As the midway-point of the 2014 NFL season approaches, teams are beginning to get a handle on who they are and where they stand as the year goes on. Teams like the Tennessee Titans are already looking to the outlook for next season, as they named rookie Zach Mettenberger their starter this week, while the 5-2 Baltimore Ravens come to Cincinnati keeping an eye on the developing playoff picture. They are looking to seed themselves as one of the top teams in the AFC, and could do so with a win against their reeling division rivals.
Though they have already beaten the Ravens once this year, the schedule gets a bit easier in the coming weeks, and there is still time to gain ground, this game could prove to be monumental for the Bengals. For one, it would be a big confidence-builder going forward after stumbling to an 0-2-1 stretch the past three weeks against quality opponents. The more obvious positive impact would be in the race for the AFC North crown.
If one has paid any attention to both Cincinnati and Baltimore over the past few weeks, it would be noted that not a lot of momentum is pointing in the Bengals' favor going into this match-up. Substantial injuries have occurred, both nagging and severe, and the once-innovative offensive creations of Hue Jackson have become stale and predictable. The Cincinnati defense isn't immune to their share of blame either, as they are a mere shadow of their former selves.
Baltimore has been on a bit of a tear as of late, outscoring opponents 77-24 the past two weeks and winning five of their last six. Throw in a 20-point win against the Steelers and a four touchdown win over the Panthers and they are playing better than some expected. The Ravens are vulnerable though, and there are aspects of the game that the Bengals will need to take advantage of for them to come out victorious once again.
Contributions From A.J. Green:
As this week rolled on, it appeared that Cincinnati's Pro Bowl wideout would be a scratch once again because of the toe issue that has been plaguing him for most of the first part of the season. On Friday, Green was deemed "doubtful" to play and was likely to be a game-time decision, but on Saturday, the team sneakily upgraded him to "questionable". Interesting, right?
I'm not the type of guy that likes to say that a team will only win with a particular guy in the lineup, but it rings true this week with Green. Even if it's on a limited basis, having a weapon like Green on the field opens everything up--last week's game against the Colts showed everybody that. In games where Green has played/appeared in, the Bengals are 3-1. Green has faced the stout Ravens defense six times in his career, collecting two 100-yard receiving games and three touchdowns. Two of those three touchdowns were huge ones, sending one into overtime last year and clinching the win in the 2014 opener.
Can the Bengals win even if Green isn't available? Sure. But, there is no doubt that his presence would make a big difference for an offense that was completely inept and shut out last week. Remember, Green himself was heard telling teammates after last week's loss that he's done sitting out and wants to play. Then again, Albert Breer of the NFL Network claims that the team is game planning as if they won't have him. We'll see.
A Huge Day For "Nuge":
In the opener, Mike Nugent had a monster day for the Bengals and was a big reason for them pulling out a win. He converted five of six tries and was a critical component on a day where the offense couldn't score touchdowns. The unit is having a bit of trouble with that again lately, so the team will need Nugent to be pinpoint accurate and make critical kicks--two things that have been issues this year.
Unfortunately for him, Nugent isn't kicking like his old self, going at a sub-65 percent clip through the first six games. Though he is remembered for missing the gimme-kick that would have turned that tie a couple of weeks ago into a win, he has made some big kicks this year--including one that sent that game into overtime. Though Marvin Lewis has had some success against his old employer as the Bengals' head coach, his offense has usually had to settle for field goals against the Ravens. If that happens to be the case again, "Nuge" better bring his A Game.
Forty Touches Combined For Giovani Bernard And Jeremy Hill:
Marvin Lewis has an odd track record with rookies. There are some he entrusts with big roles right away, such as Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Russell Bodine. However, for those instances, there are ones like Carlos Dunlap being inactive and benched as a rookie, and the under-utliization of this year's second-round back, Jeremy Hill. In short, the pattern, or lack thereof, has been puzzling.
For a guy who they loved and proclaimed to be their pounding, grinder back this year, Hill has had double-digit carries only once this season. When the Colts defense seemed to have everything keyed up on Giovani Bernard, one would have assumed that going right at the Indy defense with Hill would have been the right move. He had four carries last Sunday.
We addressed this issue on this week's Inside The Jungle podcast and my position was that this game needs to be a grinder--especially if Green can't go. It would be a most welcomed sight to see the Bengals play smash mouth AFC North football and run over the Ravens defense. Hill should get 16-18 carries and a couple of receiving opportunities, while Bernard should get about 12 carries and eight receiving opportunities. It's all about taking pressure off of Andy Dalton, who has had his share of struggles against the Ravens' defense in his career (seven touchdowns against 11 interceptions).
Live And Die By The Blitz:
Unlike almost every season since about 2010, the Bengals' defensive front four is not generating pressure without blitzing extra players this year. Carlos Dunlap has been the most consistent guy on the line with four sacks in six games, and Wallace Gilberry has had some nice moments as well. The rest? Blah. It feels like a broken record now, as we say it every week, but this would be a great game to get the old Geno Atkins back.
When the Bengals were on their 3-0 start, blitzing was the norm and it frustrated quarterbacks. Then inexplicably, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther decided to back off against two of the better quarterbacks in the league in Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. The defense has generated three sacks over the last three games, while having seven in the first three. Their total of 10 on the season ranks them at a very uncharacteristic No. 23 in the NFL.
Think back to the season finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium last year. The key to the Bengals' success that day was constant pressure on Joe Flacco. Dunlap was in his face most of the game, painfully forcing him to the turf and others caused big turnovers. A similar situation occurred in the opener and if they can do it again this Sunday, it should cause things to go their way.
The Brandon Thompson Effect:
Opinions vary on the impact and value of the bulky defensive tackle. Thompson has missed four games this season with a knee issue and is listed as probable on the injury report this week, so we should see him out there for the first time since Week 3. Many fans believe that his return will bring a huge presence in the team's run defense, again uncharacteristically ranked at No. 30 overall.
This writer remains skeptical, as Thompson's impact plays seem to be minimal. Still, with Atkins not looking like the old Pro Bowl guy (just seven tackles on the season and zero sacks), as well as Domata Peko getting blown off of the line with high frequency, anything could bring a boost. The Ravens are ranked surprisingly high in rushing offense at No.7 overall, so they will try to pound the ball even without Ray Rice in their arsenal.
Through the first few weeks there were noticeable issues with defending the run at times, but it's become a consistent weakness in this three-game skid. A younger, finally-healthy Thompson could help with these issues.