BENGALS QB JOE BURROW AND RB JOE MIXON VS. RAVENS DC WINK MARTINDALE
Martindale, the Scrooge of this Bengals Christmas carol, is the object of the Cincinnati holiday party games.
Will he or won't he?
On Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), when the 8-6 Bengals play the 8-6 Ravens in what amounts to the AFC North title game at Paul Brown Stadium, will he blitz like usual or will he do what he did to the Packers last week in an object lesson of brains almost beating brawn?
Whatever Martindale's answer, the Bengals counter lies in their lone touchdown last Sunday at Mile High that set up this mammoth matchup.
There was a revision to the play 48 hours before kickoff on Friday. And then, just before they left for the plane Saturday, one final touchup was made in the walkthrough. From there, it was a great gut call by head coach Zac Taylor, a masterful route by wide receiver Tyler Boyd, an even better juke on safety Justin Simmons and a perfect play action run fake that has helped Burrow be so lethal this year.
The winner won't clinch Sunday, but there's a pretty good chance the division champion wins this game and if the Bengals win there's a pretty good chance they did because they were able to counter Martindale.
With his defense unable to line up nine players because of COVID Thursday and Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters long gone with injury, will Martindale eschew his signature blitz and man-to-man coverage like he did last week? He blitzed Aaron Rodgers just twice while blanketing wide receiver Davante Adams in double coverage in nearly shocking the Packers, 31-30, while holding Adams to just 44 yards.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Thursday he had never seen Martindale or a Ravens defense do anything like that in maybe forever. Martindale gave an answer Thursday and some Bengals fans took offense.
"To sit here and have you think that we're going to run the same plan against Ja'Marr Chase as we did Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers, we're going down the wrong street," Martindale told the Baltimore media. "Like I said last week, Davante Adams, he's one of the top two receivers in the league, and he's not No. 2, and Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and I don't think we're ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe yet."
But Martindale wasn't dissing anybody. You have to keep reading.
"It's going to be a tough challenge, because (with) the three-headed monster they have at wide receiver, everybody sleeps on the tight end. 87 (C.J. Uzomah)," Martindale said. "I always mess up pronouncing his name, and I don't want to mess that up out of respect for the game. But he's had a great year, as well."
If the Bengals aren't sure what the Ravens are going to do, how do you think Martindale feels?
Since Chase ripped the Ravens for 201 yards and Uzomah caught two touchdowns in the Oct. 24 rout in Baltimore, Chase has been relatively quiet and Uzomah hasn't scored again.
But they've won three games to barge into first place with wide receiver Tee Higgins racking up three straight 100-yard days, Mixon throwing in a career-high 165 yards against the Steelers and Boyd hiding long enough in Mile High last week for their longest touchdown catch since Chase beat the Ravens' secondary on an 82-yard catch-and-run.
The Ravens are cleaned out at cornerback with their No. 1 Anthony Averett in a season he's started a career-high 13 games. But Martindale sees Higgins, Boyd and Uzomah and maybe he's wondering how he can leave them while enveloping Chase like he did Adams.
Or maybe he's wondering how he can protect his defensive backs in a zone with Mixon and his 4.2 yards per carry.
"That's the tough thing about Cincinnati. They have weapons at each spot that can beat you," Martindale said. "So, as soon as you go in there and think that they're going to be pass heavy, then they're going to hand the ball off to Joe Mixon 30 times a game, and he's one of the best running backs in the league. So, it's going to be a tough challenge for us. We're going to have to play with a light box at times and play coverage, and we're also going to pressure. So, we've just got to make sure that we're guessing right when that time comes."
The answer is always the same when things get tight.
Run the ball effectively.
If they run the ball for 4.2, they keep Martindale guessing and keep him from his dastardly blitzes. They're banged up, but they always find a way to bang the quarterback. They have 56 hits on the QB, according to Pro Football Reference, fourth most in the league. The run helped Taylor get another defensive guru in Denver last week on Burrow's 56-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Boyd with 30 seconds left in the third quarter against Denver head coach Vic Fangio.
It's a play that Taylor first called in his first game as Bengals head coach, up 17-14 in Seattle at the Seahawks 36 with five minutes left in the third quarter of the 2019 opener. Boyd was open on third-and-one, but quarterback Andy Dalton overthrew him as Boyd stumbled. Then running back Giovani Bernard got stoned on fourth-and-one and the Bengals lost, 21-20.
It's a play-action fake that starts out looking like a bootleg to suck up the linebackers and get the cornerback flowing toward the action while Boyd gets lost in the linebackers playing the run and then leaking out to where the cornerback has vacated against the grain.
"(The Broncos) did a good job factoring in their safeties in our run game with the wide zones," Taylor says "That was kind one when we were under center, those safeties came screaming down (on the run) and Ja'Marr did a great job digging out the safety (to block) on the second series of the game. But that's hard to ask a receiver to keep doing and we had to protect ourselves against that play."
The play has stayed in the playbook and has been repped in practice this season but not in a game very recently. In the hopes of catching the Broncos in an aggressive run look like the one-high safety, they had it in last week and on Friday they changed up Uzomah's role as he went in motion in the direction Burrow would simulate the bootleg. Instead of Uzomah cruising to the flat, Taylor now had him cutting the defensive end with a block.
Which Uzomah joyously did with vigor on Sunday.
"Basically," Uzomah says, "we put that that in there to make sure we kept Joe (Burrow) clean."
But what made the thing go was Mixon taking a wide zone run and cutting it off the left side up the middle for his longest run of the day, a 12-yarder against the single-high safety. The Broncos were playing a little more of that than usual Sunday, but not when Burrow was under center. So when Taylor saw the run, he knew he had a play but he wanted to keep the Broncos in the same look.
The Bengals ran for just 113 yards last Sunday and Mixon had just 58, but this is why Callahan says you don't always have to run it well to get the benefits of play-action.
It's all about picking spots.
"You could see (the defense's) response to it," Taylor says. "If you got on the ball quickly, you might induce the same (defensive) call with the similar look."
In Saturday's walkthrough, while the special teams had the field, Taylor grabbed Burrow and a couple of receivers and went over a couple of no huddle calls just in case. So on Sunday when Taylor called into the headset for Burrow to go right to the line without a huddle on the next play, a first-down from the Bengals 44, there was no confusion.
Burrow stayed under center, Mixon looked like he was running the same play and Burrow faked the handoff, made like he was bootlegging back to his right, saw Uzomah spill the end, stopped, looked back the other way, and there was Boyd, maybe 20 yards downfield, wide open. It was Burrow's 11th touchdown pass of that long in the air this season, most in the NFL in seven years.
The play had been revised a few times, but the pass ended up being set up by Mixon's run. It will be recalled that after the Bengals broke to a 27-17 lead in Baltimore on Oct. 24, their last two touchdowns came on long runs by Mixon (21) and Samaje Perine (46).
It sounds like Martindale is going to stay true to old school Ravens.
"To the core, we're an aggressive defense, and with the flexibility of our scheme, I think there's some different things we can do, but we're going to pressure," Martindale said. "That's who we are. And everybody that comes here, one of their traits is they can play man coverage. So, it's going to be a challenge. But you have to; you have to go into these games and do that. If not, it's dying a slow death – is what you're doing – if you just sit back and play zone the entire time."
If the Bengals can set it up with Mixon, they hope to make things go a little more quickly and keep the undermanned Ravens overcompensating.