Classic chess match when Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow faces the Ravens for the first time Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Baltimore.
Only the Steelers (51.2 percent) blitz more than the Ravens (42.5) and Burrow is rated the fourth best quarterback in the NFL when kept clean in the pocket, according to profootballfocus.com.
Burrow has been quite good out of empty backfield sets and he really likes that alignment of five receivers.
"It makes the defense declare themselves, they can't disguise things as well when you're in empty," Burrow said before Wednesday's practice. "And then teams will start to zero-pressure you and blitz you a lot and get you out of it. And then you have to have a plan for that."
So they already know the empty set is red meat for the Ravens blitz, although they're ranked an uncharacteristic 26th against the pass and 17th overall. Still, how do they balance it because the Ravens are blitzing no matter what, especially with Pro Bowl corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters?
Here's what the Ravens do. They're tied for sixth against the run, so you're always behind the sticks and on the scoreboard playing against Lamar Jackson on the other side. Mail order blitzing.
"A lot of blitzing. A lot of blitz and a lot of man, and I anticipate a little more than usual because I'm a rookie quarterback," Burrow said, "and they're going to see how I handle it."
Last year, Burrow was absurd at LSU under pressure, PFF says, when he threw 15 touchdowns, completed 69 percent of his passes, had a 146.5 passer rating and averaged a ridiculous 12.3 yards per attempt under duress, the web site said. But he's not doing that here. Who could?
But he's hung in well. No one has had more pressures than Burrow this season with 75, PFF says, and he's got two touchdown passes and one pick to go with a 72 passer rating against pressure. Pretty good when you consider under 60 pressures Dak Prescott has no touchdowns, three picks and a 45 rating. Then there's Russell Wilson against his 60 pressures: four TDs, one pick and a tick below 60 percent completion percentage. Burrow needs to lift his completion percentage from 50 against pressure.
So Burrow is coming on, but he knows no one is going to come at him like the Ravens. He admits it's a measuring stick game when asked if the Ravens are his biggest NFL challenge so far.
"I would say so. They're very, very talented. They have a lot of great players. They play hard. Well coached," Burrow said. "The Ravens present a lot of challenges. They play zero pressure. If they get blocked they pop out and create issues in the throwing lanes. They have a really good defense that I'm personally very excited to play against and test my skills and our team's skills to see really where we are right now."
JOLTIN' JOE: The reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week may be able to help. Running back Joe Mixon got the award (his first one) for his 151 yards on 25 carries against the Jags. But his six catches and one for a touchdown showed how easy he can make life for Burrow with a quick throw in a vacated space.
"We kind of were on the same track last game," Burrow said. "I knew exactly where he was going to be on every single snap and we got him involved in the pass game. We're starting to get a little bit of chemistry there. There has to always be an understanding where he's going to be on the field. If there isn't anything downfield open, Joe is going to find something for me."
INJURY UPDATE: The Bengals will know more Thursday about defensive tackle Geno Atkins (shoulder), slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander (hamstring) and linebacker Logan Wilson (concussion) after they went limited Wednesday.
BOYD VOWS GREEN REBOUND: You've never seen this when A.J. Green was healthy. Tyler Boyd is rated the fourth highest receiver by profootballfocus.com and Green is 128th and trailing Boyd by 202 for the team lead in receiving yards.
Off his lowest four-game stretch of his career with 119 yards, Green is on pace for 476 yards this season. Boyd is not only on pace to tie T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 13-year-old club record for 112 catches in a season, he's aimed at a career-high 1,280 yards.
Before Wednesday's practice, Boyd vowed both would get to 1,000 again. Boyd has done it the past two years and the five years Green was healthy he did it. He also did it one year he wasn't healthy (2014). These are Green's first four games since he missed 23 of the previous 24 with injuries.
"He'll hit 1,000 yards. He's still the best receiver," Boyd said. "Just because the games don't come to him and it's not flowing to him and he's not flashing that anything is wrong. I don't think anything is wrong, I just think everything is going to come once opportunity hits."
But so far, Boyd has been their best receiver with the 12th most yards in the league, more than guys like Adam Thielen, Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett. Boyd says he'll get to 1,000 for a third time.
"Definitely, that's the goal, but I'm more on a winning phase right now," Boyd said. "We need to rally up these wins."
INTERMEDIATE GOLD: Much is being made about Burrow's 1-for-22 effort on balls thrown more than 20 yards through the air. But not nearly enough is being made about his passes up to 19 yards long. His impeccable intermediate percentage of a 92.9 trails only future Hall-of-Famers Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.
But the Bengals are trying. Those are the fifth most long attempts in the league and head coach Zac Taylor says that may be as good.
"It's not something you start forcing just because maybe a ball in the air hasn't traveled a certain amount of yardage for a completion," Taylor said. "A slant route for 80 counts the same as a post route for 80. Some of that stuff at times can be overblown, and some of it does have some value.
"We do our best to marry that with our run scheme, and your quarterback being really accurate and throwing with timing and anticipation. It's the second year for about half this receiving corps of running this stuff, so they're starting to feel a lot more comfortable when you look at TB and Auden (Tate) and Alex (Erickson) and those guys. Then there's the guys that are getting their first reps this training camp and fall. You just feel like every week that this scheme is really starting to take hold with the guys, where they're really comfortable."
And Green has played just four games in the scheme.
Burrow, the best deep ball thrower in the nation last year while winning the Heisman, isn't too concerned about it. First of all teams are playing a lot of zone against them and making him check it down. He'll take it.
"We've been very successful the last two or three weeks. I'm taking those short completions, getting eight yards and going second-and-2, second-and-6, second-and-5, just staying on track," Burrow said. "You don't want to get in second-and-12 and then get teams to their third-down defenses. We've stayed on track very successfully the last couple of weeks."
KICK RETURN ELITE: Ravens head coach John Harbaugh got his job weaving special teams magic for Andy Reid in Philadelphia. One of the reasons he's kept it for a dozen years is because he makes sure Baltimore is so good at it. So it's always a treat when he gets together with the Bengals' Darrin Simmons, the longest-tenured teams coach in the league.
The last time the Bengals were in Baltimore, the Bengals' Brandon Wilson stunned the Ravens by opening the game with a kick return to a silent house and he kept going to win the NFL kick return title. He's picked up where he left off as the only man this season with three returns of at least 40 yards
But Harbaugh has beaten them to the end zone with rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay's 93-yarder and it is Duvernay, a third-rounder out of Texas, that has the league lead with a 34-yard average compared to Wilson's second-place 30.3. When Wilson sprinted past him last year, it was only the fourth kick return Harbaugh had seen in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
It is on his mind for this one, believe him.
"Obviously, we don't forget. We never forget those. Those live with us forever," Harbaugh said Wednesday in a conference call with Cincy scribes. "So we respect him tremendously, and, of course, Darrin does a great job building up the schemes and training the blockers and stuff, so you do have a top-notch one there. We consider him to be one of the top guys in the league at this point, even at a young age. So we're going do our best to try to slow him down a little."
Harbaugh doesn't see just speed.
"Well, speed, and I think courage. He hits it. He hits it north and south," Harbaugh said. "He's got really good vision so he can make that subtle cut vertically. He doesn't slow down, he makes the cut. And he usually makes the right cuts."
Simmons is even stingier when it comes to kick returns. In that same stretch back to 2008 the Bengals have allowed just three kicks to go all the way with the last one eight years ago on the 105-yard bolt of Denver's Trindon Holliday at The Paul on Nov. 4, 2012. Simmons will tell you there was no Holliday cheer that day.