Ravens at Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in Sunday’s AFC North battle

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor has been calling this week the start of a “new season.”

Coming out of the bye week at the midway point of the season, the Bengals are hoping to turn a corner in the second half as they try to move past an 0-8 start with rookie Ryan Finley taking over at quarterback.

Finley, a fourth-round draft pick, will make his NFL debut Sunday against the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens (6-2) at Paul Brown Stadium. Baltimore rides in hot on a four-game win streak, including last week’s drubbing of the previously unbeaten Patriots.

Here are five things to know about the matchup:

1. Healthier roster

The Bengals won’t have wide receiver A.J. Green or cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick back in the starting lineup, nor will backup guard Alex Redmond be available and most likely not left tackle Cordy Glenn, but the injury report following Friday’s final practice of the week was less crowded than it has been for several weeks.

In a Week 8 game against the Rams, Cincinnati was without cornerback Darqueze Dennard, defensive end Carl Lawson and guard John Miller in addition to Green, Kirkpatrick and Glenn being inactive and backup tackle Andre Smith not playing while active. Dennard, Lawson and Miller are all expected to play Sunday.

Green seemed on track to return this week but suffered some swelling in his surgically-repaired ankle following a heavier workload Monday and won’t be ready for his season debut. Glenn participated in full throughout the week but was listed as “questionable” on the injury report Friday, and Taylor told media that John Jerry will remain the starting left tackle.

2. Finley time

If Finley has any nerves about starting, he hasn’t shown it, but Sunday could be a completely different story.

The 24-year-old rookie remained poised in interviews the past two weeks and didn’t seem any different during the media portions of practices, as he stepped in with the first teamers for the first time last Wednesday.

His accuracy and intelligence made him a successful quarterback at N.C. State, where he finished his six-year college career that got off to a slow start because of injuries, and the Bengals are hoping he can replicate what he showed in the preseason when he won the backup job over Jeff Driskel and fellow rookie Jake Dolegala. He will have to do it this time with a blitz-heavy defense coming at him, but Finley appears up for the challenge.

“He’s really quick with his decision-making, that’s one thing I’m definitely impressed with him as a rookie,” running back Joe Mixon said. “He definitely knows how to get the ball out of his hands, and he can extend plays. He’s smart. I’m excited for him. It’s definitely a great test for him to see what he can do, and of course we know Baltimore is going to dial up every blitz in the book so we’ve just got to be ready for all of that. I’m excited for him and it will be a big week for him.”

3. Challenge for Mixon

Mixon wants the ball in his hands, but the Bengals will have to have early success with the running game for him to get those opportunities and the Ravens don’t make for a good matchup in that regard.

Baltimore ranks second against the run this year, allowing just 83 yards rushing per game. Mixon has just 320 yards on 100 carries this season, following a standout sophomore season in which he led the AFC.

Finley could have his hands full with the Ravens’ tendency to blitz more than 70 percent of the time, so perhaps Mixon will be used more on quick, short passes. This also could be an opportunity for the Bengals to use more 12 personnel with hopes the tight ends can help pick up the blitz.

4. Stopping the run

The Ravens lead the NFL in points scored (31.4 per game) and rushing offense (204.9 yards per game), and they are second in total offense (427.0 yards per game).

Much of that success has to do with a standout season for dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, who rushed for 159 yards against the Bengals in the last matchup, a 23-17 win in Baltimore. Jackson has three games with more than 100 yards rushing, and he’s been much more efficient in the passing game this year, compared to his rookie season in 2018, so he makes for a difficult matchup for almost anyone. However, the Bengals especially have struggled against that type of quarterback.

Cincinnati is last in total defense (435.6 yards per game) and rushing defense (177.6 yards per game) and will have to worry about running back Mark Ingram as well. He has 585 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, behind Jackson’s 637 yards on the ground.

5. Special teams battle

Despite their winless record, the Bengals have the most effective special teams units in the NFL, according to the Football Outsiders’ rankings, and the Ravens know just how good they are in that phase after allowing Brandon Wilson to run back a 92-yard return on the opening kickoff the last meeting.

Cincinnati will need another big performance on special teams to provide a boost, especially if the offense is slow coming out of the game. Kevin Huber has been solid punting the ball and pinning teams deep to help with field position, and Wilson has proven an upgrade over Darius Phillips so far while allowing Alex Erickson to focus on punt returns and receiver duties.

The Ravens check in at No. 3 on that Football Outsiders’ list.


Ravens at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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