CINCINNATI — The Baltimore Ravens were a yard away from finalizing one of their biggest road victories in some time. There were 75 seconds remaining, but the Cincinnati Bengals were out of timeouts and their ability to get the ball back to star quarterback Joe Burrow and his cadre of explosive playmakers hinged on them being able to stop the Ravens from getting that yard.
Baltimore’s intentions were clear. With the ball on the Bengals’ 47-yard line, the Ravens had their big fullback, Patrick Ricard, lined up in front of their biggest back, Gus Edwards. Their 380-pound tackle Daniel Faalele lined up as an extra offensive lineman. Tight end Isaiah Likely was on the line, too.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler pulled, and he and Ricard enveloped Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt. Faalele helped left tackle Patrick Mekari by getting a bump on Zach Carter, and then Faalele picked off inside linebacker Logan Wilson, too. Center Sam Mustipher and left guard John Simpson did just enough to keep Josh Tupou and D.J. Reader out of Edwards’ way. Right tackle Morgan Moses controlled B.J. Hill at the point of attack.
All Edwards had to do was run through a desperation arm-tackle attempt by Reader and hold on to the ball. The Ravens needed one yard. They got five, and it was one more example of their dominance of the Bengals in the trenches on Sunday.
“Very fitting,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “That’s Ravens football right there, I would say. Power to the right, power to the left. It was great. We love the power play.”
Edwards extended his arm, signifying that he got the first down — as if there was any doubt. Moses and Mekari skipped several yards upfield and embraced. Harbaugh found running back Justice Hill alongside him and gave him a hug.
“To put the AFC (North) champs, at home, down 0-2 in our division, that means something,” Moses said. “Obviously we gotta play them again and obviously we gotta take care of business moving forward, but … we pride ourselves on this being the best division in football, so when you go out and play at a great level and you get a win and you walk away, it means a lot more.”
For a team with a championship pedigree like the Ravens, Week 2 is probably too early to register a statement win. However, the team’s reaction on the sideline when Edwards’ run iced a 27-24 victory over the Bengals and secured a 2-0 start — and the mood in a celebratory and steamy visiting locker room at Paycor Stadium — said it all.
The Ravens badly wanted this win. Middle linebacker Roquan Smith was the one player to voice it, but there’s not a whole lot of love and good sentiment between the Ravens and Bengals. Sunday may not have avenged the three previous losses in Cincinnati, including the frustrating playoff ouster just eight months earlier. Yet, it was a very small step toward being in a much better position later this season, when, perhaps, they may not need to go on the road to face a division rival in a wild-card game. The Bengals, although they probably didn’t need it, were also served a reminder that the Ravens are a much different team with Jackson at the helm.
“It’s an amazing victory coming in here, taking over their place, getting a dub,” Smith said. “Obviously, the guys talk a lot and don’t have a lot of respect for a lot of individuals, so you take that stuff personally. But it was a great win for the team, and I’m just excited to be able to head back to Baltimore on the plane relaxing, feet kicked up with a nice dub.”
Smith and the defense did enough, holding Burrow and company to just 63 total yards and four first downs in the first half before hanging on for dear life in the second. An interception by safety Geno Stone, who was playing in place of an injured Marcus Williams, just outside the end zone denied the Bengals of points on their first drive of the second half.
.@GenoStone22 INTERCEPTION ❗️❗️❗️
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 17, 2023
The Ravens’ highly scrutinized cornerback group, which didn’t include an injured Marlon Humphrey, more than held its own against one of the league’s best receiving corps. Cornerback Brandon Stephens, in particular, helped limit Ja’Marr Chase to a quiet five-catch, 31-yard output, and Rock Ya-Sin denied Chase of a touchdown with an end zone pass breakup.
But more than anything, this game was about Baltimore’s offense, which set the tone early with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession and then put the Bengals away late by erasing the final 3 1/2 minutes with its run game.
“You can talk about how everyone is going to have their moments in this offense and it could be a different guy every other week. Today was an example of that,” said wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who got a bigger role after a first-half ankle injury to Odell Beckham Jr. and responded with five receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t have a catch or target in Week 1. “What does it show about this team? That it could be different guys stepping up every single week. It shows that we have a great group of guys, talented, but also guys that are well prepared to seize the moment.”
