The Baltimore Ravens defense is not the Baltimore Ravens defense. I’ll go on record as saying I don’t really get the Ravens’ DVOA ranking against the run (24th — when this team ranks 10th in yards allowed per carry and has allowed only 3.8 yards per carry to running backs if we filter out the game in which Nick Chubb busted some long runs, while allowing basically nothing if we also take out a couple big edge runs by Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy) — but in the pass game, this defense is pretty much “Marlon Humphrey, and then nothing else.” The Ravens rank 26th in points allowed per drive and 23rd in yards allowed per drive, with a middling drive success rate ranking of 14th. Only six teams are worse than the blitz-heavy Ravens in adjusted sack rate, and this team ranks 23rd in DVOA against the pass and 29th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Only three teams have allowed more passing yards than Baltimore in spite of 18 teams facing more pass attempts, and only the Giants have allowed more pass plays of 40+ yards. And while the Ravens have kept wide receivers out of the end zone (only four touchdowns allowed to wideouts — the seventh best mark in the league), only the Buccaneers and Giants have allowed more yards to the position.
That’s the good news for the Bengals in this spot.
The bad news, however, comes in multiple waves as well.
The Bengals rank 26th in drive success rate on defense, while the Ravens rank first on offense. Cincinnati, unsurprisingly, ranks 19th in time of possession, while the Ravens rank first. And when the Bengals do have the ball, their offensive line ranks 25th in adjusted sack rate, while their offense as a whole ranks 31st in DVOA. Cincinnati has been unable to sustain drives themselves (27th in drive success rate), and they rank 31st in red zone touchdown rate, while Baltimore is a non-awful 18th on defense. Furthermore, this game is on the road (bad for Andy Dalton) at a division opponent (bad for Andy Dalton). And perhaps most importantly: the Bengals really have only one weapon in the pass game in Tyler Boyd — and if the Ravens choose to put Humphrey on Boyd, it’s basically game-over for Cincy, as even a depleted secondary for the Ravens is a matchup advantage over the likes of Auden Tate and Damion Willis.
Boyd runs 66% of his routes from the slot (where Humphrey does not, by nature, line up), but with Humphrey deployed in shadow coverage for much of the season so far, he has spent 18% of his snaps in the slot — and while PFF does not have this projected as a shadow situation, it seems unlikely that Baltimore decides to let Boyd roam free all game (and at the very least, we should see Humphrey shift over to Boyd if this proves to be a trouble spot for Baltimore early in the game).
The natural shift in this matchup, then, would be for the Bengals to more heavily involve Joe Mixon (especially in the pass game) — though this offensive coaching staff has shown less adaptability than this defensive coaching staff, and there is no reason to expect the Bengals to turn Mixon into the five-catch-per-game back he really ought to be. (Through five games, Mixon has target counts of 3 // 5 // 2 // 5 // 1 — and most of this work has been dumpoff-driven, rather than schemed.)
The Bengals seem to have settled on an “identity” as an 11-personnel team, as they continued to lean heavily on this formation even with John Ross out last week (and Alex Erickson — concussion — joining him after 15 plays), and even with A) the excess of tight ends this team boasts and B) a great tight end matchup last week. Assuming this approach holds (and assuming Erickson misses — which he is currently trending toward), the base offense for the Bengals will have Boyd in the slot and Triple-A players Tate and Willis primarily manning the outside. This creates an interesting setup in that Willis and Tate move around enough to each avoid Humphrey a decent amount if he remains stationary, making each a viable low-cost option in a plus matchup. Willis saw four targets last week to Tate’s six, and is “stone minimum” (as old pal Adam Levitan would say) on all three sites. Each would also be in for a boost in targets if Humphrey travels with Boyd.
