BENGALS RE TREY HENDRICKSON VS. RAVENS LT ALEJANDRO VILLANEUVA
Nobody questions this is the best Bengals defense Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has played in his six starts against Cincinnati when they meet Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore in a game that has turned into an AFC North summit.
There are eight new players in the starting lineup from the one that allowed Jackson and company 404 yards on the ground in last season's finale at Paul Brown Stadium. And the Bengals' new cast of characters is ranked eighth in the league and eighth in rushing after allowing 343 yards on the ground all of the last month.
Injuries and erosion yielded that lineup three days into 2021. But you can make the argument more than nine months later that Sunday's regulars, culled from the richest free agents in Bengals history and valuable drafts, formed this defense with Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr., in the center of the drawing board.
You need versatility, speed and length to counter Jackson. The man is so good, the man who just won more games than anyone before his 25th birthday, the man who runs like a Hall of Fame running back and throws lasers like a Pro Bowl quarterback is literally one of a kind. You just can't simulate the man in practice.
The Bengals tried earlier in the week with Pooka Williams, Jr., their gifted undrafted rookie on the practice squad who has broken 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had an elusive six yards per carry in back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Kansas.
But Jackson is 6-2, 212 pounds. Williams is 5-9, 175 pounds. Let safety Jessie Bates III explain the rest.
"When Pooka threw the ball and it was a duck flying in the air, it's hard to simulate Lamar even if you have Lamar back there," Bates says. "It's different in the game. It's just getting the concepts of the motions and the speed of that and make sure our communication is right. As great of a player as he is we still have to find our rules and what's going to be successful for us."
It's not downgrading Williams' many talents. But the Bengals need a professional quarterback to simulate Jackson's throws and have turned to practice squadder Jake Browning to practice the pass and therein lies the greatness of Jackson.
But this is his biggest Bengals challenge and you start anywhere on the depth chart. A healthy Pro Bowl caliber nose tackle in D.J. Reader, who was on IR for the finale. Or a dominant three technique in Larry Ogunjobi, who was in Cleveland getting ready for the playoffs during that finale. Or a quicksilver middle linebacker in Logan Wilson, also injured that day while 31-year-old Josh Bynes roamed at backer for the Bengals. Now Bynes is a year older and in Baltimore again while Wilson looks for his fifth interception to keep his lead among all NFL backers while logging the league's 10th most tackles.
Not only that, the Bengals' mindset going against Jackson this week compared to Jan. 3, 2021 is at opposite poles. Bates can see that in this week's extra sessions with strong safety Vonn Bell. They're two of the returning starter from that tattered finale, along with left end Sam Hubbard.
"(We're) watching some extra film together because a lot of the communication is coming from me and Vonn," Bates says. "Just like any other week but it's a little bit more extreme this week. But just watching film and watching last year's game, me and Vonn are like, why are we reacting like that? Why are we doing those things? We have a better feel for just the coverages we are running. Just the offense itself. Of what they are trying to do and how they are trying to hit us."
But start it all with right end Trey Hendrickson, the richest free agent in Bengals history who has literally paid off with 5.5 sacks in his first six games on a franchise record pace. The 6-4, 270-pound Hendrickson has also proven to be a beast against the run and forms a tandem with Hubbard that has been missing for years on this defense.
A stout, unrelenting edge in the run game. That's exactly what is needed Sunday because Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals by largely hammering them on the perimeter with 442 option rush yards. And that's including a three-yard game when they last played in Baltimore. So that's four games they simply couldn't compete with him.
"Lamar hurts a lot of people in a lot of different ways," Bates says. "But just having a dynamic pass rusher like Trey, Sam Hubbard and the rest of those guys helps limit those plays where he gets out of the pocket and things like that. I think we have a really good game plan going into this week, compared to other weeks where we've played them before."
