BENGALS MLB JOSH BYNES VS. RAVENS QB LAMAR JACKSON
When the Bengals overhauled their defense back in March and April, Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Baltimore is exactly what they had in mind. D.J. Reader, first building block of the rehab when the Bengals made him the NFL's richest nose tackle ever, sensed it even during the truncated offseason.
"In the spring, we were last in run defense last year. That was what we wanted to address," Reader said before Wednesday's practice. "We were just trying to climb that ladder. No matter what team we are facing. No matter who we are going against, Baltimore, anybody else. We are trying to climb up that running defense ladder."
No one has allowed more rushing yards since 2017 than the Bengals with Jackson being one of the major villains. Like Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo says, no one runs the ball like the Ravens. "They set records." And no one runs the ball like Jackson, the NFL's reigning MVP. Anarumo shakes his head when asked about the one thing that Jackson does that keeps him from sleeping.
"Everything he does keeps me up at night," Anarumo says. "Not one thing. Everything."
Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow could have been speaking for his defense Wednesday when he said he considers this one a measuring-stick game to see where he and his offense is.
Anarumo won't go that far, but he's emboldened by Sunday's lineup that features six different starters from the last outing against Baltimore, a 49-13 loss. That's if perennial Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins plays.
He also has in the wings two speedy rookie nickel backers selected in the guts of the draft. And the signing of strong safety Von Bell gives him another piece off the bench in veteran run stuffer Shawn Williams, easing into three-safety looks with 17 snaps last week in the win over Jacksonville.
"These (new) guys are what we wanted and we like what they're doing," Anarumo says. "We're faster at linebacker, certainly more athletic. We like how those kids are developing. But we know what we face Sunday. This is a different animal. He's a special, special player."
The rivalry that A.J. Green and the Bengals once dominated shifted just 66 days after Green scored three touchdowns in 17 minutes in their eighth victory over the Ravens in the last 10 games.
The next time they met on Nov. 18, 2018, Jackson made his first NFL start against the Bengals defense head coach Marvin Lewis had inherited just six days before and the Ravens unleashed his future MVP-ness with a frightening 119 rushing yards complemented by 13 of 19 passing.
It has been Jackson's rivalry ever since while Green has missed all the games until Sunday. Jackson is 3-0 against the Bengals and that includes last year's career 152-yard rushing day followed up by that 49 spot.
Jackson's debut also points to the beginning of the Bengals' problems in space against option runs and misdirections. Since Nov. 18, 2018, they've allowed seven 200-yard rushing days and that's why it became such an off-season priority.
Bengals free safety Jessie Bates talked about the need to stop Jackson as early as August. So it was rather fitting that after Sunday's first win Bates talked about how effective Bynes' Saturday night speech to the team had been. It is Bynes, the former Raven mentored by Baltimore Hall-of-Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, that had been signed for a year to straighten out the communication and tackling that had been so absent against the run.
John Harbaugh, the Ravens' old-school head coach with the new-age quarterback who consistently wins with defense and special teams in the age of the pass, knows what Bynes means to the Bengals on and off the field. He's seen it. He saw it last year when he was forced to go get Bynes off the couch when Baltimore couldn't get lined up against the run. They won 12 straight and the AFC North on Bynes' return while Baltimore finished fifth against the run.
"First of all, he's a really good player. Secondly, he knows how to play," Harbaugh said in his conference call with Cincy media this week. "Some of the mistakes and problems that we had in the run game, were really, as much as anything, part of the fact that we weren't in the right spots and we we're fitting the runs quite the right way. We weren't adjusting our fronts quite the right way. And Josh is really smart, really understands how to get your defense organized up front that way. He really settled us with all that kind of stuff."
Bynes' charge in Cincinnati has been devastated by the loss of several defensive tackles. But he's a wise counselor this week against his old friends. Exactly what has been needed at that spot in the post-Tez era.
"(Bynes is) definitely already doing that," said rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither on Monday of Bynes' knowledge of Jackson. "He's trying to stay two steps ahead of everybody. It's definitely helping us out in that aspect."
His advice is simple, but buttressed by a guy that's seen it up close. And maybe more importantly than the Xs and Os, it's how to react to one of Jackson's plays.
"We have to be sound in our techniques, sound in our responsibilities, who does what and that's what it's going to come down to, our keys and focus and locked in and doing your job on the plays and stuff like that," Bynes says. "Being sound and communication really well. At the end of the day, like I told the guys, this is the NFL, I've said it to you guys. Guys make plays at the end of the day. I don't care if they're 0-15 or whatever the case may be, the guys on the other side get paid too, and Lamar is going to make plays, he's going to do what he does.
"But we cannot let whatever happens dictate what we do the next play and carry it on throughout like that. Same as it went this Sunday. Things happened, a play was made because at the end of the day those guys get paid, they're going to make plays, that's part of the game. It's going to happen. But how we respond is what it's going to really be about."
You can see why head coach Zac Taylor tapped Bynes to give Saturday night's speech. With a 2-14 season still heavy on the mind on top of a winless September and the Ravens and Steelers looming, it could be surmised that Sunday's win against Jacksonville was the biggest game of Taylor's term.
With adversity the theme, what better guy than Bynes, an undrafted free agent practice squadder who sandwiched the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl ring and last season's run AFC top seed run with stops around the league?
"Just for us to understand that it's still early in the season and everybody's going to have their things to say about us whatever the case may be and that we still have, well now 12 games more to go," Bynes said of his talk. "That's still a whole lot of football, a whole lot of things to do, a whole lot of turnaround to happen. We're going to get some things done, but we've just got to take it one game at a time and that's what we're looking forward to doing."
Bynes is symbolic of how they believe they've not only upgraded the defense, but the leadership that wasn't their last year in such tough moments against Baltimore and others.
"He did a good job just delivering that speech," Reader said. "Coming from a guy we all respect. He's a good father, good guy off the field, a great guy off the field. It was big to have that speech from him."
They all know, of course, it's been just talk until Sunday. As much as the media wants to make linebacker Nick Vigil's spinning flail-and-fail on Jackson's touchdown run last season emblematic of the Bengals' problems against the run, Anarumo says, "The play never should have gotten that far. It should have been contained up front."
So bring it back to Reader up front as the Bengals try to shift the rivalry back.
"Everybody together, everybody collectively doing their 1-11, it will always help," Reader said. "That's especially big this week when you have so many smoke and mirrors on the back end but up front you've got similar things going on."