The Baltimore Ravens took a two-game lead in the AFC North on Sunday when they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-17. Seattle helped out with a road win over the Browns. After six weeks, the Ravens are in prime position to repeat as AFC North champs.

You might not be able to tell while talking to the fan base though. It seems like a majority of Ravens fans are still in a state of doom & gloom despite a pair of division wins in the last two weeks. Even if I don’t share those same sentiments, their concerns about this team are not invalid. The truth is the Ravens have not looked like your typical division champions at many times so far this season. Yet they stand at 4-2 after six weeks. 

The road ahead will surely present a much bigger challenge for the Ravens than the schedule they have seen thus far, but for now let’s celebrate another win.

Here are my four takeaways from the Ravens win over Cincinnati:

      1. Always an excuse

On Sunday Lamar Jackson rebounded from an ugly outing in Pittsburgh by dominating the Bengals defense through he air and on the ground. He would end the game with 236 passing yards on 21 completions and 152 rushing yards on 19 carries. He also did a good job protecting the football after throwing five interceptions in the previous two weeks.

It was clear right from the start that the Ravens were going to attack the Bengals defense by getting Lamar’s legs more involved then they have been all season. His 19 carries are the most since week 17 of last season when he carried the ball 20 times against the Browns. In a lot of ways the game plan mirrored the one the Ravens used for Lamar’s first career start against this same Bengals team less than a year ago.

Despite putting a spy on Jackson, the Bengals had no answer for the Ravens quarterback as he racked up a career high total on the ground and ripped them for eight yards a pop. After the game Jackson told us that this was the plan all week. 

Personally I would have preferred to see a handful of Jackson’s carries given to Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards instead. I appreciate Jackson’s efforts to protect himself but he took some rough shots from an angry Bengals defense that is tired of getting exposed on the ground. You can’t tell me that Ingram and Edwards are incapable of delivering the same results Jackson did on at least a handful of his carries. They may lack some of the speed and elusiveness that Jackson has, but they were both finding a ton of success on the ground with a combined 4.5 yards-per-carry.

Nonetheless, Jackson’s big day earned him another spot in the history books as he became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to throw for 200 yards and run for 150 yards in a regular season game.

Regardless of how you feel about Jackson and his capabilities as a franchise quarterback in this league, the stuff he has accomplished in less than 16 regular season starts is impressive and should be acknowledged. 

You can’t tell me it doesn’t feel good as a Ravens fan to see your team’s quarterback praised for all the great things he is doing on the field. In the short history of this franchise there has not been a lot of excellence at the quarterback position, so why are we constantly looking for an excuse when it comes to Jackson’s accomplishments? I don’t care if it came against the Bengals, Jackson has done more than enough to earn the respect of fans in Baltimore and around the league.

 

2. Next man up

The Ravens defense has not looked like we expected it to so far this season and there are a few contributing factors to that. Injuries to Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, and Tony Jefferson severely hurt what we thought would be a strong secondary. At the same time, some of the younger players like Kenny Young and Tim Williams have failed to step up and produce in a bigger capacity. 

To help get things back on track the Ravens brought in a trio of defensive players over the past two weeks. Josh Bynes, L.J. Fort, and Jihad Ward have all come in and delivered for the Ravens either as a starter or a special teams role player. What is most impressive is their ability to make an impact despite having minimal knowledge of the Ravens play book. Bynes is currently in his second stint with the Ravens but I would imagine things are far different now than they were the last time he suited up in purple & black. 

These are not the only players being asked to step up on defense. Maurice Canady and Chuck Clark are both taking on a bigger role in this secondary and performing admirably.

Canady has turned in a handful of good games despite being targeted heavily against the Bengals. In my eyes Canady did what he was supposed to in that situation. He wasn’t playing air tight defense but he never let the receivers get behind him and he always made the tackle.

