Call it a must-win. Call it critical. If you're bold enough, label it just another Sunday. When the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, three things will happen: Someone will win, someone will lose, and the Bengals will be in first place. Grateful for the division collapsing with Baltimore and Pittsburgh holding hands while Thelma and Louise'ing off the cliff, Cincinnati held a commanding lead in the division by winning four straight.
Even before Geno Atkins' injury, the offensive line's collapse or receivers testing the prototype concrete gloves last Thursday, many had projected Cincinnati losing to Miami, largely due to the short turnover, playing on the road and the other injuries hitting the defense. Regardless, the Bengals can right the ship and move into the final stretch of the season to keep their hold on the division.
We take a look at four questions heading into Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.
How will Cincinnati replace Geno Atkins?
We already know that backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson will start for Atkins, maybe for the rest of the year. We can also confidently presume that Thompson won't replicate Atkins' production; he's just a different type of player. If everything goes as hoped, Thompson's participation won't mean a significant decrease in the team's rushing defense; though it's likely that there will be a decline.
How about passing downs? Pre-Atkins injury, the Bengals usually replaced Domata Peko with Wallace Gilberry as the inside rusher during obvious passing situations. We expect that plan to remain largely in-tact. The question really surrounds how Cincinnati will replace Atkins in passing situations. Will Margus Hunt play the inside rush? Is Thompson going to be a three-down linemen? Or will Cincinnati move Carlos Dunlap inside and James Harrison to defensive end?
Can the Bengals offensive line rebound?
It was one of their worst performances of the year last week; Andy Dalton was sacked five times and pressured on 18 other occasions. Kyle Cook (two sacks, allowed, three pressures), Andre Smith (sack and five pressures) and Kevin Zeitler (two sacks) were responsible for most of it, one of which led to a game-ending safety in overtime.
Since the Bengals are primarily a passing team (called passes at a 57.9 percent clip), Dalton has to be protected if this offense is going to resume the effectiveness that they had in the last three games of their now broken four-game winning streak.
Can they prevent a Ray Rice breakout?
Ravens running back Ray Rice is having his worst season in his career. His 2.7 yard/rush average this season is over a yard worse than his lowest career average (4.0 in 2010).
However, Rice has always played well against the Bengals defense. Excluding the regular season finale last year (where most starters sat after a handful of plays), Rice has generated 527 yards rushing and seven touchdowns dating to the 2010 season (five games).
He might be struggling this year, but historically to Cincinnati, he's always a threat.
Will Jermaine Gresham and Giovani Bernard play?
Bernard appears likely, which is good news considering that Cincinnati's rushing offense is more of a grind with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Head coach Marvin Lewis is optimistic about Gresham, who needed a little rest with a groin injury this week. Gresham is a game-day decision and if he can't go, figure that the team will apply more three-wide sets using Tyler Eifert as the primary tight end.