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Bengals Vow, 'We've Been There Before,' As They Point To Monday Nighter Vs. Rams

HB Joe Mixon celebrates during the Ravens-Bengals game on Sunday, September 17, 2023.
HB Joe Mixon celebrates during the Ravens-Bengals game on Sunday, September 17, 2023.

While Ravens head coach John Harbaugh savored Sunday's long-awaited victory over the Bengals by saluting his father's style of power football, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor vowed a comeback using the knowledge the Bengals have acquired in becoming an NFL power.

"The beauty of this team is we know it's a 17-game season.  There's no overreaction on our end," said Taylor, who led last season's team out of an 0-2 deficit into the AFC championship game. "We have to be prepared for stuff outside our locker room, which is natural. We're in a very difficult division. We would have loved to come out 2-0; 1-1 would have been fine, too. This is exactly where we were last year, and this team is only going to get better with every game that passes. When you stumble early, you have to learn from it. So many years in the past, we've learned from early-season losses that have propelled us in November and December. This will be no different. I'm very confident in that."

The resolute experience is everywhere in Taylor's locker room. Over here on offense is two-time Super Bowl champion center Ted Karras, already looking to next Monday night's Paycor Stadium Bengals Ring of Honor game against the Rams and quoting his old Patriots offensive line coach.

"We've been here before. (It's) not an ideal start, but one thing my old coach Dante Scarnecchia used to say (is), 'Nothing can break my spirit,'" Karras said. "We're going to attack each week with the same ferocity, the same energy. We've been here before like last year. It is what it is. That's a patented AFC North bloodbath type of game and we came up three points short. We made some mistakes but ultimately, we're coming after the Rams next."

Over there on defense is playoff hero Mike Hilton after another busy day at slot corner with five tackles and a pass defensed over a middle Ravens magic man Lamar Jackson attacked for most of his 237 yards on 24 of 33 passing.

"We're going to bounce back. We have no choice," Hilton said. "That's who we are in this locker room. We believe in each other. Like I said, we just get this first win and that will definitely get things rolling."

And over there, with everyone from wide receiver Tee Higgins to assistant head coach Darrin Simmons checking on him at his locker, was the franchise. If quarterback Joe Burrow was telling them what he told the media, he re-aggravated his right calf on his next-to-last play, it's sore, and he's not sure how it's going to respond. He thinks his team will.

"I'm still confident. I feel really confident in all the guys we have in that room," Burrow said. "Like I said, we're going to have to see how that calf feels the next couple of days. I don't know how it's going to feel. We'll see.

"We've done it before. Obviously, you don't want to start 0-2, it's not what we're planning on, not what you want to do at all. But now we're going to bounce back, that's what we do it's all there is to it."

What Taylor has seen is that last year, the Bengals took off from 0-2 to win 12 of the last 14. The year before that, they went 5-2 in the last seven games that mattered. Both years they won the AFC North, going 13-3 in their last 16 December and January games. What they learned Sunday is no different than what they learned in those previous two seasons.

It's a one-play league. Sunday's 27-24 loss is no different than the last time these two teams met last January in the AFC Wild Card. Take away the absence of Jackson and the crushing playoff pressure, the Bengals' 24-17 win was still decided by one play. Left end Sam Hubbard's playoff-record 98-yard fumble return.

Nothing as historic as that Sunday. You can take your pick. Down 13-10 early in the third quarter, Burrow's second red-zone interception in as many seasons followed instantly by the longest play of the game, Jackson's 52-yard fling down the middle to helmet-catching rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers. Or, it's usually a red-zone play. Burrow's interception was countered by Jackson's third-and-five conversion on a perfect 17-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass to wide receiver Nelson Agholor for the Ravens' last touchdown. It was only possible because earlier in that drive on the first play of the fourth quarter, Jackson found tight end Mark Andrews for 20 yards over the middle on second-and-23.

One play. Take your pick.

It will be recalled that during the Bengals' ten-game winning streak that took them into last season's AFC title game, in the last seven their defense conjured up a fourth-quarter turnover, punctuated by the Hubbard play. On Sunday, with the Bengals closing it to 27-24 and the clock ticking under three minutes, Jackson looked at a third-and-three. Hubbard and his D-line hemmed him in on a drop-back pass, but then he was gone on a vintage bob-and-weave and took the game with him as he scrambled up the left sideline for 12 yards.

