I like the way the NFL has the AFC North playing division games in Week 1 and after Sunday, there will be two teams in the North at 1-0 and two at 0-1. The Ravens will likely be competing with the Bengals for the division crown most of the year, so a win over the Ravens, on the road, would be a huge start to the season and give the Bengals an early leg up on one of their division rivals.
So, here is what to look for in Baltimore...
When the Ravens Run the Ball:
Ravens Running Attack (2013) : 30th - 83.0 YPG
Bengals Run Defense (2013): 5th - 96.5 YPG
Not a whole lot. The Ravens were 30th in the NFL in 2013 in terms of YPG and dead last with a 3.1 YPC. The Bengals on the other hand had the 5th ranked run defense in 2013 - despite missing Geno Atkins for most of the year. To make matters worse, the Ravens will be without their top back, Ray Rice. Bernard Pierce is a viable fill in, but lacks the dynamic playmaking ability of Rice and is returning from a preseason concussion. In 2013, Geno Atkins missed both matchups with the Ravens and the Ravens totaled just 196 yards rushing. Expect the Bengals to limit Bernard Pierce and force Flacco to beat them with his arm.
When the Ravens Throw the Ball:
Ravens Passing Attack (2013): 18th - 224.4 ypg
Bengals Pass Defense (2013): 5th - 209.0 YPG
In their two 2013 matchups, despite the Bengals missing Leon Hall and Geno Atkins, Flacco was just 50/86 (58.1%) for 332 yards, 3 TDs, 5 INTs, was sacked 7 times, had a combined passer rating around 55.0 and a combined QBR around 32. In Flacco's defense, his line was poor in 2013 and he definitely felt the loss of Boldin and the injury to Pitta.
Those two were his safety blankets and most reliable targets. The addition of Steve Smith, and Pitta being healthy, should be a welcomed sight for Flacco. On Sunday, look for the Bengals to double cover Torrey Smith and single cover Steve Smith with Hall and Pitta/Daniels with Mays or Emmanuel. The Bengals believe they can win those single coverage matchups, freeing up Iloka or Nelson to play center field or come down in the box on running plays.
The 2014 Ravens certainly have better weapons in the passing game, but I still believe the Bengals have the secondary to cover them and the line to pressure Flacco in to mistakes.
When the Bengals Run the Ball:
Bengals Running Attack (2013): 18th - 109.7 YPG
Ravens Run Defense (2013): 11th - 105.4 YPG
With what should be an improved Bengals running attack under Hue Jackson and a one-two punch of Bernard and Hill, this should be a pretty even matchup. The Ravens have one of the better front sevens in the NFL and will be a load for rookie center Russell Bodine. Bodine will likely be the key to this matchup.
If he can hold his own against the Ravens mammoth Pro Bowl NT, Ngata, the Bengals will likely have success on the ground. If not, they will be relying on Dalton's arm to win the game. Regardless, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bengals use some bubble screens and short throws to Bernard and Sanzenbacher/Sanu as a supplement to the running game.
Because of my concern with Bodine making his first NFL start in Baltimore against Ngata, I have to give the Ravens the slight edge here.
When the Bengals Throw the Ball:
Bengals Passing Attack (2013): 8th - 258.5 YPG
Ravens Pass Defense (2013): 12th - 230.1 YPG
This is the one area where I think one of the teams has a big advantage. Luckily, that advantage goes to the Bengals. The Bengals have the receivers, tight ends and running backs to take advantage of the Ravens pass defense...so long as the line can keep Dalton clean.
With word coming out late Saturday that Ladarius Webb will be out, the Bengals receivers and tight ends should be able to take advantage of an overmatched Baltimore secondary. I look for the Bengals to use a lot of 2 tight end sets as a way to neutralize the Ravens pass rush and create mismatches in the passing game with Gresham and Eifert.
Kickoff Returns (2013): Ravens -2nd (26.4 avg); Bengals - 5th (25.1 avg)
Punt Returns (2013): Ravens - 3rd (14.2 avg); Bengals - 15th (9.0 avg)
Kickers (2013): Justin Tucker 38/41 (92.7%; t-1st) (6/7 from 50+; t-1st). At 18/22 (81.8%; 23rd)
Punters (2013): Ravens - Net 40.9 - 16th; Bengals - Net 41.0 15th; Punts inside the 20: Ravens t-13th (27); Bengals T-13th (27).
Kick Coverage (2013): Ravens - 17th (23.0 avg); Bengals 15th (23.4 avg)
Punt Coverage (2013): Ravens - 16th (9.1 avg); Bengals - 12th (9.4 avg)
Jacoby Jones is far better than Brandon Tate and gives the Ravens have a huge advantage over the Bengals in the return game. With the issues the Bengals had in the preseason covering kicks and punts, this is a big concern. If the game comes down to a FG kicking contest, huge advantage Ravens again. Justin Tucker is likely the best kick in the game right now, and though Nugent had some clutch kicks in 2013, he only had a 81.8% conversion rate, 23rd in the NFL.
John Harbaugh has 1 Super Bowl, 9 post season wins, and prior to 2013, had 1 post season win each of the previous 5 seasons. Marvin Lewis has 0 playoff wins and is unaware of what the Super Bowl is. Advantage Harbaugh and the Ravens. However, this is not as big of an advantage as one might think.
Harbaugh has his own issues. No team has been worse at losing to bad teams than the Ravens over his tenure, and, for all his success, Harbaugh has never found a consistent way to use Ray Rice. As a result, I believe this matchup is closer than you might think
Key to the Game:
I believe the key to this game will be turnovers and the Bengals offensive line's ability to keep Dalton upright. If Dalton is given time, I believe the Bengals can create a ton of mismatches in the passing game. However, if the Ravens can get in the backfield, Dalton gets jittery and will make mistakes.
Since Marvin Lewis joined the Bengals in 2003, the team that wins the turnover battle in this matchup is 15-1 (Bengals have won once when losing the turnover battle). Dalton is 2-4 against the Ravens with 6 TDs and 11 INTs. Against the rest of the league, Dalton is 28-14 with 74 TDs and 38 INTs.
A season opener seems more important than a lot of games, but it is overrated. Yes, it is nice to get the season off on the right foot, but the fact of the matter is that by the end of this weekend, half the teams will be 1-0 tied for first place and half will be 0-1 tied for last. The Ravens have a great front seven and are very tough at home, but the Bengals are more talented and after going 0-3 in his first three trips to Baltimore, I believe Dalton is due for a win.
Bengals 31, Ravens 20