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Ravens vs. Bengals matchups to watch: Pass rush needs another dominant performance

This Week 2 divisional bout come down a few key battles between specific players, units, and even coaches.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will hit the road in Week 2 where they’ll faceoff with the Cincinnati Bengals at the recently renamed Paycor Stadium on Sunday afternoon. They are mild underdogs to come out on top against two-time defending division North champions who are coming off an embarrassing season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds.

There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and players and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this Week 2 contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.

Ravens front seven vs. Bengals o-line

Even though the popular phrase ‘games are won and lost in the trenches’ is one of the oldest clichés in the history of football, it couldn’t be more true heading into this week’s matchup. Baltimore is coming off an utterly dominant Week 1 pass rush performance in which they racked up five sacks and 10 quarterback hits in a win. Cincinnati on the other hand, had a horrendous pass-blocking outing in which they surrendered two sacks and 10 quarterback hits in a rough season-opening loss.

The two units that look like they’re heading in different directions will likely be the biggest deciding factors in determining who comes out on top in this game. After watching the Pro Bowl pass-rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and former Raven Za’Darius Smith wreak havoc on the Bengals offense line from almost start to finish, the trio of David Ojabo, former Brown Jadeveon Clowney, and Odafe Oweh will be aiming to do the same.

One of the top individual battles to keep an eye on in this game will be Oweh going up against former Ravens Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. who is Burrow’s new blindside protector. While he didn’t record one of the team’s sacks in Week 1, the 2021 first-rounder had an incredibly impactful game all the same with a team-leading three quarterback hits and tied for the second-most pressures in the league with seven according to Pro Football Focus. Oweh gave three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil all he could handle last week and he is the kind of explosively athletic edge rusher that often gives Brown Jr. fits as well.

Ravens cornerbacks vs. Bengals wide receivers

It seems like a rare occurrence when these two teams meet and Baltimore is at full strength in their defensive backfield, especially at cornerback over the past two seasons. With three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey likely to miss a second straight week to open the season as he recovers from foot surgery, that trend likely isn’t going to get bucked in their first meeting of the 2023 season.

That leaves the responsibility of covering arguably the best wide receiver trio in the league long enough for the front seven to get home in the hands of third-year pros Brandon Stephens and Ar’Darius Washington and a combination of veterans Ronald Darby, Rock Ya-Sin, and Kevon Seymour. While that lineup might not inspire much confidence in the eyes of most fans, that group played well in Week 1 and paired with what will hopefully be another potent pass rush, could surprise many of their doubters.

However, keeping Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd from heavily impacting a game is easier said than done even though the Browns did a stellar job on a rainy day in Week 1. An individual battle to keep a close eye on will be Chase versus Stephens, who had a strong game against Houston and plays with the type of physicality to match up well with the two-time Pro Bowl wideout.

Mike Macdonald vs. Joe Burrow

Two years ago in the meetings between the Ravens and Bengals during the 2021 season, Cincinnati dropped 41 points on both occasions fueled by extraordinary passing performances from Burrow. In three meetings last year including the postseason, the former No. 1 overall pick was held to under 220 passing yards and one touchdown in each, despite throwing the ball on an average of 36.3 times.

While Baltimore’s secondary was much healthier in 2022 than it was the year prior and will be this week, the biggest difference was Macdonald’s scheme, and how it confused and confounded Burrow. The Ravens were able to force the typically deadly accurate and seemingly unflappable Pro Bowl signal callers into making mistakes, errant throws, throwaways, taking sacks, and even an interception to his old college teammate in the first meeting last season.

As much as this matchup will ultimately be decided by the Jimmys and Joes, the guy responsible for the Xs and Os will play arguably an equal role given that he’s the going to be one dialing up the simulated pressures and disguised coverages. It looked like the Browns took a page or two out of Macdonald’s playbook of how to slow the Bengals down because they held Burrow to his worst passing performance at the college or pro level, albeit in a bad weather game.

Lamar Jackson vs. Bengals safeties

Cincinnati’s defense has given the Ravens’ two-time Pro Bowl quarterback some fits at times in recent years and forced him into some errors and turnovers. That was in large part due to how Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo deployed veteran safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.

Now that they both are playing on new teams in the NFC South after departing in free agency. The Bengals have a new safety tandem with 2022 first-rounder Daxton Hill and fifth-year veteran Nick Scott. While Hill was gifted an interception in Week 1 and Scott had 17 career starts under his belt prior to the 2023 season, they both are far less experienced than their predecessors and could potentially be manipulated by Jackson come Sunday.

An advantage that Bates and Bell had in recent years was that the Ravens passing game was funneled through two players most of the time with three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews always being at least one of the top targets. The new safety pairing will have a much harder time trying to scheme around taking one or two weapons away now that there are several more for Jackson to choose from on any given play.

WR Zay Flowers vs. Bengals second and third level defenders

The Ravens’ first-round pick was absolutely dazzling in his regular season debut by showcasing the dynamic playmaking ability in space with the ball in his hands. Flowers made linebackers and defensive backs alike whiff on tackles as he made multiple defenders miss on almost every touch he had against the Texans, hence why both the second and third level of Bengals defense are listed in this matchup to watch.

It is going to take a team effort to consistently corral the electrifyingly elusive and aptly nicknamed ‘Joystick’ because he is a big play waiting to happen. Ravens first-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken made a concerted effort to get Flowers involved and in the game plan early and often in Week 1. That trend might very well continue in Week 2 given how well he performed.

WR Odell Beckham Jr. vs. CB Mike Hilton

The last time the Ravens’ three-time Pro Bowl veteran wideout played against the Bengals was in Super Bowl 56 when he was still a member of the Los Angeles Rams. Before he left the game with a torn ACL, Beckham Jr. was nearly uncoverable and was on pace for a monster game with two catches on three targets for 52 receiving yards and a touchdown.

During the offseason, he talked to NBC’s Peter King about the torrid pace he was on in that game during an interview and the Bengals veteran slot cornerback didn’t take kindly to those words and responded “We’ll see Week 2” when asked for his thoughts on those comments. Beckham Jr. also plays inside and out so when he lines up in the slot across from Hilton, it will certainly be a fierce one-on-one battle, although last time around it looked more like a mismatch.