"So many rush lanes you need to cover. He popped in about three of them. Just an incredible play him," Hubbard said. "We need to get the stop and didn't get it. Incredible play by him."

One play.

Hilton called them, "cut-throat plays."

Burrow knows all about the jugular. He knows the Ravens make you pay double for each turnover by grinding them up in their time-of-possession blender. When Burrow threw that pick, the Ravens already had a 44-26 edge in plays. Baltimore ended the game hogging it for the last 3:28 to give them more than a six-minute edge because that's what they do.

"It came down to the turnover in the red zone. When you're playing that team you can't have that mistake," Burrow said. "Because they're going to run it well. They're going to keep it away from you. They're going to score points. Lamar is a great player. He's going to make plays, so you've got to take advantage of all your red zone opportunities and that was my mistake."

One play.

"We're not finishing plays when we need to," Hilton said. "Defensively, we're not getting off the field on third down. We didn't get any turnovers today. It's just one of those games that we weren't able to finish."

And yet, even as Harbaugh high-fived anybody he could find on his sideline when running back Gus Edwards followed up the Andrews play by banging a third-and-three power for the first down, there was a sense Burrow and the Bengals had figured out their offense after a tough six opening quarters with no touchdowns. Yes, there was the pick on the first series, but Burrow went right back down and scored to cut it to 20-17, and then down ten took them for another touchdown. They feel like they can build on scoring 14 points in the last 16 minutes.

"A faster start. A fast start. We need to put our defense in a better position. It's all about situations," said left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the former Ravens draft pick and Chiefs Super Bowl champ who knew exactly what to expect Sunday. "They play special teams, lift weights, and play defense. That's the Baltimore Ravens way. We've got the weapons to be dominant. You can see them. Frustrated? No. Disappointed? Yes. That's the ups and downs of an NFL season. This team has been there before. There'll be a sense of urgency this week and then hit the ground running."

The interception obscured how smoothly the offense clicked in that second half, coming up with 219 of its 282 yards. With just 304 yards in the first two games, it's the fewest Burrow has thrown for in back-to-back games, but 187 came in the last two quarters and before he limped off the field throwing that four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins with 3:48 left to cut it to 27-24, there was a sense the rhythm had been found.

"I know the stats in the first half are what everybody looks at and they weren't great," Burrow said of those 63 yards. "But like I said, the first two possessions we had that holding call (on right guard Alex Cappa). I have to watch the film and see if I think it's holding, I don't know. Then we had the third down that we didn't convert and then we moved the ball really well on the third possession, so I think we did some good things in that first half, too. Obviously, stats weren't great, but the second half I thought we were rolling. Like I said, you can't have a red zone turnover against that team. That was on me.

"I felt pretty comfortable all day. O-Line did a great job. I had a ton of time back there. (One sack, five hits after getting hit ten times last week.) That's a really good defense. They play to their strengths. They've got really good players. They've got safeties that know how to disguise."

Taylor thought the same thing.

"I thought he was poised; the protection was unbelievable up front," he said. "(The Ravens) do a great job holding coverages as long as anyone we've played against. I thought he saw it really well. He did a good job efficiently leading us."

And that's without getting two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase untracked. One thing that's clear again this season. Teams just aren't going to let Burrow go deep to Chase. The Ravens were basically down two starting cornerbacks and his longest of five catches was 13 yards. After just 39 yards last week, he had 31 Sunday and Burrow is already thinking of ways to get him going. Burrow has just one pass of 20 yards to a wide receiver (Higgins) and Chase, with a career 13.1 yards per catch, has just one that long. They did try a bubble screen or two.

"I think we threw him a couple today. We'll go watch the film and check it out," Burrow said. "It's tough to tell from just sitting here and not having watched the tape. We'll go back and re-evaluate that. We need to get him involved. He's our best player on offense, so we need to find a way to get him off."

While the Ravens were celebrating power, the Bengals were realizing knowledge is power.

"I thought we played a solid game. That's an AFC North matchup right there," Karras said. "It's going to come down to the last possessions and we came up short today. The main thing we can lean on is that we have experience being 0-2. We're going to take our lumps but we're going to come back tomorrow with great energy, come back Wednesday (and) get an extra day of preparation, an extra day of rest for a huge Monday night matchup against a good team (in) the Rams."