveland, with Pratt adding in a sack while also forcing a fumble that ended a Browns drive that reached the Cincinnati 21-yard line. In addition to helping slow down Baltimore's run game on Sunday, the duo will also take on the task of covering Ravens TE Mark Andrews, whose 2208 receiving yards since 2021 are second-most among all NFL tight ends.

Queen and Smith will be asked to help wrangle Bengals HB Joe Mixon while also working in coverage against talented TE Irv Smith Jr., who will be making his home debut for Cincinnati. Roquan Smith in the regular-season finale this past January totaled 16 tackles, tied for the most by any player versus the Bengals all season. Queen, meanwhile, had a key interception in the Week 5 matchup that led to a Baltimore field goal in the third quarter.

5. Familiar foe on home turf

The last two non-preseason games played at Paycor Stadium featured the Bengals and Ravens, with both matchups coming in January of 2023 and containing major implications. The first of which was the Week 18 regular-season finale that Cincinnati took 27-16 to officially clinch home field in the following week's Wild Card Playoff versus Baltimore. The Bengals jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and after the Ravens cut the deficit to nine early in the fourth quarter, Lou Anarumo's defense stepped up with a turnover on downs and a fumble recovery to close it out.

The Wild Card showdown proved to be a back-and-forth affair that will forever be remembered by Bengals fans for Sam Hubbard's 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown that broke a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter. The victory marked Cincinnati's seventh in a row at Paycor Stadium dating back to Week 4 of last season. The Bengals also have nine home wins since Week 16 of the 2021 campaign, tied for the second-most in the league in that span.

Several Bengals coaches and players were quick to comment this week on their excitement to return to playing in front of their home crowd in The Jungle.

"I love playing at home," said Joe Burrow in his Wednesday news conference. "It always gives us energy when we're playing in front of the fans. This is a great place to play. We always feel like we have an advantage when we play here."

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