In 2010, the Bengals began the year with much hoopla. They swept the division the year before, signed Terrell Owens and looked primed for success. Their style of offense consisted of deep routes, seven-step drops and gobs of Cedric Benson. Carson Palmer was coming off of a nice season and finally looked ready to elevate his game back to an elite level, especially with all those weapons around him. They were anointed as a contender right from the gate and the city was excited.
The 2013 Ravens are feeling some similarities to that unfortunate Bengals season. Joe Flacco is another big-armed, less-mobile quarterback that needs good blocking to take deep drops. This season, though, the protection has looked bad and Flacco has been on his back too often for the passing game to get comfortable.
Their running game has been worse. Ray Rice is supposed to be the straw that stirs the purple drink, but instead he's been more of an umbrella. His 37 yards-per-game are embarrassing. If they can't run the ball better, they will become easier and easier to beat and until they eventually become the Steelers.
Now, for the purposes of jinx removal, it must be stated here that Ray Rice is very capable of becoming his old terrifying, bowling-ball self against the Stripes on Sunday. Too many of us have seen him run roughshod over the Bengals in crucial moments in the past. Lame season or not, we fear him.
This also is the sensible time to include the life-without-Geno element of the game. The entire city of Baltimore likely felt a bit lighter in their step once news reached them of the big man's damaged knee. "We've got them now," they may have all said in unison as they rubbed their hands and curled their eyebrows. Ray Rice himself had to have paused and thought hard about it. All he needs is one big game to get back to the way it is supposed to be. Without Geno Atkins....
There are others to stop you.
Vontaze Burfict is this team's new commander and certified wild man. He wants to tackle Ray Rice, on every play if he can. He loves the contact of football, loves being physical as hell for three hours. He is a man who relishes his reptilian brain-the area responsible for routine and violent impulses in all of us. He's actually allowed to hurt people doing what he does, which might occasionally surprise him when he stops and thinks about it. I'm not saying Burfict is trying to injure other players; I'm saying he's trying to hurt them and that it's okay.
I know Atkins helped him collect all those tackles by occupying blockers that would otherwise find their way to him, but I might go as far to say that the Bengals defense needs Burfict more than Atkins. This team is not remiss of pass-rushers; not even remiss of decent depth at the tackle spot. Linebacker, however, is already thin and Burfict's presence is like having two linebackers. Not only has he proven to be a leader with his zooming all over the place on every play and mixing it up with the other team, but he also appears extremely confident lining up the defense and relaying plays the plays that transmit into his helmet. I think he is becoming a potentially all-pro player and seems ready to go supernova.
Carlos Dunlap is another player capable of elevating his status with the absence of Geno. Dunlap has been a tremendous draft-pick and is well worth his fresh big contract. His improvement against the run truly makes him an upper-tier end and the effect he has on games is consistently palpable. If he continues to show up large on game days without the pressure in the middle that Atkins provided, his rep will grow bigger, our hearts will grow fonder, and the Zim Clan will carry on hammering.
Hitting Flacco remains the key to the game. The weaponry around him is minimal and without experience or general success. Torrey Smith is fast and potentially dangerous against the aged Bengals secondary, but if Flacco has no time, Smith can't go deep as easily. One would suspect that Margus Hunt's snap count will increase and I hope to see him make some plays. It will also be interesting to see if and how James Harrison's role will adjust in the second half of the season. Hunt, Harrison and Wallace Gilberry form a scary trio of "extra" pass-rushers. Reggie Nelson, and even Chris Crocker, are used very well by Mike Zimmer on blitzes as well. This team knows how to get to the quarterback and it is essential they play a big part in tomorrow's game.
In the first half of the season, the Benglals offense proved committed to the pass. They showed some shootout ability which can be crucial down the stretch and highlighted a wide variety of targets. Jay Gruden was successful in maximizing the participation of all the players he had to work with and deserves as lot of credit as a result. He made Andy Dalton a statistical top-10 passer and may have unveiled a superstar in Giovani Bernard. His scheme is relatively flexible and his players seem to have a good grip on their roles.
History says that in the second half of the season, teams run the ball more. When it gets cold, you run. Last year, about this time, the Bengals rolled through November thanks to BenJarvus Green-Ellis shedding the reputation that he couldn't run for big gains. The line then looked dominant in the run game and the offense as a whole hummed along without much problem.
Andy Dalton currently throws the ball 36 times a game and is sixth in the league in attempts. Point production rests squarely on his shoulders now more than ever. Perhaps it's my old-school nature, but I think the Bengals need a big, powerful rushing day to prove that they can win that way and force defenses to worry about it. The Ravens are good against the run-better than Cincinnati. Haloti Ngata takes care of running backs the way a wood-chipper takes care of wood. If somehow the Bengals can find a successful ground game in Baltimore, a statement would be made. Chances are though, Dalton will need to get touchdowns through the air and score over 20 points.
Jermaine Gresham's ability to play is in doubt. If he isn't able to go, look to see if the Bengals continue to go with two tight-end sets with Tyler Eifert and Orson Charles or Alex Smith, or go with one tight end and get more slot receivers on the field. Andrew Hawkins is ready to contribute more to the offense and Mohamed Sanu and Dane Sanzenbacher offer unique slot-receiver abilities. Shaking things up with different formations and increased roles with more complimentary players may be good for this team. I know Gresham does a lot of good for the Bengals, but it's impossible not to get frustrated with the abundance of penalties and drops that stem from his lack of focus. If Tyler Eifert catches more balls when Gresham is sidelined, life may turn out to be even better.
This game is a major challenge. The Ravens are grumpy and surly from so much recent losing and are desperate for a win. Often times, desperation can be scary, but I see shadows of that 2010 Bengals team with this Ravens flock, and remember that awful losing streak that shook Carson Palmer out of town and ruined the remaining credibility of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. The Baltimore offensive line will continue to be a mystery and a letdown, Flacco will be sacked often again, and they will lose the turnover battle, the game and the division in one fell swoop.
Bengals 27, Ravens 23
Mojokong-And so blew in the northern winds.