With the Ravens seeking a sixth straight victory in Sunday’s AFC North showdown with Cincinnati, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Having already equaled their win total from last season, the Bengals have improved and shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, they’ve also enjoyed one of the NFL’s easiest schedules through six weeks, which reminds of Baltimore’s early October matchup with Denver. Cincinnati can make a major statement in this division.
2. Though the offense receives more attention, the revamped Cincinnati defense is the more improved unit after Lamar Jackson embarrassed the rotting corpse of the Marvin Lewis era these last couple years. With several new faces, the Bengals rank eighth in pass defense efficiency and fourth in run defense efficiency.
3. As Marlon Humphrey put it, Ja’Marr Chase has “made the NFL look pretty easy” with 553 receiving yards and five touchdown catches to rank fourth in the NFL in both categories. The Bengals rookie is a significant matchup problem before even considering the capable Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
4. Speaking of Humphrey, the Pro Bowl corner is coming off arguably his best game of the season after a quiet start. Whether Humphrey travels with Chase or not, Wink Martindale needs another big performance. “When I see him start smacking his helmet, I know we’re going to be just fine.”
5. One of the big matchups of the game will be Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson against Alejandro Villanueva, who will remain the man at left tackle for the rest of the year with Ronnie Stanley undergoing season-ending ankle surgery. Hendrickson’s 5 1/2 sacks are tied for ninth in the league.
6. Like we saw with Justin Herbert last week, Joe Burrow crumbled in his first career game against the Ravens, posting a nightmare 4.2 QBR as Baltimore sacked him seven times in Week 5 last year. However, he’s been quite strong against the blitz this season, giving Martindale something to ponder.
7. As Greg Roman noted, the prototypical wide receiver group resembles a basketball team with players of different size and skill. With Sammy Watkins likely to be sidelined for a second straight game, we’ll see plenty of Rashod Bateman, whom Roman called the “power forward.” This group’s upside is exciting.
8. Martindale said “70%” of Joe Mixon’s rushing yards have come after contact. That’s a tad high depending on your source, but it reinforces the need for the tackling issues that plagued Baltimore before Week 6 not to resurface. Mixon caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown last Sunday.
9. With Latavius Murray’s status in doubt, this game is pivotal for the running backs with the trade deadline rapidly approaching. Can Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell take advantage of increased touches? Will Ty’Son Williams reestablish himself? Or does Sunday cement Eric DeCosta’s need to add a back with more upside?
10. Mark Andrews said he plans to celebrate National Tight End Day by “going off,” a scary thought for the Bengals after the Ravens tight end caught 16 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games. Cincinnati ranks 18th in coverage efficiency against tight ends.
11. Nick Boyle returning to practice is encouraging for a running game lacking the same efficiency and explosiveness of the last two years, but Eric Tomlinson has performed quite well in roughly 17 snaps per game. Pro Football Focus grades him first among tight ends in run blocking. Andrews ranks second.
12. With the best defensive performance of the season coinciding with his return, DeShon Elliott has another chance to showcase his value against an offense with skill talent all over the place. Martindale said the “positionless” Elliott is moving better than ever and enhances the coordinator’s ability to disguise his defense.