On the Ravens’ side, perhaps the biggest question mark is how Baltimore will choose to attack this run defense — which has allowed the second most rushing yards and the second most rushing touchdowns to running backs this year; but (as explored in this space since Week 1, when they slowed down Chris Carson) this production on the ground has come primarily with teams attacking this defense on the edges, rather than up the gut, as “up the gut” is one of the few positions of strength for this squad, while “to the edges” allows rushing attacks to take advantage of the Bengals’ limitations at linebacker. So far this season, 66.2% of runs from Mark Ingram have come to the areas of the field where the Bengals are strongest (and his runs that attack areas of weakness for the Bengals have been generally less successful). Instead, it has actually been Lamar Jackson himself who has taken the carries that match up best with this defense.
There are a couple ways the Ravens could play things in this spot. Firstly, they could choose to adjust Ingram’s usage to account for the matchup. Secondly, they could increase the rushing workload for Lamar to match strength on weakness against the Bengals to the edges. How you expect the Ravens to play this matchup should dictate whether your focus leans toward Ingram or Lamar.
Through the air, the Bengals rank 31st in DVOA, though they rank middle of the pack in passing yards allowed and passing touchdowns allowed, while shaving almost 16% off the league-average aDOT and filtering targets away from wide receivers and tight ends (fifth fewest WR receptions allowed // fourth fewest tight end receptions allowed) and toward running backs (second most running back receptions allowed). I’ll go ahead and borrow this from Lex Miraglia’s research in his OWS Collective. In this matchup so far, the following players have seen:
– Lockett: 2 targets
– Kittle: 3 targets
– J Brown: 5 targets
– Juju: 4 targets
– Fitz: 8 targets
Also from Lex ::
These 5 averaged 44 yds/g vs. CIN
Targets in other games:
– Lockett: 12 – 14 – 4 – 4
– Kittle: 10 – 8 – 8
– Brown: 10 – 8 – 11 – 5
– Juju: 8 – 8 – 7 – 7
– Fitz: 13 – 11 – 7 – 5 – 8
One of these days, some pass catcher is going to post a big game against the Bengals; but as long as the field keeps seeing “vs Bengals” and lean heavily on that “soft matchup,” it will remain +EV to understand the reality of the situation and to take our shots in other spots.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I’ll likely be cautious on Boyd myself this week, as it seems likely that even if the Ravens leave Humphrey off him initially, they’ll change tracks if Boyd begins to wreck this defense. Boyd is the only truly NFL-caliber pass catcher on this Bengals squad, and he should be able to have his way with this weakened Baltimore secondary if Humphrey stays off him (a scenario well worth chasing if you’re looking at things differently), but any matchup vs Humphrey is shy-away if you expect that to be the way things fall.
I do — unexpectedly — have eyes on Willis at this point, as he would stand to benefit from extra targets if Humphrey does end up on Boyd, and he’s cheap enough that even a two-catch game wouldn’t kill you on a week in which quality salary relief is difficult to find. He’s in the mix for me at the mid-point in the week (as is Tate, to a lesser extent, with his price having jumped pretty aggressively). I also like the idea of tourney shots on Mixon, as he’s just such a good player, and the touches will be there — and while Baltimore has not been attackable from a yardage standpoint, they have allowed the third most running back touchdowns in the league…with only the Dolphins and Bengals allowing more.
As Ian Douglas has noted in his Collective, Mark Ingram has 13(!) “green zone” touches (touches inside the 10) this year; so while I have some concerns about his potential up-the-middle usage, his touchdown upside against a Bengals defense that gifts touchdowns to running backs and his non-zero pass catching role against a team that filters targets to running backs are definitely enough to keep him in the mix. I also like Lamar quite a bit for the likelihood that he carries the Ravens this week and is part of most of the scoring that takes place for this team.
In tourneys, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews retain explosive upside and locked-in roles on a team expected to score plenty of points (as of right now, no team on the Main Slate has a higher Vegas-implied total than Baltimore), though the design of the Bengals defense (and what they’ve been able to do so far vs WRs/TEs and vs “top weapons”) is enough to keep me off these guys in tighter Week 6 builds.