BALTIMORE _ Just like the Bengals are looking for points from inside the 5, they are looking for answers in this game of inches. After Sunday night's third walk-off loss of the season their second to an AFC North foe, there only seemed to be one.
"We have to do a better job of executing across the board. Two-yard line, you can't be denied," said right tackle La'el Collins after the offense couldn't take advantage of another blue-ribbon performance by the defense. "The defense played their ass off, just like they do every week. We just have to get in a faster rhthym. It's something you get better at."
Tell that to the Ravens. They went through it.
"You know," said Mark Andrews, the Ravens workhorse tight end who saved his best for the last quarter, "in the two losses this year, we only trailed for 14 seconds. So, for us to be able to come out here and finish, finish games, that's huge for us and gives us confidence going forward."
That's what the Bengals are looking for now.
When the offense finally did find its sea legs in the second half and finish off that last interminable, intense drive of 75 yards and 13 plays in 7:44, it wasn't enough because they left Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Radar O'Reilly kicker Justin Tucker too much time.
A 17-16 lead with 1:58 left.
Jackson, the youngest quarterback to ever rush for 4,000 yards, didn't break a big one until 56 seconds left, when he took the textbook zone read out of the running back's stomach with a magician's deftness and shot up the middle for 19 yards.
Inches. Split seconds. Tucker was home free.
"He's the MVP of our league for a reason," said the brilliant Sam Hubbard from the left edge of the Bengals front, shaking his head over Jackson. "We knew they only needed a few yards and it's really hard because you're thinking about rushing the passer to end the game, but they have all their rushing attack and all they need is a couple of yards and they have all their timeouts. Tough spot to be in with that offense, but we could have avoided being in that spot defensively by making some more plays instead of having some missed opportunities."
That was hard to buy after guys like Hubbard (four tackles), relentless linebacker Germaine Pratt (eight tackles and a sack) and ubiquitous safety Vonn Bell (third interception in two games) left it all out there. The defense couldn't have done much more after giving Jackson just one touchdown and continuing their remarkable season-long streak of not allowing a touchdown in the second half.
"I thought the defense played well from start to finish. Obviously, we'd like to get a stop on the last drive," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "They did a really good job against a really explosive, tough offense. The offense gave them the three points to start the second half with the turnover."
That was Burrow's first interception since the opener, admitting he never saw old LSU buddy Patrick Queen roaming at linebacker. But it was the turnover on downs, the inability to punch it on a first-and-goal from the 2 late in the third quarter that was most costly.
Compounding the problem was the absence of the classic jump-ball goal-line receiver in 6-4 Tee Higgins, whose balky ankle would let him play only ten early snaps.
Not only did they not get it in, they tried a gadget play (the Philly Special that Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters turned into the Baltimore Chop) and then on fourth down they eschewed the field goal for another gadget play, a shovel pass that went incomplete.
"I think you have to go for it," Burrow said. "If you get seven points it really changes the game, so I think you have to go for it."
That's what the defense did all night as coordinator Lou Anarumo used 18 players for at least six snaps in various packages. Three safeties (rookie Dax Hill played a career-high six snaps). Five defensive linemen (tackle Tyler Shelvin played nine snaps in his season debut). Three backers (Akeem Davis-Gaither played a season-high 20 snaps off the bench.) Sack ace Trey Hendrickson didn't get one despite working against left tackle Ronnie Stanley playing in his first game in a year, but Hendrickson did a good job hawking and chasing Jackson.
"We knew it was going to run between (Jackson) and (Andrews)," Bell said. "But towards the end of the game, the fourth quarter, (Jackson) started running the ball more, and he started making plays. Like I said, we've just got to be better."
That's what the offense is saying, too, although once they emerged for those static first four series, they crisply took what the Ravens gave them, which wasn't much with a two-deep zone that took away the big plays that took down Baltimore here last year. It will be recalled a year ago at M&T Bank Stadium, Burrow had ten passes of at least 21 yards. Four of those went to Chase in a 201-yard day.
On Sunday night there was one pass of at least 21 yards, a 33-yard YAC job from backup receiver Michael Thomas.
With Higgins out, they moved Chase around more than usual, more outside than inside (he played all 63 snaps), but his longest catch was only 13 yards on a night he had 50 hard-earned yards on seven catches.
"Six strong," Chase called the coverage. "Like quarters. Four to one side, two to the other side.
"We called good stuff. The defense just made some goods stops today. They made sure we didn't go over the top. They made sure we got in underneath so we'd get the yards with our legs."
Collins, his new veteran right tackle, gave Taylor a vote of confidence after frustration boiled on the sidelines after not getting any points from the 2.
"I'm very confident in everything our coaches do," Collins said. "He's a hell of a coach. I've got nothing but respect for him. It's just one of those things where emotions fly high laying it on the line each and every play … I was frustrated we didn't get it in there. That was a point in the game we needed to put points on the board there and take the lead."
He also believes in Taylor's locker room.
"This is one of the best locker rooms I've been in," Collins said. "No finger pointing, don't play the blame game. We all take accountability. We win together, we lose together. But we keep going."
There seemed to be only one answer.
"At the end the day," Collins said, "we just have to do a better job, all 11 just make sure we don't get denied on the two-yard line."