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Behind Enemy Lines: Week 1 - Baltimore Ravens

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Real football is about to start and we here at Cincy Jungle start the season by talking with Matthew Stevens of SB Nation's Baltimore Beatdown before the Week 1 division showdown between the Bengals and Ravens.

Gregory Shamus

Q: After an impressive run through the 2012 playoffs, Joe Flacco signed a big contract before the 2013 season. After a disappointing 2013 campaign, has the confidence of Ravens fans (or management) wavered in regards to Flacco?

A: As you know, there will always be Flacco haters in a group. It is true that Flacco had a seriously disappointing 2013 campaign but if you look at the circumstances surrounding that, you get a much clearer picture of the team at that time and what Flacco had to work with.

A failing offensive line that was battling injuries at every single spot with the addition of a newcomer at left tackle and a second year player at center that is undersized and physically outmatched on the field. That led to a poor running game, taking away Flacco's largest asset; the play action pass. With no running game, the offense immediately became one dimensional.

Now combine that with Flacco's favorite target, Anquan Boldin, wearing red and gold with the 49ers and his other favorite target, Dennis Pitta, as the new spokesperson for Life Alert and you have a passing attack that can only go vertically with Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith. That vertical attack is hit and miss at best and in 2013, it was a gigantic miss.

I don't like to use injuries as an excuse, but the 2013 Ravens were hit nearly as bad as any team in the league and it showed.

Q: One of the Ravens big offseason moves was the signing of Steve Smith. How has he looked so far and how does he fit into the Ravens offense?

A: The Ravens felt the loss of Anquan Boldin and have even come out to say that publicly. So they needed to add a veteran receiver to pick up tough third downs through savvy route running and an attacking attitude with catching the ball. So they went out and grabbed Steve Smith, known for exactly those traits. Smith is older and was showing signs of the slippery hill for veteran receivers when he was with the Panthers.

The positive note from the start is that no one on the Ravens is expecting Smith to come in and be a No. 1 receiver or even a No. 2 receiver. Smith was always been looked at to compete for the third receiver spot, spend time in the slot and allow the offense to have a wider variety of looks.

The surprise is that Smith might have lost a step from his prime, but he still is plenty fast and his ability to snatch the ball from the air is exactly as advertised. The biggest addition from Smith so far has just been his attitude. That chip on the shoulder outlook he has is spreading to the rest of the offense and is bringing a similar swagger that I remember seeing from the 2000 Ravens' Defense. Apples and oranges of course, but that attitude and that desire to punch every team in the mouth is seriously getting fans and coaches excited with what the Ravens can do.

Q: Speaking of the offseason, how has the Ray Rice situation affected the team on the field and in the locker room? And, how does it affect the offense during his two game absence?

A: Ray Rice is a tricky situation. Leaving aside his legal woes outside of football, he has been a major headline all offseason and it would be foolish to think that he isn't some type of distraction. The thing with the Ravens is that they rally around that as a family and move forward. Terrible situation, but I don't think it ultimately negatively affects morale unless the first two games go absolutely awful and the blame starts to creep up.

As far as his absence, I think the Ravens have done a decent job in filling that hole. Rice was never a shoulder down, bowl you over type of back and the Ravens were looking to use a one-two punch with Rice and Pierce for the season well before Rice's transgressions. By adding in Justin Forsett and snagging rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, the Ravens have certainly patched up the need for two games and possibly even the need in the future with the rookie looking very strong in camp.

You can never completely replace a Pro Bowl player's production on the field, but the Ravens have done well to minimize the harm for the rather short suspension Rice has gotten.

Q: Speaking of Ray Rice, in 2013 his numbers were the lowest of his career. Is he declining or is there a reason for the sudden drop?

A: Just like for the first question, I look at the injuries both on the offensive line and with Rice himself as a good indicator that it might not be Rice slipping as much as it is a fluke of sorts. The lack of an intermediate passing attack last season certainly allowed teams to stack the box if necessary while the lack of anyone blocking capably allowed teams to get penetration with the defensive line.

