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Ravens vs. Bengals: 5 players to watch

Justin Tucker saved the game last week at Heinz Field. Improvements were made, but no one should be satisfied.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens
Hayden Hurst is ready to break out and become a force on the Ravens offense. Lamar Jackson trust is growing every week.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens snuck out of PIttsburgh with a win off of Justin Tucker’s leg last Sunday. Improvements were made on the defensive side of the ball, but it was the offense’s turn to disappoint. Lamar Jackson had his worst game as a passer by far this season and the running game failed to lift off the ground outside of Jackson’s legs. It seems as if the Ravens are still trying to get into a consistent rhythm after a large offseason turnover.

We all knew that their would be an adjustment period after losing names like Za’Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley. The secondary was touted (on paper) to be one of the best, if not THE best, secondary in the league before a game was even played. Injuries occurred, miscommunication is an issue and lack of key fundamentals caused the Ravens to drop two games within the first five weeks of the season.

If and when Baltimore is able to figure out who they are on both sides of the ball and when work out some kinks, this team has the chance to be dangerous come November and December. The defense showed major improvements last Sunday against a vulnerable team but the offense seemed to have the issues. If Baltimore is able to string together above average appearances on both sides of the ball on a single game day, this team has a chance to gain some confidence and win some meaningful games. Let’s look at a few players to watch against another struggling AFC North team in the CIncinnati Bengals.

Maurice Canady:

Anthony Averett started against the Cardinals, Browns and Chiefs opposite of Marlon Humphrey on the outside. Averett’s below-average play lead to being a healthy scratch Sunday against Pittsburgh. Insert Maurice Canady.

Canady played extremely well on the outside against some speedy Pittsburgh wide receivers. He accurately played his assignments and was dominate in man coverage. He also showed good tackling along with physical play. These are all the things that the Raven’s defense was lacking leading up to the game in Pittsburgh. Maurice Canady is currently the 11th ranked defense back in the league per pro football focus (PFF). There needed to be a stopgap until Jimmy Smith returns from injury and Canady started off phenomenally. It will be interesting to see if he builds on his starting appearance and gains confidence to become a quality cornerback.

If you remember correctly, Baltimore cut ties with Maurice at the end of the preseason as one of the final cuts. He was quickly signed back to the practice squad and was called upon to make a difference during a struggling time. Look for Canady to solidify his spot on the roster for the remainder season and turn the page on a injury riddled career.

Chuck Clark/DeShon Elliott:

Tony Jefferson went down late in the game with a gruesome injury that resulted in an ACL tear and possibly more. Jefferson may have started off poorly on the year, but he is a leader on the defense and has carried the mic the past two games. There was better communication on the defensive side of the ball against PIttsburgh then we have seen leading up to this point. Like it or not, Jefferson was a somewhat meaningful piece of this defense.

Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are next in line to split time as the strong safety during Jefferson’s absence. Clark is known for his football intelligence and understanding Don Martindale’s scheme better than anyone in the secondary. Earl Thomas III seems to be impressed, complimenting Clark in his press conference today for his understanding of the defense. Jefferson is certainly a loss but not a loss that is significant considering there are two players waiting in the wing to snatch Tony’s spot on the roster.

Elliott, on the other hand, has impressed coaches with his playmaking ability and athleticism. He was built up during training camp and the preseason that he was making significant plays when called upon. Last year the same was said until Elliot broke his forearm during a preseason game that sent him to IR. This is a smart decision to split time between the two safeties on John Harbaugh’s part because it allows them to battle for the position and also work to their strengths within the defense. Elliot is better at covering and has the playmaking ability to start in the national football league and Clark has the intelligence to know his and other’s assignments so the defense doesn’t get torched.

Look for the one of the players to separate themselves from the other during the next two weeks leading up to the bye week. The Bengals will give the Ravens an opportunity to see how good each safety will play against a struggling offense.

Hayden Hurst:

Mark Andrews has continuously dealt with a nagging foot injury that is limiting his snap count and production over the past few weeks. Lamar Jackson is constantly leaning on him, but others will need to get involved for the offense to be productive. Hayden Hurst’s increasing role is a major step in the right direction. Up until this point, Hurst’s snap count has been around 10-15 snaps a game and is trending upward dramatically increasing to over 30 snaps against the PIttsburgh Steelers.

Every time the ball is throw in Hurst’s direction, he seems to come down with it. If the ball is catchable, it’s Hayden’s before it’s anyone else’s. Hurst is slowing showing his first round draft worth as the season progresses. If the tight end is able to take some of the load off of Andrews, this plays well into the hands of Lamar Jackson. Trust seems to be a big issue with Lamar’s choice of throws. The relationship with Hayden Hurst grows by the day.

The more these two play together, the more production we will see out of the offense. Having three tight ends that are capable receivers and have reliable hands allows Greg Roman to dial up plays that will move the chains and increase mismatches. Everyone will love Hayden Hurst when a linebacker is covering him on a deep crossing route that leads him to the end zone. Hurst gets open on a regularly basis, Lamar just needs to connect.

Josh Bynes:

Middle linebacker has been an liability in the defense through the first five games of the season, but Josh Bynes came in off the street and performed admirably - recording an interception and five tackles against Pittsburgh. Bynes is traditionally a run-stopper and he helped the Raven’s defense get back on track Sunday against the Steelers. Kenny Young was a healthy scratch Sunday getting caught in Harbaugh’s imaginary doghouse after a bad performance against the Cleveland Browns.

Blown coverages, assignments and missed tackles lead to significant changes during a one week period. L.J. Fort was also signed off the street to help fill a void at linebacker. Josh Bynes may not be Ray Lewis or Bart Scott, but he could be another stopgap that becomes a serviceable veteran to lead the way for the younger, inexperienced linebackers.

Look for Bynes to continue his strong performance against a Bengals team that is missing their two starting wide receivers and a running game that can’t get out of the backfield.

Offensive Line:

Granted, the Steelers have a top-five defensive line and they were playing in front of their home crowd, but the offensive line allowed five sacks and looked to be getting bullied at the line of scrimmage in not only pass protection but also in the run game in Week 5.

The Ravens’ offensive line has been an unexpected strong point up until the Steelers game. Bradley Bozeman was pushed around by the likes of Cam Heyward consistently. Marshal Yanda allowed his first sack since 2015, according to PFF. Impressive, but not good for Lamar Jackson and his receivers. When Lamar Jackson is given adequate time, he tends to make better decisions. After poor play from his line, Lamar tossed three interceptions. If you turn the ball over three times, you aren’t supposed to win those games. This was by far the best defensive line the Ravens have faced this season, but regardless there is no excuse for this type of play. If the Ravens offensive line has another poor showing against Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap their may be some changes in the work similar to the moves made at linebacker. Could we possibly see Ben Powers in the future to replace Bozeman?

These are decisions that Harbaugh has to figure out before the second half of the season if the Ravens want to make a playoff push and a division championship. Offensive line play can not look like it did Sunday against the Steelers.