CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 24: Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after making an 11-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bengals defeated the Cardinals 23-16. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Gravity and balance. That combination worked against poor Early Doucet on Christmas Eve as he twirled and stumbled his way to a fourth-down incompletion, killing a gift-wrapped comeback against the Bengals. The same cosmic forces that let the Bengals down against the Texans swung back in their favor this time and reinforced the lesson that anything can happen in this crazy mixed up football league.
As it is, Cincinnati is back in the sixth slot and only needs to beat one good team to get to the playoffs, and that's how it should be. You gotta slay at least one dragon along the way to prove you're worthy. Taking out all the cream puffs is fine, but there aren't many of those lurking where the Bengals are headed.
For Marvin Lewis, this is one of those career-definers. A win-and-your-in finale is a playoff game, especially against a team whose already clinched but still has something to play for. Plus Marvin knows this team perhaps better than any other opponent. He has seen it all against the Baltimore Ravens. If he enjoys his job, then this week should be fun for him.
Still, there are concerns in the match-up against the Ravens.
When San Diego beat Baltimore, they dropped their secondary deep into zone coverage, allowed Ray Rice to catch the ball on dump offs and ran up to tackle him. They got a nice pass rush from Antwan Barnes that night and overall the scheme worked. Then Cleveland played a bit more man coverage and found out their linebackers couldn't cover that well. That scheme didn't work and the Browns lost.
The Bengals secondary is flimsy and must hold up against a quality offense. The backup-quarterback trio Cincinnati has faced the last three weeks had a little too much comfort and rhythm for my liking. I thought against Arizona, the secondary got tired thanks to two infuriating fumbles in the fourth quarter. The old bones of Chris Crocker and Nate Clements must have inwardly groaned each time they watched the ball pop out of Cedric Benson's arms. Adam Jones is the best remaining corner, but he's not enough, plus the miscommunication with the safeties on zone coverage just can't happen. Baltimore has a handful of weapons they like to use to gain medium yardage and the Bengals must win on third down if they want to control the game.
Of course, no pass defense analysis would be complete without the mention of getting pressure on the quarterback. A healthy and effective Carlos Dunlap boosts this defense into a force rather than just a serviceable unit. His presence elevates Michael Johnson's game, and the two become a long-armed sack monster. These guys mixed in with big Geno Atkins and the rest of the rotation give the Bengals teeth again on defense. The Ravens passing attack starts out with long drop backs by Joe Flacco. If he is under center and is passing, he often play-actions to Ray Rice on the stretch hand-off, rolls back into the pocket and looks way down field to either a streaking Torrey Smith or a deep crossing Ed Dickson. Flacco can run well in a straight line, but he's not likely to juke his way out of danger. Getting sacks on such deep drops from Flacco can be game-changers themselves. We have also seen Flacco get rattled by effective pressure—Week 2, 2010 comes to mind—and if he gets knocked down enough, he and the rest of his team might think about packing it in for the playoffs.
The impressive part of the Ravens offense though, is its ability to adapt to different styles of the game. They have Rice, and then there is Ricky Williams, but when Baltimore has to really go into bruiser mode, it's their fullback who blacks the eyes of his opponents. Vonta Leach is a fearless man who explodes into potential tacklers. He obliterates his blocking assignment almost every time, no matter their size. Last week, you could see the Browns dragging themselves off the ground, wondering what mini-bus just ran them over. When the Ravens run off-tackle, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard will have to get very low on Leach to win that battle. If neither can, it will up to Rey Maualuga and the safeties to rally and make the tackle. Follow No. 44 when he's in there.
On offense, the Bengals have to let it loose. Rather than play not to lose, this is the game to empty the playbook and really keep a dangerous defense in check. I think teams often play it safe against Baltimore because of their great players, and they get used to the conservative play calling, but this time, Jay Gruden should come out blazing and attack the jugular.
AJ Green is great against anyone, and this week he will likely see a lot of Ladarius Webb. Green is still the favorite in this match up, but Webb is a play maker that should not be toyed with. On the other side , though, rookie Jimmy Smith will line up against Jerome Simpson. The Chargers went after Smith with the lanky Malcolm Floyd and had success throwing in that direction. Simpson has a similar build and, as demonstrated last week, supreme leaping ability. Jerome had a pretty monster game in Baltimore earlier this season and could be the x-factor this week.
If the Bengals are fortunate enough to have a second-half lead, it's important they keep the foot on the gas pedal. In the last three weeks, one had a sense that the team relaxed and allowed their mentality to become conservative and cautious. The good teams continue to go at their opponent with the same intensity and tenacity throughout the whole game. Soft zone coverage with no discernible pass rush is not how champions play. Back-to-back standard runs of no originality is not the way to keep the lead. I recognize the importance of field position and time management. I know that a punt in the fourth quarter with the lead can be a productive play, but that doesn't mean a team should shut down and hope that time runs out.
Last time I wrote that I didn't think the Bengals would make the postseason based on youth and injury, but the cards—and the Cardinals—stacked up just right to make this thing real and possible. So now, if the Bengals can get a pass rush, remain aggressive on offense, and ride the wave of the moment, they will prove me wrong. It can happen. It should happen. It will happen.
Bengals 28, Ravens 17