The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have gone in different directions in 2015, with the former experiencing the unfamiliar sting of poor performances, while the latter is in familiar postseason territory. The Ravens are playing for pride in the final week of the regular season, hoping to give the Bengals a harsh dose of reality as they head into the playoffs.
We're not sure exactly what Cincinnati's game plan will be this week, in terms of amount of time they will play their starters, but with a No. 2 seed still potentially available, it's likely we'll be seeing a lot of the usual suspects. That being the case, we have a number of player matchups we'll be keeping a close eye on at Paul Brown Stadium.
FS Kendrick Lewis versus WR Marvin Jones:
Jones has had a nice bounce-back year after missing all of last season with a couple of injuries, compiling 60 catches, 778 receiving yards (career-high), and four touchdowns. One of his best games of the 2015 season came in Week 3 against the Ravens, where he logged eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. The fourth-year wide receiver beat different coverages and defenders, with many highlight-reel catches.
Lewis was one of the victims and was caught a step behind because of his indecision on whether to break over to Jones or continue to go A.J. Green's way. Because of it, Green and Jones had field days against a usually-stiff Ravens defense. Lewis doesn't have an interception this year, but he was part of a unit that held Ben Roethlisberger to just 220 passing yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions; that doesn't bode well for Jones and backup quarterback AJ McCarron.
NT Brandon Williams versus C Russell Bodine:
In the first two games of the season, the embattled Bengals center held his own, as the team had a combined 302 rushing yards against the Raiders and Chargers. In the third week, Bodine hit a buzzsaw in Williams, who had eight total tackles, including two stuffed runs. It was a game prompting the Bodine-haters to come out and scoff at the team's decision to stick with him as the starting center.
Williams is a favorite of Pro Football Focus' metrics, even though his position doesn't regularly show up in stat columns. With the Bengals running game totally hitting the skids of late and 3-4 defenses giving the Bengals' offensive line issues at times, this will be a critical matchup to determine the outcome on Sunday.
QB Ryan Mallett versus LB Vontaze Burfict:
I'm nearly certain I haven't listed a quarterback in the previous 16 incarnations of this post in 2015, so it's time to break precedent. The reason why I haven't put quarterbacks in these posts is because the quarterback is an obvious player in a matchup situation that nearly everyone watches closely. But, with the Ravens starting their fourth quarterback this year and there being some indirect ties between Mallett and the Bengals, it makes his appearance at PBS much more intriguing.
Mallett played extremely well against the Steelers last week, finishing 28-of-41 for 274 passing yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Mallet was impeccable on third downs, which is an area the bend-but-don't-break Bengals defense has sometimes struggled with, so there is reason for concern in that facet. The fifth-year quarterback played against the Bengals in Houston last year and didn't fare so well with 189 passing yards, an interception and zero touchdowns.
Off the field, the Mallett/Bengals connection has a number of twists and turns. After Mike Brown allegedly wanted to take Mallett over Andy Dalton in the 2011 NFL Draft, Mallett was among the players the Bengals considered bringing in after Dalton fractured his thumb a few weeks ago. All of the soap operas aside, Burfict is the quarterback of the defense and will be watching Mallett's eyes on Sunday afternoon. Will the strong-armed quarterback continue to find redemption in another big game against an AFC North opponent? Or will Burfict get his unit in position to make Week 17 miserable for Mallett?
ILB Daryl Smith versus HB/OT Jake Fisher:
C.J. Mosley is better-known as the big-play linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, but it's Smith who has been the pillar of consistency. In his 12th season, Smith is leading the Ravens in tackles with 118, but also has three sacks, three passes defensed and an interception. It hasn't been the same type of season for the usually-formidable Ravens defense, but Smith has continued to be a big ingredient in the glue holding the rest of the unit together after injuries.
This year, Ryan Hewitt has been a solid contributor for the Bengals' offense as a lead blocker and lower-option passing outlet, but a lack of use had some fans displeased. Many believes his lack of use was a major reason for the inconsistencies in the team's rushing attack--particularly with Jeremy Hill. On New Year's Eve, the Bengals made the decision to move their athletic rookie tackle, Jake Fisher, to H-Back after Hewitt suffered a knee injury against the Denver Broncos, which will keep him out for an undetermined length of time.
Hue Jackson appears to be obsessed with targeting Fisher in the passing game this year, as evidenced by the handful of pass attempts that have gone his direction, despite only one catch early in the season. He'll get even more of a chance, playing in front of his running backs. Theoretically, it should help the running game. Then again, so many other tweaks Cincinnati has made to aid the running game were supposed to be effective, but weren't.
LT Kelechi Osemele versus DE Michael Johnson:
Osemele has been pushed to the outside because of a season-ending injury to Eugene Monroe. Osemele has been a solid offensive guard in his four pro seasons, but when guards kick outside to tackle, it doesn't always work out as well as the tackle-to-guard conversion. The task he has on Sunday against the Bengals' defensive line should be difficult for a few reasons.
Though Johnson has just five sacks in 2015, he knows how to pressure, bat down passes and aid against the run. Aside from Johnson's talent and skill set, Mallett is very immobile in the pocket, so if coverage holds up and/or the Bengals get push in the middle of the line, Mallett could go right into the waiting arms of No. 90. Pressuring Joe Flacco has been a key to some of the Bengals' recent wins, and pressuring Mallett could help generate good field position with sacks, but also could have Mallett force throws when pressure is coming.