After Smith went down with an injury in week one I was content with guys like Canady or Anthony Averett filling in but I wanted them to receive safety help more often. Since then, Canady has shown he can be trusted more in man coverage but in a situation like we saw on Sunday, why not shade Earl Thomas to his side of the field? They are either going to see Thomas and stop throwing that way or foolishly ignore it and give Thomas the chance to make a game-breaking play. 

Clark, on the other hand, is just getting started. The third-year safety out of Virginia Tech will likely be expected to jump into a leadership role on this defense in the absence of Jefferson.

Since being drafted Clark has been praised by his teammates as one of the smartest players in the locker room. That knowledge of the playbook and defensive schemes was put to the test as Clark wore the green dot helmet against Cincinnati. It is just one week and the competition is not the greatest but there was a significant decrease in chunk plays given up this week. I will let you interpret that how you want.

Seeing these players step up has been a pleasant surprise but the Ravens will need even more players to do the same as the injury bug continued to tax the defense on Sunday. Second-year safety DeShon Elliott went down in the fourth quarter and did not return to the game. John Harbaugh did not have any updates on Elliott immediately after the game but on Monday afternoon we learned that Elliot will be out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

3. No more hurdles, please

For years now I have been getting irrationally angry at tight ends taking every opportunity they can to hurdle a defender. This has been an annoying trend for a while now and nine times out of ten it serves absolutely no purpose other than to make the tight end feel like Superman. 

I personally don’t even like it when a tight does it when he is going up against a defender one-on-one but I understand the mentality. However, there is no reason to attempt this kind of move when you are approaching a group of linebackers and safeties. Unfortunately Mark Andrews does not agree with me, as he attempted to take flight in the third quarter on Sunday. In the process of leaping, Andrews fumbled the ball and it was quickly recovered by one of the many Bengals players in the area.

Not only is a hurdle unlikely to work against multiple defenders at once, but even if it did, what would Andrews have gained from it – another yard or two? I don’t know about you but that sounds like a high risk, low reward decision.

The turnover was costly but Andrews was lucky to walk away from the play without an injury. For a guy who is playing through some pain right now I would think the goal would be to avoid risks like that, but I guess not.

 

4. Still plenty to clean up

The Ravens have not played many complete games this year. Being perfect is unattainable but getting smart plays out of all three phases is certainly an achievable goal each week. This week the Ravens were significantly hurt by penalties. Unlike in the Steelers game, the refs are not to blame this time.

For me, this game was called properly and there were not many game-changing decisions made by the officiating crew. The Ravens still walked away with 10 penalties for a total of 81 yards. The Bengals were far more disciplined with just four flags being thrown their way.

Bradley Bozeman can account for almost half of the Ravens penalties as he had a rough day at left guard. One or two false starts / holds are acceptable from a second-year center playing out of position but his mistakes had a direct impact on the offense’s ability to sustain drives in a close game.

Dominating the time-of-possession like the Ravens did on Sunday is useless if you can’t come away with points. Without a doubt, penalties are one of the biggest things plaguing this offense right now.

The special teams unit did not have their best day either. After surrendering a touchdown on the opening kickoff, things did not look good for the heavily-favored Ravens. Thankfully that did not snowball into more momentum for Cincinnati. The offense did a good job responding right away and the defense was stout until the end of the fourth quarter when they gave up a touchdown drive.

The mistakes did not stop at the opening kickoff though. Morgan Cox had a bad snap on a punt in the second quarter that required Sam Koch to pick the ball up off the ground. Koch was not able to go through his normal punting motion and ended up putting a little too much on the ball as it bounced into the end zone for a touchback.

Small mistakes like this are a rarity for The WolfPack. No one should expect them to become a common occurrence as long as our favorite trio is handling the kicking duties in Baltimore. It’s hard to get mad at the special teams unit after they had an amazing collective effort in Pittsburgh a week ago but their mistakes are uncharacteristic and need to be cleaned up quickly.

Image credit: Evan Habeeb – USA TODAY Sports