For the first time in the Super Bowl era Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12), a team faces the same opponent three times in a four-game span when the Ravens play the third straight Paycor Stadium game against the two-time defending AFC North champion Bengals.
It hasn’t happened since the 1965-66 Baltimore Colts lost to the Packers in the playoffs after closing the ’65 season against them and opening ’66 against them. That’s how the Bengals won last year’s AFC North and reached the AFC Divisional. They beat the Ravens to clinch the division here in the finale and the next week in the Wild Card
So how about a Super Bowl matchup? Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in his second game back since a torn ACL thwarted his attempt to win the Super Bowl LVI MVP trophy against the Bengals two seasons ago lining up (at some point) against Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who had an interception that night in Los Angeles.
Awuzie is also in his second game back from a torn ACL and he passed muster in last Sunday’s opener that he started, played 58 percent of the snaps and recovered a red-zone fumble. OBJ, who missed all of 2022, had two catches for 37 yards on three targets in the Ravens’ win over Houston.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor continues to manage Awuzie since he’s still just 10 ½ months removed from the injury. He sat Awuzie out of practice Friday for a rest and rotated him with rookie cornerback DJ Turner in last week’s game.
“If I had to guess, I think they’re really going to try and get him the ball this week and get him to be the player he’s proven to be,” said Bengals safety Nick Scott, who played with OBJ on that Super Bowl-winning Rams team. “But we’ve got great lockdown corners on the outside with Chido and Cam, (Taylor-Britt) and DJ. It should be fun.”
Beckham, who turns 31 in midseason, can still be that guy who had two catches for 52 yards that included a 17-yard touchdown to start the Super Bowl scoring before he got hurt.
Scott listed his attributes:
“His attention to detail, his route-running and his stems, his footwork. He’s also a gash guy. He can take the top off if he needs to. He can still run. But he’s a smart guy who can run a route.”
Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who also played against him in the big one, says he’ll get OBJ, rookie Zay Flowers, and Rashod Bateman at some point because they all move around.
“He’s a run-after-catch guy,” Hilton said. “He’ll make a lot of plays for those guys.”
The guy who did win the MVP in that Super Bowl was Cooper Kupp, the receiver opposite OBJ.
“It’s a whole different story having Cooper Kupp and Odell. When you have Coop, everyone tends to focus on him and take him away and it kind of leaves Odell. From what I can see, besides (Pro Bowl tight end Mark) Andrews, Odell’s the guy.”
Andrews has been big against the Bengals with six touchdowns in nine games. Flowers, the quicksilver first-rounder from Boston College, had nine catches in the opener for 78 yards, five of them going for first downs.
Scott has taken note.
“The way they use 4 (Flowers) reminds me how the Rams use Tutu Atwell,” Scott said. “The jets, and the screens, and the motions. Try to get him in space and tear the top off. But on a down-to-down basis, I think OBJ is the guy.”
LAMAR RETURNS: The last time Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson played a game in Paycor Stadium was the 2020 finale and the last Bengals game played by long-time franchise performers A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. Both are retired and will be here Sunday, Green as Ruler of the Jungle and Bernard as the Sports USA radio analyst.
The Bengals defense that gave up 525 yards that day no longer exists. Only Sam Hubbard and Germaine Pratt are back in the starting lineup. Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins, who had 72 of his 160 yards on one run that day, tore his Achilles last week. In the two games they’ve played Jackon in Baltimore since that day, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s revamped defense has played Jackson pretty well with a cautious rush that hems in the pocket while flashing varying coverages.
Last year they held the Ravens to 19 points but got beat by two as Jackson could complete only 19 of 32 passes for 174 yards while running for just 58 yards. In the Bengals’ 2021 win in Baltimore, Jackson ran for 88 yards, but he was held to under 50 percent passing (15 of 31) and sacked five times.
Now that defense is in its third year and Jackson is in the second game of a new system. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass last Sunday against the Texans and he rushed for just 38 yards, but he also hit 77 percent of his 22 passes.
“They spread the ball around. These are the best weapons he’s had his whole career,” Hilton said. “They’re loosening it up, throwing it around more. He’s a good passer. I think that’s part of his that gets slept on. We want to keep him in the pocket and make him read coverages and throw it into tight windows. Can’t let him sit back there and get comfortable.”
Like they play Patrick Mahomes?
“In a sense,” Hilton said. “Different quarterbacks. Both throw the ball well. Disguise coverages. Make him hold the ball an extra second so the rush gets there.”
Jackson, the other Baltimore quarterback who came out of Louisville, knows full well the last two AFC North titles have been decided with him sidelined.
“It just happens to happen every time we play them. We have a lot of injuries or key guys go down versus them, but it’s no excuses,” Jackson said. “Going back to Cincinnati, it’s a great atmosphere (and) great crowd. I have some of the Louisville guys in the area, so it’s great support from the Ravens fan base in Louisville. It’s great to be there.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Former Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Sunday’s Ruler of the Jungle, on the old John Harbaugh quote “Maybe we’ll cover him once before he retires”:
“I’m retired. Now he has to deal with TB, Ja’Marr, and Tee.”
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Bengals defensive line against a Ravens offensive line missing center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle) and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee). That leaves Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson on Patrick Mekari, a fifth-year guard/tackle with 29 starts, as well as Pro Bowlish nose tackle DJ Reader on practice squad center Sam Mustipher. Mustipher started 40 games from 2020-22 for the Bears, but they didn’t tender him as a restricted free agent.
ANOTHER MATCHUP TO WATCH: 6-4 Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins against Ravens backup cornerbacks A’Darius Washington (5-8), Ronald Darby (5-11), and Brandon Stephens (6-1). Higgins got blanked last week, but all he needs to get going is winning a contested long ball with one of his Bill Russell Game Seven rebounds.
And he has. According to Next Gen Stats, in three previous career games following a week with fewer than three catches with at least one target, Higgins has averaged 126 yards. That includes his career-best 194 yards on 12 catches against Baltimore in 2021.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Zac Taylor called edge Joseph Ossai (ankle) and running back Chris Evans (hamstring), Saturday decisions. Both went limited Friday after Evans didn’t go Thursday…
Edge-tackle Cam Sample (ankle) was back at full Friday …
Bengals linebacker Markus Bailey (knee) didn’t go Friday but is expected to play …
Ravens running back Justice Hill, getting more time with Dobbins out, weighed in on the brother rivalry with Bengals safety Dax Hill with the Baltimore media Friday.
“He’s been avoiding me a little bit, so when I can get him on the phone, I’ll be talking my noise,” Justice said as everyone anticipates the first tackle. “Hopefully I will be on the positive side. I will be on the positive side of that, so it’s going to be good for the family. It’s going to be a good game. It should be fun.” ….
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