It should also be noted that Rice came into the 2013 season heavier. Whether that was to try and take his carries back from Bernard Pierce or if it was to protect himself from injury, it ultimately had the complete opposite effect with Rice being dinged all season long and Pierce getting more playing time than ever. Rice has come in much lighter and far more agile through training camp and I expect that he returns somewhat to form.

Q: What are the strengths and areas of concern for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens?

A: The receiving options at this point are one of the greatest strengths for the 2014 Ravens. This is by far the most talented group I have seen since the Ravens showed up in 1996 and by far the most depth I've seen from this team ever. There is the potential to truly take that next step in the passing game in every way.

The question, as with all teams, ends up being injuries. The Ravens have put their eggs in the receiver basket when it comes to depth, keeping 7 wide receivers on the team. That has left the secondary with some major question marks and some exclamation points with Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb both missing extensive time during the preseason. The lack of depth behind the starting two corners could also present a problem for the Ravens if any injuries happen.

Q: How have the Ravens first team guys looked in the preseason?

A: Generally, the first team has looked streaky. Absolutely manhandling San Francisco on the first game to being a little muddy and not nearly as hot the following games. The passing attack is still trying to fully gel around each other, but should improve as the season wears on.

The running game has looked good for the most part, being explosive and churning out yardage, leading the NFL in rushing yards for the preseason. The Ravens have also shown some positive quirks with the new offense, including guys like Kyle Juszczyk to the mix and a variety of routes to match the improved Zone Blocking Scheme offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has installed.

On defense, the Ravens have looked fast while not getting off to the fastest start. A lot of that can be attributed to rookies and young players littering the defensive side of the ball. That inexperience and the jitters that go with it have allowed teams to get in a rhythm against the Ravens at times.

The defense has made big plays and has done well to keep teams from the endzone for the most part, but will ultimately have to do more to pressure quarterbacks and to hold the line of scrimmage in order to truly be successful this season.

Q: On Sunday, the Ravens will win if...

A: The Ravens will win if they can pressure Andy Dalton into making bad decisions. The Bengals have a lot of offensive firepower they can unleash if they get into an early rhythm, so the Ravens need to stop the run first and get after Dalton on third-and-longs.

If the Ravens have to get into a shootout to win it, they finally have that ability, but it will require the offensive line to hold their own both in pass protection and for the running game. Missing Rice will not be pleasant, but the combination of Pierce, Forsett and Taliaferro should be able to change up things enough to allow Flacco to use misdirection and hit on some huge completions.

Q: On Sunday, the Ravens will lose if...

A: If the Bengals can take away the run game while establishing its own, this becomes a blowout. The key here on both sides of the ball will be the line of scrimmage. If the Bengals can control this, apply pressure and get penetration on defense while opening holes on offense, they can dictate the pace and keep the Ravens on their heels.

Q: Who is a player most Bengals fans won't know, but should know, or should look for on Sunday?

A: Pay attention to center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner. Those two are the only unproven guys on the offensive line and if they fail, the whole offensive line will fail with them.

For those of you not interested in missing the action, look for rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro when he sees any action. Currently listed as the third back on the depth chart, he should see a few carries during the first half of the game. If he shines during those like he has during the preseason, expect a heavier dose of him during the second half as he can be a Mack truck bursting from the offensive line once he gets his wheels going.

Q: Where do you see the Ravens finishing in the AFC North in 2014?

A: I can see the Ravens finishing anywhere from first through third in this division. Both the Bengals and the Steelers can make a case for being the better team either through pure talent in the Bengals' case or through experience in the Steelers' case. At the end of the day though, I look for the Ravens to narrowly finish first in the division with a record of 11-5.

Q: What is your prediction for Sunday's week 1 matchup?

A: Ravens - 23 / Bengals - 20