The stage that the NFL has built for the Bengal opener is made of fire. The schedule makers knew Cincinnati couldn’t beat a good team last year, and rather than easing them into the season, throwing them a few cupcakes before testing the playoff-caliber waters, they chose an intra-divisional matchup against the Super Bowl-contending Ravens, on Monday Night Football, in the snow. Okay, not really snow, but you get the idea. "Let’s just get this outta the way," the schedule wizards told each other, laughing as they penciled in Cincinnati at Baltimore.
The question remains if Cincinnati is finally ready to compete with the league’s elite. Many media outsiders have lauded the Bengals with praise for quietly building a contender of their own by retaining a crack-team of top-notch coaching and discovering and polishing the ruby-studded Andy Dalton at quarterback. These writers and pundits also consider Mike Zimmer’s defense to be fortified with proven talent, pointing to strong showings in 2009 and again in ’11. And while all these kind words are nice, if the Bengals are unable to step it up against other playoff teams, it’s all just talk.
This inferno is for real. The Ravens remain as solid as an old oak tree, meticulously crafted by the mind and cunning eyes of their venerable general manager, Ozzie Newsome. Some men in the NFL simply know what it takes to win and are given the freedom and resources to make it happen. Many things in Baltimore change from year to year, but as long as Newsome rests in his office, peering down onto a field that regularly produces playoff victories, the team’s success rolls along undeterred.
The Ravens have nothing left to prove. Their quarterback silenced critics last year for playing well enough to put his team into the Super Bowl. A dropped touchdown pass by Lee Evans kept that from happening, but Joe Flacco did his part. The age of their defensive stars is questioned every year, but since their production never falters, these questions are no longer worth asking. This team is lock-solid, built Tonka tough from the ground up. If the Bengals are to rock the divisional boat this early in 2012, they cannot enter this game with a boy’s mentality. There are fierce, grown men standing on that other sideline, dressed in the colors of a bruise and eager to cave in skulls. As a whole, they are well armored, but not completely impenetrable. Even the Death Star had a weak spot.
For all the historical hoopla that has traditionally surrounded the Ravens’ defense, it’s the offense that is now the more dominant side of the ball. Loaded with weapons, and armed with an aforementioned quality QB, coordinator Cam Cameron has molded this group into a versatile threat. If the Bengals are going to slow Flacco’s flock of flaming flamingos, they’re going to have to find a way to generate a pass rush and get to that mustache before he has time to react.
With Carlos Dunlap expected to sit out, Zimmer will have to get creative in order to disrupt the passing attack, and if the front four can’t turn up the heat on their own, blitzing linebackers may be the answer. Zim did quite a bit of this during the preseason—as far as preseasons go—so it shouldn’t come as an alien concept to his players if it’s the route he chooses. Manny Lawson was once hailed as a speedy edge-rusher coming out of college, and there was talk by the coaching staff this offseason that they had planned on using him more in this way, but does he still have the tools to do it well? Rey Maualuga has shown the ability to break through the line on middle-linebacker blitzes but his problem is over pursuit. All too often, QBs easily evade his attempt; often times improvising their way to a big play. Despite their setbacks, however, pressure needs to come for somewhere, lest the speed-demon wide receiver Torrey Smith get time to run behind the coverage and burn the Bengals for deep completions. The Bengals secondary is by no means the fastest—if not one of the slowest—and if Flacco and Smith have time, they will try and capitalize on the speed deficiency.
The problem with blitzing the Ravens, though, is that they have a multitude of short-yardage threats. Anquan Boldin is big and strong and has no reservations going across the middle. He prides himself on being a terrific possession receiver and is the perfect complement to a burner like Smith. The two-headed tight end dragon, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, are no longer young and untested, and Flacco has shown comfort in throwing to each of them. And then there is the mighty midget Ray Rice.
Rice is a five-foot dynamo whose body appears to consist of a single, well-defined muscle. On the ground you can keep him in a bottle for three and a half quarters, but all it takes is one play, one seam, and he can break the game wide open. The Bengals suffered mightily from Rice’s explosiveness in Week 17 last year, and gap discipline is paramount to keep it from happening again. As a runner, he is extremely difficult to prepare for, but the real problem is that he is also an excellent dump-off man in the passing game.
If the Bengals do decide to blitz, they run the risk of leaving these four targets open which could nickel-and-dime Cincinnati to death when it’s all over. If Torrey Smith were the only real threat on the team, they would be easy to defend, but with such a strong core of possession receivers, and a lack of perceivable pass rush by the Bengals d-line, they seem damn near impossible to game plan.
If there is a weak link in the Ravens offense, it’s the offensive line. While not a slouch unit by any means, there are some concerns. Pro-Bowler Ben Grubbs ditched Baltimore for New Orleans in the offseason, replacing him with the aged and familiar Bobbie Williams. I haven’t been on Big Bobbie’s bandwagon the last few years, feeling he had gotten by on his reputation more than his play. I feel he is a huge downgrade in the Ravens pass-protection and I would look to rush through his gap the most if I were Zimmer. Williams now finds himself on a line with two other ancient grizzly bears in Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie. Collectively the trio is 103 years old, and is as ugly as they come. I think it’s a fact that these men have lost a step and can potentially be worn down throughout a game.
So with a less-than-stellar line, a horse stable of intermediate targets and a speed blazer on the outside, the only way to attack this team is with heavy blitzing from the second and third tiers and to keep Flacco on his backo.
The Ravens defense is missing its standard stardom. Gone are Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski. The players replacing them are fine fill-ins but it feels as if a few of the sharper teeth this defense once possessed have been pulled right out of their sockets.
The problem for Cincinnati is that its offense hasn’t done much to improve that side’s firepower. It’s possible that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and his intelligent west-coast style scheme will further develop its young players in his second year and that his mastery of the offense will overcome the unit’s lack of playmakers and talent, but I’m still not sure it will be enough. We Bengal fans know the cast of characters, but outside of A.J. Green, Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham, we don’t really know what these guys bring to the table. Also, with a patched-together offensive line made up of rookies, backups and scrap-heap finds, how comfortable will Dalton be in the pocket when he drops back to pass? There are a few offensive players I really like, but the group as a whole leaves me feeling underwhelmed and I fear scoring enough points will be a year-long issue.
I am a proponent of short-yardage passes, mixed in with draws, reverses and shovel passes. I think the current core of skill players fit best in a ball-control, pass-heavy scheme that emphasizes yards-after-catch opportunities. I think the Bengals will hold the ball for as long as they can and keep the Ravens offense off of the field. I see them happy winning with field goals and with the time-of-possession battle. I know that Marvin Lewis hates turnovers and will play it safe in a close game nearly every time. In fact, that could be the best single word to fully capture the Bengals top priority on offense: safe.
With Bernard Scott already ruled out for Monday, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brian Leonard will see increased workloads, but I think the Bengals would like to run the ball less than what they used to do with Cedric Benson anyway, and both backs are good receivers. I see Dalton throwing for more than 35 attempts but coming away a modest yardage total.
The climb seems too steep on paper for the Bengals in this one. There are too many wrinkles to iron out, too many edges to sharpen. Unfortunately, getting better takes time and two and a half days just isn’t enough of it to get this ship afloat by Monday night.
Ravens 24, Bengals 13