And if you start with Hendrickson, start with his multiple personalities. Or maybe just two. Talk to his teammates and it sounds like he needs a phone booth to switch from a quiet, soft-spoken guy who talks about his faith and his wife to No. 91 that is playing on the edge in more ways than one with an almost maniacal focus that puts him into another realm.
And Hendrickson knows it. He calls the episodes "blacking out."
"He's a really good person, first of all. He knows he blacks out," Bates says. "That's the funny part. He knows he blacks out then he'll walk up to your locker like, 'Hey man, I'm sorry. I blacked out right there. I may have said a few things. I love you, still.' That's kind of how Trey is, compared to when he's up here (talking to media), smiling a lot and stuff like that."
That's also exactly what the Bengals needed on a defense that had been pushed around in the AFC North games of 2019 and 2020 to the tune of giving up an average of 153 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry on the ground in the 12 division games.
"You don't see the Trey Hendrickson that I see every day," Bates say. "When he blacks out, there's not a lot of guys that can block him or stop him, and I think that's the reason we're having some success this year on the defensive side. So, Trey brings that mentality and kind of roams around the whole entire defense to kind of play with attitude and it's shown. It's shown for sure."
Last Sunday in Detroit, it looked like Hendrickson blacked out on prized rookie Lions left tackle Penei Sewell. He tortured Sewell early and often, drawing a hold on one play and making him flinch on another for another flag. And he appeared all the while to remind him in animated fashion.
"I don't know if you saw the first offside, but he almost got flagged for pointing at him and taunting," Bates says. "That doesn't surprise me."
Hendrickson brought both of him into training camp and left his mark.
"I hated going against Trey Hendrickson during camp. I hated it," says tight end C.J. Uzomah. "I hated it at the time, I knew it would be better, but that's a problem. He talked trash to me. You see it and it pays off."
When Hendrickson is reminded of his conversations with Sewell, he goes back into the phone booth.
"He's a hell of an athlete. He's got a lot of things going for him. He's a young player," Hendrickson says. "That's one of the things. You just remind him he's a rookie and you just keep going.
"It's one of the things in the game you get a feel of it. It's a violent sport. There's a lot to it that people choose or choose not to get involved in and it's something I would remind people of plays and things. I'm bringing it every day and every down as best I can. Every pursuit, too."
Hendrickson has never played Jackson. But he knows all about him.
"I think our coaches did a great job of putting us in the right place for this game plan," Hendrickson says. "I've seen his film obviously for the last four years. It's not something I'm completely clueless about. He's a special talent and I look forward to the challenge."
The pass rush is obviously a factor in this one, considering Hendrickson has been immense. In his last 26 games with the Saints and Bengals, he's got 20.5 sacks while Villaneuva has allowed four sacks and 21 pressures this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
But on many of Jackson's runs, or options to run or pass, Villaneuva and the tackles aren't even going to be blocking the edge players. The Ravens believe they take care of that with their motions and the action of the play.
"I think it's something we emphasize every week, is quarterback contain," Hendrickson says. "Obviously, there's a little heightened (emphasis) on that as there would be for playing Kyler Murray as well. There's always games where you have to make sure (to contain). Russell Wilson, he's another guy you plan that way. I played those guys. So I do understand there's a game plan but part of it is let it loose."
And there's the rub. Jackson has ripped the Bengals when their ends have played him to aggressively up the field and he's ducked under them. Sunday's watchword on the run just may be "patience."
"It's a game plan. There are plays that are designed for our guys to let it loose and there are also plays that are designed to take care of the quarterback," Hendrickson says. "As we go through a flow of those things, it'll actually open up other opportunities for other players to capitalize."
Bates may be 0-5 against Jackson in the pros, but he did split with him in college when Bates was at Wake Forest and Jackson at Louisville. Because of Jackson's array of strengths, the Bengals defense has several rules in their game plan. But Bates says the top rule is one he first saw in that collegiate victory.
"Just don't give up any explosive touchdowns," Bates says.