FIRST TD AS A RAVEN FOR NELLY❗️
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 17, 2023
The moment arrived after the Ravens’ lead was cut to 27-24 when Burrow hit Tee Higgins for his second touchdown of the game. Burrow, who struggled in the first half, had clearly found his rhythm, and any scenario that included him getting the ball back in the final few minutes and needing one score to tie or win was an unwelcome one for a Baltimore defense that looked tired.
Jackson jogged into the huddle with 3:28 to play and the Bengals possessing two timeouts. One first down wasn’t going to be enough to run out the rest of the game clock. But Jackson, who had a superb game and made smart decisions throughout, picked up the first one with a 12-yard scramble on third-and-3, forcing the Bengals to use their last timeout. A Devin Duvernay 8-yard run then set the stage for Edwards to be the closer.
“Everybody knew what time it was,” said Edwards, who rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. “It was pretty much four-minute offense and we had to get first downs.”
The Ravens finished with 178 yards rushing on 37 carries. The run game repeatedly kept the Ravens out of third-and-longs. Jackson also passed for 237 yards and two touchdowns, finishing the game with a 112.8 quarterback rating. The offensive line, which didn’t have its starting left tackle in Ronnie Stanley and its starting center in Tyler Linderbaum, allowed no sacks and only one quarterback hit.
After struggling mightily in offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s Week 1 debut, Baltimore finished with 415 yards of total offense. The Ravens averaged just under 6 yards per play and went 9-of-14 on third downs. That allowed them to control the ball for just over 33 minutes.
“Our offensive line blocked their tails off,” Jackson said. “Guys were getting open, so it made my decision-making way faster. I just have to put the ball where it needs to be and let those guys do what they do.”
For all the talk about the offensive coordinator transition from the run-oriented Greg Roman to Monken, and with the team’s offseason investment at the wide receiver position, signing Beckham and Agholor and using a first-round pick on Zay Flowers, the plan was never for the Ravens to abandon and diminish their run game. This is a Harbaugh-coached team, after all.
The idea with the Monken hire was for the Ravens to be more balanced, to be able to attack teams in different ways and not to be so reliant on their run game. Man-to-man, the Ravens acknowledged after the victory that they are nowhere near where they need to be. But at the very least, Sunday represented clear progress toward that vision.
The Ravens were whistled for six penalties for 56 yards. Ill-timed holding penalties held them back at times. But the tempo was quicker and the pre-snap confusion was much less prevalent.
“Great offenses are able to do a lot of different things, and maybe it’s tempo, maybe it’s four-minute and just different things, and that requires everybody to be on the same page and focusing on the details,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who caught five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown after returning from a quadriceps injury. “That was something that was good to see today. Obviously, there was that one drive we kind of started off, and we had the 5-yard penalty, but it’s just little things to clean up like that. We’re going to continue to be a better team just being efficient, not making mistakes. Those are hard teams to beat.”
The Ravens showed Sunday that they could still run the ball even when the defense knows it’s coming. And Jackson also showed that, if protected, he could hit big plays in the passing game, an element that has consistently been missing in recent years. His 52-yard connection to Flowers, which came one play after the Stone interception, set up Andrews’ 3-yard touchdown catch, which gave the visitors a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
HOLY ZAY !!!!!!!!!!
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 17, 2023
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Jackson hit Andrews for a 20-yard gain, helping to dig the Ravens out of a second-and-23 hole. Seven plays later, he connected on a 17-yard touchdown to Agholor, making one of his best throws all afternoon.
Agholor was one of six Ravens with three receptions or more, and one of three receivers with 29 yards or more. The Ravens also had three players, Edwards, Jackson and Hill, with 40-plus rushing yards.
“We’re going to need everyone,” Jackson said. “We showed that today. Everyone touching the ball, getting yards after the catch, keeping the chains moving. Praying that everyone stays healthy and we just stay locked in.”
(Top photo: Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)