BALTIMORE -- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and the rest of the team seemed confident this week that they could turn the season around against the Ravens.
So far, the results are inconclusive.
It wasn’t a total disaster, like the outings against the Chiefs and Saints, and that’s probably why the Bengals’ defensive players weren't hanging their heads in the locker room after the game. The mood certainly was lighter than it had been in the weeks prior to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s ouster.
“I thought they played their tails off,” Lewis said.
But at the end of the day, a 24-21 loss to the Ravens counts the same as a 51-14 loss to the Saints.
That isn't to say the Bengals shouldn’t take any moral victories out of a close loss to a division rival on the road. If they can learn from it, they have six games left in the season to show that they’re better for it.
Lewis certainly seemed to think that could be the case.
“We have to learn something,” Lewis said. “Today, I thought they learned something about themselves. We had opportunities, but we didn’t take full advantage of them. We’ve got to take full advantage, but we learn. … But for them, they’ve got to be excited. We know where we are, and now it’s a race to the finish. And they are in the same position we are.”
In some ways, the Bengals appeared to play better with Lewis calling the plays. They settled down after a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game and forced three straight punts. Shawn Williams picked off rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to set up the Bengals to get points in the second half, and they held the Ravens to a field goal in the fourth quarter.
The offense had two chances to tie or take the lead late, but those drives resulted in a missed 52-yard field goal and an incomplete pass on fourth down to Cody Core, who appeared to drop Dalton’s pass after getting two hands on it.
The offense managed only 255 total yards, the second-worst total this season, and punted five times in the first half. Without A.J. Green, the Bengals simply couldn’t come up with the plays at the end of the game, like they did against the Falcons, Buccaneers and Dolphins.
That’s almost as concerning as the lack of playmakers on the defensive side.
There’s definitely blame to go around. However, defensively, it was clear that changing the playcaller isn’t going to be some magic bandage to fix the unit. They still gave up 403 yards and remain on pace to break the record for yards allowed in a season set by the 2012 Saints.
Not only did rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson become the first quarterback since Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to rush for more than 100 yards in a game, but he also recorded 265 total rushing yards. Jackson’s 117 rushing yards were the second-most by a rookie quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger.
The Ravens didn’t attempt a pass on the 11-play opening drive but were still able to convert two third downs by using Jackson’s feet. That happened even though the Bengals knew the Ravens would be running the ball instead of passing.
“He can’t throw the ball,” Burfict said after the game in the direction of Vincent Rey, who was talking to reporters at an adjacent locker.
If the Bengals are encouraged, it’s because the bar was set pretty low after a series of declining performances. There was nowhere to go but up, and the Bengals think they’re starting to make that climb back.
“It was a great step in the right direction. We just didn’t get the results we needed,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “There are some positives. It was clear and evident we looked like a different defense out there.”
If that is the case, all is certainly not lost. Getting healthy would help. The situation at linebacker has become almost dire, with Nick Vigil and Preston Brown out and Vontaze Burfict, who is dealing with a hip injury, clearly still hobbled. Green could come back as early as next week, and the Bengals have the Browns, Broncos and Raiders on the schedule. It’s more manageable than facing the Chiefs or the Saints with an injured cast of characters.
“You just have to keep fighting and playing until the game is over,” Lewis said he told the team. “So let’s make plays. We know that we can do that, and we have guys who can do that. We’ll get some guys back and healthy, and that will make us better. And that will lift us up. But right now, everybody that’s getting the opportunity to play now, just keep playing better."