It’s been over a month since the Bengals’ last win. Desperate for a victory, Cincinnati will now travel to face the Ravens — a team they’ve consistently been able to beat in the Andy Dalton era. They’ll do so, however, without two of their top offensive playmakers and even perhaps without one or two of their top three safeties. We spoke with Kyle Barber of Baltimore Beatdown for the low-down on the 2016 Ravens.
Connor Howe: The Ravens have one of the best defenses, if not the best defense, in the NFL. Tell us what exactly has changed between last season and this season which has helped Baltimore turn around?
Kyle Barber: A big reason for such a turnaround includes free agent Eric Weddle. The man has revitalized the secondary. Bengals fans know more than anybody the safety group Baltimore has fielded in previous years continually failed in the fourth quarter, leading to big scores. They gave up leads or allowed a backbreaking score, putting the Ravens from comeback possibilities. With Weddle the Ravens have become more refined in pass defense. Another big factor, the undrafted free agent Michael Pierce. The big man blew up in a preseason game and has continued to help smother rushing offenses alongside Brandon Williams. Finally, Zachary Orr completing his progression to starting linebacker. With C.J. Mosley in the middle the Ravens were good, but a young linebacker to shine with him and play actual coverage on tight ends helps create packages and coverage schemes Baltimore couldn't do a season ago.
CH: Ray Lewis recently called out Joe Flacco -- the quarterback who is responsible for the ring on Lewis' finger -- as a guy who essentially doesn't have the fire to lead Baltimore. How do Ravens fans feel after hearing this? Are there any conflicting emotions in regards to Lewis or Flacco?
KB: Some Ravens fans tried to sweep it under the rug while others took sides. It was such a strange thing some didn't know how to react. Fans were flat-out confused why it happened in the first place. As we all know now, Ray apologized 'man-to-man' over Twitter, essentially squashing the beef. Joe's teammates, namely Weddle, shouted during those questions the day after Lewis' remarks through interviews. You can hear Weddle and many others yelling, "I got your back Joe!" I would say there is conflicting emotions, but it's not for the same reason Lewis called Flacco out for. People aren't upset about Flacco's passion for the game. They want to see the win column add up. Fans are frustrated this franchise finally has a quarterback capable of good NFL play and it's not being used to its highest potential. Not because he gets mad or yells on the sideline pre-game.
CH: Give us one or two guys on either side of the ball who have wildly surpassed expectations.
KB: Michael Pierce: Survived the last round of cuts by recovering his own strip sack for a touchdown in the preseason, Pierce was a great depth player on the line. Weeks later he's eating up blockers in the #1 run defense in the league. Undoubtedly a great surprise for Baltimore
Mike Wallace: Expectations were low for Wallace coming to Baltimore this offseason. Most claimed he was past his prime or a one-trick pony with his speed he 'no longer possessed'. He has quited the noise with multiple touchdown catches this season, breaking off big catches whether they are deep balls or an in-stride slant route. Mike is playing exactly the role Baltimore needed him for. A great deep ball threat with great hands and a knack for YAC.
CH: As I'm sure we all know, the Bengals have had the Ravens' number in recent years. Even with the Bengals' 2016 struggles and recent injuries, this will still be a tough matchup for Baltimore. What do you think the Ravens need to do to come out with a victory on Sunday, and do you think it will happen?
KB: I'm much more confident now that A.J. Green won't be in the mix. I would like to give my best wishes to the man though, along with Giovani Bernard. It's a shame we won't be facing them, but no doubt is the game swung in favor of Baltimore after the shift. I believe this will be a low scoring affair. Baltimore cannot seem to find the end zone and this defense can now focus on attacking the quarterback without using triple coverage on #18. I see this game being 19-10 Ravens. Justin Tucker will kick them to victory and Dalton will struggle against this very tough defense.
The Ravens will need to get to the end zone, or at least come away with points. The problem of late is something killing the drive in scoring territory. Justin Tucker has the leg, but bad penalties keep the Ravens from getting him on the field. On the opposite side, smother the run. Without having to worry about Green, Baltimore can really lockdown on the run. Expect many seven or eight man boxes to keep the Bengals from comfortable down and distance.
CH: What's your final score prediction?
KB: As I mentioned before, I see the score 19-10. Four kicks from Tucker and a lone touchdown will thwart the Bengals. I don't see Cincy doing well against this defense, scoring only one touchdown against and squeaking in a field goal.
CH: And just for good measure, who are the three current Steelers who Ravens fans have the most bad blood with?
KB: Hines Ward, still. Enemy of the State, and it won't change anytime soon.
Big Ben - He's not liked by the community for dismantling Baltimore in years prior.
James Harrison - Do I need to explain? Really?
Le'Veon Bell - I think he's disliked due to his enormous praise from media, while in games against Baltimore he looks pedestrian. No doubt we've seen his talent, but it is something I see people complain about.