This Thanksgiving marks a major turning point for the Bengals’ franchise for the foreseeable future. At 3-6-1, Cincinnati needs to grab a win against the Ravens to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Even with the Steelers’ win against the Colts on Thursday night, the AFC North is still within reach.
It’s going to take a combination of guts, luck and creativity for the Bengals to climb back into the division race this Sunday, but it’s definitely doable. Here are the five biggest keys for the Bengals to come out victorious in Baltimore.
Run the ball without Giovani Bernard:
Jeremy Hill is in the middle of a quietly solid bounce-back campaign this year, where he hasn’t fumbled the ball at all, while sniffing a five-yard per carry average. Unfortunately, the two-headed rushing attack that had such a high output in Weeks 7 and 8, has been whittled down to Hill, Rex Burkhead and the recently-activated Cedric Peerman.
Hill hasn’t been overly effective in the previous four games against the Ravens, which doesn’t bode well for this Sunday. In those contests, he has amassed 42 carries for 188 yards and a touchdown. Most of the production came against an injury-ridden Baltimore team in Week 17 last year, so he’ll need to be able to be counted on without Bernard and A.J. Green on offense.
But, as we all know, it isn’t just on the back when it comes to running the football. The embattled Bengals offensive line will need to open up lanes for Hill and Burkhead, who look to take the bulk of the carries going forward.
Ken Zampese concocting a plan conducive for passing success:
Injuries, new personnel and a rookie offensive coordinator experiencing growing pains has led to massive inconsistency from Zampese’s crew. As mentioned before, the injuries to two star skill players massively complicate things for the group.
The Ravens boast the second-ranked overall defense, while also being first against the run and seventh against the pass. With the Bengals still experiencing major pass protection issues, not only will the run game need to be potent, but Zampese will need to give Andy Dalton the best chance to succeed against a stout Ravens defense with a struggling line.
Last week, Bengals receivers and tight ends had trouble getting open deep downfield with Green out of the lineup. It’s possible that the most effective plan of action is to use a Vikings/Sam Bradford-like offense with short and intermediate routes to get the ball out quickly. Multiple tight end sets might also be useful, though C.J. Uzomah, another useful pass-catcher, hasn’t practiced yet this week after sitting out against the Bills.
This is especially important, as Green has largely dominated the Ravens in the Bengals’ recent 5-1 stretch against Baltimore. Whatever the case, Zampese will need to adjust things to get the Bengals their fourth win of the year.
Stop Steve Smith Sr.:
Many love the way Smith plays the game and has made a Hall of Fame career for himself with his slight stature and third round draft designation. Personally speaking, I don’t need to see a grizzled veteran gloat and spin the ball after every 7-yard catch that didn’t even move the sticks.
One of the guys charged with covering him, Dre Kirkpatrick, only practiced in a limited basis on Thursday and safety Shawn Williams hasn’t practiced yet this week. In Week 3 of last year, Smith called the Bengals’ secondary “trash”, but he has backed up the major smack talk.
In the past three games he’s been eligible against Cincinnati as a Raven, Smith has racked up 23 catches for 339 yards and three scores. Aside from charging up a home crowd with big plays, the Bengals just need to stop one of Baltimore’s biggest passing weapons while their secondary is on the mend.
Bounce-back day from Mike Nugent:
The veteran kicker had another rough outing at home last week with two critical missed extra points, but true to the Bengals’ form, they gave him yet another vote of confidence this week. Of those past six aforementioned wacky contests between Cincinnati and Baltimore, points usually come at a premium—particularly in crunch time.
Kicking is almost as much mental as it is physical. It’s very possible that with the injuries on offense, drives will stall out, causing Nugent to attempt long field goals. Between those and the longer extra points, the veteran needs to get past a rough couple of outings in recent weeks to aid the team.
Harass Joe Flacco:
Sometimes the most obvious plan of attack is the best. When Cincinnati’s defensive line hit and sacked Flacco in recent contests, it largely came with positive results. While Flacco has similar size to fellow AFC North quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he isn’t anywhere near as able to escape pressure in the frustrating way Big Ben can.
Still, if Flacco is given time, his immense arm strength can cause damage—especially with the roster being much healthier than it was last year. Cincinnati’s defensive had a good day rushing Tyrod Taylor last week, but it’s been the most inconsistent campaign from the group since 2014.
The Ravens will likely want to exploit the spotty play in the Bengals’ secondary, as well as the injuries, to the tune of long passes. Getting to Flacco on those plays will totally change the game.