Bengals at Ravens: 5 storylines to watch in today’s AFC North showdown

The Baltimore Ravens defense celebrates with cornerback Marcus Peters (24) after he intercepted a pass in the end zone intended for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green during during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
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The Baltimore Ravens defense celebrates with cornerback Marcus Peters (24) after he intercepted a pass in the end zone intended for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green during during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

A dominant victory at Pittsburgh in Week 3 was considered a major stepping stone for the Cincinnati Bengals, but now four weeks later heading into a clash with Baltimore, they have a chance to show they are legitimate contenders in the AFC North.

The second-place Bengals (4-2) go into today’s road game against the Ravens (5-1) ready to battle for the top spot in the division against the current leaders.

Baltimore has won five straight in the series; however, Cincinnati hasn’t been competitive with anyone the past two seasons.

Here are five storylines to watch in today’s game:

1. Statement game

Zac Taylor doesn’t call this a statement game, but facing a consistent Ravens team provides an opportunity for the Bengals to show their fast start to the season is no fluke.

The Bengals have managed just one AFC North win in each of the past two seasons under Taylor and starting off 2-0 before even getting a home division game would be massive.

“They’ve played at the end of the year when it really matters, and to get to where we want to be, you’ve got to go on the road and you got to be able to win games like this,” Taylor said.

The players don’t shy away from what this game means for them. Many of them haven’t experienced a win over Baltimore yet and others are just anxious to get a long-awaited meaningful win against the Ravens. Tyler Boyd was part of a win in the 2017 finale that prevented the Ravens from making the playoffs, but it didn’t change the outcome of the season for the Bengals.

“Time to flip the script,” Boyd said. “It’s time to take over the throne. Just like when we went and beat the Steelers. That was another team I really wanted to beat because that’s where I’m from and I had never beaten them in Pittsburgh. I only beat them two times in my whole career. The Ravens, I’ve beaten them a few times, but I want to get to where everyone knows we can’t be beat. We’re the top dogs and I think we’re headed in that direction.”

2. Stopping Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson has never lost to the Bengals in five starts against them, and he once again is playing at a high level in 2021.

Teams seem to have better handled his tendency to extend plays with his legs, though he still averages 65.3 rushing yards per game, but he’s hurting teams with his arm more than past years. He’s already on pace for a career-high in passing yards, throwing for 1,686 yards through six games, and he’s led three fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives.

“I think it’s something we emphasize every week, is quarterback contain,” Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson said. “Obviously, there’s a little heightened (emphasis) on that as there would be for playing Kyler Murray as well. There’s always games where you have to make sure (to contain). Russell Wilson, he’s another guy you plan that way. I played those guys. So, I do understand there’s a game plan but part of it is let it loose.”

Jackson has been sacked 16 times this season, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (knee) and center Bradley Bozeman (back) are both questionable after being limited in practices this week. Jackson has two dynamic targets in tight end Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown. Sammy Watkins is out with a thigh injury.

3. Chase vs. Humphrey?

Boyd said the Ravens’ secondary will be the biggest challenge of the season so far for the Bengals because Baltimore’s front is so good at forcing quarterbacks to throw quickly and the wide receivers won’t have as much time to get open on routes.

Two-time cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be the toughest matchup and could travel with rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Ravens cornerback Tavon Young is questionable with a knee injury, though he was a full participant in Friday’s practice.

Boyd said Humphrey should be concerned with all three starting receivers (Boyd, Chase and Tee Higgins).

“For us it’s kind of up in the air because all three of us are guys, we feel should be the one to watch,” Boyd said. “He followed Mike Williams last week. (Humphrey) can follow him, but he shows looks where he plays both sides. He gets into the nickel. We just have to do what we’re going to do regardless who is in front of us.”

The Ravens rank tied for 25th in the league in passing defense while allowing 277.3 passing yards per game. They allow just 82.0 yards rushing (ranked third), so the passing game will need to take advantage to help open up the run.

4. Burrow’s second chance

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had trouble against the Ravens last year, turning over the ball twice and throwing for a season-low 183 yards passing as the offense managed just three points. He missed the next matchup because of his season-ending knee injury in Week 10 last year, but now Cincinnati is hoping he’s in a better position to handle whatever the Baltimore defense throws at him this time.

Burrow was back on “voice rest” and unavailable to speak to media for a second straight Wednesday press conference while he continues to recover from a throat contusion but he’s ready to go, Taylor said.

Baltimore thrived with its blitzing schemes last year, sacking Burrow seven times and hitting him 15 other times, but the Ravens have backed off that to some degree this year and teams aren’t really blitzing Burrow as much in 2021. Still, the Bengals were preparing for heavy pressure and understand they need to be ready for multiple looks on defense.

This will be a big test for whoever is playing right guard. It seemd rookie Jackson Carman will return to the starting lineup after easing back to practice Thursday and Friday following last week’s COVID illness, but if he’s not ready, Taylor said rookie Trey Hill looked better after he was pulled following a rough start against the Lions and returned later in the game.

The Ravens have as many sacks as the Bengals defense this year (14), but allow just 20.5 points per game (ranked seventh).

5. Special teams watch

Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson will be competing with one of the league’s top kickers in Justin Tucker, but if this game comes down to field goals, Cincinnati is confident McPherson can get the job done even after a quirky finish two weeks ago against the Packers when he missed two game-winning tries.

Tucker made a 66-yard game-winning field goal against the Lions four weeks ago and has made 13 of 14 field goal attempts this year with his only miss being for more than 40 yards. McPherson attempted a 57-yard field goal two weeks ago against the Packers but hit the right upright, and he also missed one in overtime from 49 yards out, but otherwise he has been solid. He bounced back last week with a perfect outing.

The Ravens worked out former University of Cincinnati punter James Smith on Thursday seemingly to prepare their punt returners for a lefty punter in Kevin Huber. Smith is left-footed as well, and Baltimore punter Sam Koch is 39 years old.

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Ravens, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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