It's finally here. The leaves are starting to change color, colder temperatures will be making their way across much of the United States and millions will be huddled around their TV sets on Sunday. It's Week One of the 2014 NFL season and your beloved Cincinnati Bengals take the field for real this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
This series has been interesting in Baltimore's brief history as an NFL franchise. In their early existence, the Ravens usually took it to the Bengals as a Brian Billick/Ray Lewis-led team. As injuries, age and inconsistent quarterback play hit Baltimore in the mid-2000s, the Bengals began to get their feet back under them, the pendulum swung back toward Cincinnati. Ever since, it's been a lot of back-and-forth.
In the Andy Dalton era, the Bengals are just 2-4 against Baltimore, which is a stark contrast to the success that Dalton's predecessor had against them. Sloppy play, turnovers and an abandonment of the running game has led to many of those losses.
We take a look at the top-five keys to Bengals success against the Ravens on Sunday. As you'll see, there is a bit of a chain reaction-type of effect that lead to each one becoming a reality.
1.) Play Turnover-Less Football:
Unfortunately, Dalton has been the primary culprit of the poor play associated with the Bengals against the Ravens. He has thrown 11 interceptions in those games (one a pick-six) and it's been killer. Under former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Dalton was asked to throw the ball far too often and it resulted in big momentum swings for the Ravens.
The good news going into Sunday? Dalton didn't turn the ball over in the preseason and had outstanding quarterback rating numbers in the three games he played. The lowest number he registered was an 84.8 and had a perfect rating in his second game. There was controlled passing with a smattering of pretty deep balls, which look to be the calling card of the Hue Jackson offense. It's this type of play from the quarterback that will be needed this Sunday at M & T Bank Stadium.
There should be very limited concern for turnovers outside of Dalton for the Bengals. Throughout 17 games and 280 total touches in those contests, Giovani Bernard only had two fumbles. Rookie Jeremy Hill didn't fumble last year at LSU (no jinxes, please), so he should be reliable.
2.) Limit What Is Asked Of Dalton and Run The Ball Effectively:
Here is a stat for you: the Bengals asked Dalton to throw the ball an average of 38.2 times per game against the Ravens in six games against--and that's including a shortened effort at the end of 2012 when the Bengals ended up resting starters. Though he has looked better this preseason, asking Dalton to go into Baltimore and throw the ball 40 times isn't a smart game plan. They always play aggressively on defense and that stadium can get raucous.
The running game looks to be improved this year, thanks to Hill's 4.8 yards per carry in the preseason throughout the four games, and it also seems that he will be able to pop bigger plays between the tackles than in years past with the exciting rookie. We'll have to see if his preseason success will translate in the regular season.
There is a bit of concern with the running game though, as well. Bernard had 20 carries for 49 yards in three preseason games, mostly with and against starters. For those scoring at home, that's a 2.5 yards per carry average and that's not a stat you want to see out of your "speed back". Bernard's YPC averages will need to improve Sunday. That starts up front on the line.
3.) Get Out To A Fast Start:
It's a cliche that's used all too often, but that's because it's true. Too many times in those six contests have the Bengals fallen behind and have had to play catch-up, leading the team to be forced to have Dalton throw the aforementioned amount of passes in these games. You can't do that against good teams in your own division, no matter how good of a team you think you have on your side of the field.
If the Bengals are able to get a two-possession lead against the Ravens early, it will take the crowd out of it and make life easier. It will also force Baltimore to sit at the other side of the table and be one-dimensional as the Bengals have been against their division foe. And, if last year's finale and Joe Flacco's 2013 lopsided touchdown/interception ratio were any indications, teeing off with the pass rush would be a good thing.
4.) The Emergence Of "The New Twin Towers":
With Michael Johnson gone via free agency, most thought that the Bengals' defense would suffer from a pass-rush standpoint. Though it's a loss, the team is putting together their usual brand of "pass-rush by committee" and it has worked in the preseason, for the most part. The other part of the equation lies with Carlos Dunlap and Johnson's replacement, Margus Hunt.
As a rookie, Hunt more or less had a redshirt year. He saw some regular season action, but didn't show up much on the stat sheet. In an increased role starting in the preseason this year, he's already making a mark. In limited action in four games, Hunt had four sacks. Three were against the Colts in the finale, but he had additional pressures and a couple of near-sacks.
He, along with Dunlap, will need to be big factors on Sunday. In the regular season finale last year, Dunlap routinely harassed Flacco and it showed in his play. He and Hunt will need to use their size to bat down passes and continue to get to the quarterback. It's a simple idea, but an effective one.
5.) Put Marvin Lewis' Past Opening Day Woes In The Rearview:
Four and seven. That is the win-loss record of Marvin Lewis on Week One as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Aside from the winning percentage being poor, it's the way that the team has lost in those weekends that is downright unbelievable. The 2009 tip to Brandon Stokely giving the Broncos a last-second win. The blowout loss to start Lewis' head coaching career off in 2003 and the other on primetime TV against these Ravens just two seasons ago. We've seen everything.
This is a tough game that most pundits don't expect the Bengals to win. Maybe some of that has to do with Lewis' opening day history. I wouldn't doubt it. The players and coaches will need to do something different going into Sunday. Different routines, practice drills, whatever it takes. Don't think about it, don't press and just let the high natural abilities of this roster take over.