A familiar foe of Flacco and his Raven flock fly into town this week in the first AFC North showdown of the season. Baltimore became the media darlings of the offseason, showing off their finished product last week in a cage-match style win against the New York Jets. The Bengals on the other hand, well, we all saw what happened. The beautiful thing about the NFL is that each week is a new chance to right the wrongs, to clean up the mess, to turn the ship around, and for such a rough and tumble team, Cincinnati seems to have Baltimore's number.
Of course, it won't be easy -- it never is. The Ravens are a gang of calculated assassins, surly and powerful with an attitude and a thirst for bone crushing hits. The Bengals were very much the same last season, but Cincinnati's physical trademark was nonexistent last week against New England and waves of doubt flooded over them after such a decisive beatdown. For the Bengals to walk away victors on Sunday, they must regain that gladiator persona and be prepared for a serious test of strength and will.
Ravens offense vs. Bengals defense
Last week, the Ravens met a mighty contender in the form of the crazed Jets defense and their offensive production was limited. The Jets did a nice job of containing the compact and explosive Ray Rice by staying in their running lanes and not missing tackles; it is imperative the Bengals do the same. Rice is slippery and hard to bring down, and if Cincinnati can't wrap him up on the first attempt, he can bust a big one on nearly every run. Baltimore doesn't attempt to trick its opponents on running plays; not once did they try running to the weak side of their formations last week. Instead, they loaded up the strong side with as many blockers as possible and had Rice run behind them, often times on delayed hand-offs from the shotgun formation. If the Bengals can clog the middle and stay there, it will prevent Rice from finding the seams to daylight he so adroitly seems to locate.
The Bengals need not worry about the Ravens' complimentary backs, Willis McGahee or Le'Ron McClain as much, because McClain was used sparingly against New York, and McGahee, in a word, sucks. If the Bengals let them, Baltimore can ground-and-pound all day, using up clock and wearing out a defense that has much to prove after a dismal showing in New England last week. Therefore, stopping the run should be the top priority in their defensive gameplan; shedding their blocks and succeeding in tackling is paramount to their success.
That means Joe Flacco must pass, and pass often. That seems like strange advice, encouraging a team with so many weapons to fire them at will, but with the right coverage and skilled cornerbacks, that too can be stopped.
Flacco went after Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson last week, and completely ignored all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis' side of the field. Cromartie did manage an interception near the goal-line, but overall proved to be a weakness in the Jets defense; Wilson was even worse. Both men struggled in man-to-man coverage and each were flagged for multiple, costly penalties. While the Bengals don't quite have anyone on Revis' level—no one is really—they do have a very talented group of corners, and Flacco should find it more difficult picking on any one of them.
The Ravens like using the three-wide shotgun formation with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the slot, where they often put him motion to find a mismatch somewhere on the field. I would expect they target third-corner, Adam Jones, in these scenarios, challenging Jones either on underneath routes across the middle, or going up top along the sideline.
If Houshmandzadeh is covered, that leaves Derrick Mason, who has been blanketed by the Bengals in the past, or newcomer Anquan Boldin as their other wide-out options. Mason is an afterthought, catching only three passes in two games last year, but Boldin is a new type of challenge for Cincinnati's secondary. He is fast enough to go by many defenders, but his real strength is, well, his strength. Similar to Terrell Owens, Boldin has huge, muscular arms, a wide frame and can be deadly on the outside on short passes against smaller defensive backs. The Ravens should try quick hitters to him in open space, daring the Bengals secondary to try and bring him down. Jonathan Joseph had a memorable miss on Randy Moss last week that allowed a big play, but overall Joseph is a good tackler and needs to prove it this Sunday.
On third downs—an area of struggle last week for Cincinnati—look for the Ravens to find Todd Heap on shorter routes. Heap has put together a nice career and still appears plenty involved in Baltimore's passing attack. Bengals safety Chris Crocker will likely be assigned to Heap the most, and has to heighten his awareness of where the nimble tight end is on third down.
Bengals offense vs. Ravens defense
While the Ravens defense is big, strong and ugly, they aren't necessarily wild and blitz-crazy. They rely heavily on their 3-4 outside linebackers, Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs, to get pressure from the outside without sending too many safety or corner blitzes to help them. When they do blitz, they are selective and calculated and like to bring Ray Lewis up the gut, or Chris Carr from the edge.
Regardless of their scheme, it's imperative that Carson Palmer gets enough protection to look downfield and attack the Ravens' questionable secondary. Suggs is especially deadly on the pass-rush, though the offensive line did a nice job on him last year, and, similar to the Patriots' Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata can create havoc up the middle. Cincinnati's hogs up front only allowed one sack last week (to Wilfork), but was still criticized for allowing too many hits on Palmer. Baltimore will likely bring more pressure than New England did, so the onus this week is on the line.
If Palmer is given time to throw, he could have a big day. For whatever reason, Carson has found success against the Ravens through the air, and with the pirate-bearded lurker, Ed Reed, watching from the sideline, his day should be that much easier. The Ravens secondary wasn't tested much at all from an anemic Jets passing attack last week, and I expect they will have much more to worry about from the newly formed Bengals passing game that came to life in the second half of Week 1. Look for the same type of passing scheme this week from the Bengals with Jermaine Gresham in the red-zone, Jordan Shipley and TO on shorter possession routes, and Chad Ochocinco in one-on-one matchups. It's impossible to double-team them all, so, once more, if the Bengals allow Carson enough time, he can find mismatches all over the field against such a suspect secondary.
Baltimore is excellent against the run. They flow to the ball-carrier and bottle up rushing lanes at or near the line of scrimmage. Ngata's girth clogs up the middle, and allows their talented linebacker unit to meet running backs at the point of attack—and this is a group that doesn't miss many tackles. Bengal bell cow Cedric Benson had an underwhelming day last week, thanks largely to the offensive line not getting a good enough push after the snap, but Benson has had good days against Baltimore in the past, and the offensive line as a whole needs to be as physically strong as possible for that to continue. If Cincinnati can find some running room with Benson, mixed in with a dash of Bernard Scott, it will keep the Ravens off balanced and will allow the passing game to open up even more.
The key for the Bengals offense is to prove to Baltimore that they can throw against them; pass to set up the run. Cincinnati must convert better in the first half on third down and find ways to create sustained drives early on. Confidence is a big part of this game, and it seemed to be zapped right out of this team before they could even get their feet under them last week. Some blamed offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski for the early struggles against New England, but I felt the play-calling and scheme was above average and that the players couldn't get it going. If Brat keeps his players in the same type of roles this week, and the players tighten the screws a bit more, the improved results should speak for themselves.
This game will be difficult but is certainly winnable. It isn't unfamiliar territory between these two teams and that should give the Bengals more confidence. After laying such a large egg to open the season, I expect Cincinnati to come out angry and fire all of their guns. This game means more than just a win; it means gaining back respect and retaining their divisional supremacy. The higher the score, the better their chances. Protect No. 9 and good things should happen.
Bengals 31, Ravens 21
Mojokong—by the seat of my pants.