October 22, 2014

Preview: Bengals @ Ravens

When I think of Bengals v. Ravens, I think of hard-hitting, run-pounding, trash-talking, bone-jarring games that typify the AFC North. There is no love lost between these two teams, and that’s just the way we like it.

But for all of the success that the Ravens have enjoyed over the past decade or so, the Bengals have been a true nemesis to them under Marvin Lewis. They are 6-10 against the Bengals since Lewis took the helm in 2003. No wonder I look forward to watching the Bengals play the Ravens!

These games are all about defense, with neither team having scored more than 17 points in each of the last 5 meetings. It would not be at all surprising if that were the case again this week.

So, what do we make of the Ravens this year? They certainly began the year with all of the mojo. They have had some impressive victories this year, beating down Pittsburgh 35-7 in week 1, doubling up a mediocre Jets team 34-17, and beating Houston 29-14 in week 6. These wins made them top contenders for winning the AFC for many pundits. The only blemish in that period was a loss at Tennessee.

But since the win over Houston, things have looked shakier in Baltimore. The offense has dropped off significantly, scoring 148 points in their first 5 games but only 77 in the last 4. They have suffered a couple of terrible losses, including a 12-7 loss in Jacksonville and last week’s 22-17 loss in Seattle (both of whom are only 3-6). And don’t forget that they were losing to Arizona 24-3 before rallying in the 2nd half to win that game.

When the Ravens have the ball…

While the Steelers are transforming themselves into of a pass-first team, the Ravens also are now favoring the pass but have done a better job keeping their offense balanced. Maybe it is because they have a better running back. But the offensive styles of both division teams have changed substantially over the past 5 years.

QB Joe Flacco v. Mike Zimmer. Joe has been having quite a year. He has thrown for 300+ yds four times this year already — including against a good Houston secondary — and is on pace for nearly 3700 yds for the season. But while his passing yds are high, his completion percentage is a meager 54.8%. That would seem to be a big reason why FO ranks Flacco at #20 among QBs, 3 spots below Andy Dalton.

The key number with Flacco looks to be 56. When Flacco is held under 56% completions, the only win that the Ravens have logged was against the Jets (who struggle weekly to score). Enough pressure from the D-line and enough coverage from the secondary to hold Flacco under 56% will give the Bengals a good shot at winning this game.

Offensive Line:

The Ravens always make me think of three things: walls in the trenches, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. But this year, the Ravens’ offensive line is not what I expect to see. They have allowed 50 hits on Flacco and 20 sacks, putting them at #14 in the NFL in keeping their QB clean… not awful, but not great either.

LT Bryant McKinnie v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. McKinnie, now in his 10th season, is a seasoned vet who has played against some tough rushers in his years with the Vikings. But he moved to Baltimore this year, which has come with some bumps along the way. If those bumps have come from scheme and familiarity, he should continue to benefit from having Grubbs next to him now. But if those bumps are in part coming with age, this Bengals duo will take every trick he knows to slow down. I’m calling for a sack of Flacco from one of these two.

RT Michael Oher v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap.  We all saw The Blind Side, and you have to like the guy as a person. But for all of the angst from fans over whether the Bengals should have drafted Oher or Andre Smith, neither has been as good as was hoped. Oher started out better but leveled off quickly, while Smith has come on nicely this year. Half of the Ravens’ rushes for loss have come on Oher’s side. When they do run, the Ravens should shy away from running right.

Running Game:

There is a little trouble at M&T. After being called on for only 5 (that’s right, FIVE) carries in Seattle, Ray Rice declined to talk to the media. He ain’t happy with the balance of plays. I hope he sulks all week.

Adding Ricky Williams to their backfield was one of the big splashes that the Ravens made in free agency, but he has been little more effective than Bernard Scott as a change of pace from Ray Rice. It looks odd and is completely counter-intuitive to see the Ravens’ running game ranked so poorly by FO.

RBs Ray Rice and Ricky Williams v. LB Rey Maualuga. Rice can be an explosive and exciting runner, and he is the person that concerns me most on this offense. But his rushing numbers are barely better than Cedric Benson’s. He is only logging 62.1 yds/game, with only two 100+ yd games. He has been held to a long of 12 yds or less six times this year.

Where Rice concerns me is as a receiver. He has 46 recs, 3 more than leading receiver Anquan Boldin. At 10.2 yds/rec, he is a chain-mover out of the backfield. If the defense loses him coming out of the backfield, it will be a frustrating game.

Passing Game:

The Ravens do a good job of spreading the ball around. No one seems to end up with eye-popping stats at the end of the game, but they all add up to a good day most games. In addition to Ray Rice, Flacco targets WRs Boldin and Smith plus TEs Dickson and Pitta frequently. Five targets are tough to defend.

WRs Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith v. CBs Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings/Adam Jones. The Bengals need to study what the Seahawks did to limit these two to 50 yds receiving combined with their meager secondary. Clements and Boldin know each other well from their days in the NFC West, and with the solid year that Clements is having I trust him to limit his man. The pressure then falls to Jennings and Jones. Jennings will get PT this week because the coaches will not want to overdo it with Jones’ hamstring. We will find out this week if that trade with Seattle was worth what they paid.

TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta v. LB Thomas Howard. Man, am I glad that Todd Heap is gone. But these two together are roughly the equivalent of Heap in his best years. The WRs have 66 recs on the year, and these two TEs have 65. They like the middle of the field. The Bengals have done pretty well against TEs since they let Vernon Davis run all over them, holding Heath Miller to 31 yds last week and keeping guys like Jared Cook, Evan Moore and Ben Watson contained to under 50 yds each. A repeat is crucial to limiting Baltimore’s passing game.

When the Bengals have the ball…

The Bengals need to exploit the weaknesses exposed by the Seahawks last week in pulling off an upset win over the Ravens last week. If they can do it, the Bengals would be the first team to knock off the Ravens at home this year.

QB Andy Dalton v. Chuck Pagano. Even without his top receiver and a questionable effort by his #2 receiver last week, Andy kept the Bengals in the game late against the Steelers until a pair of untimely INTs let the game slip away. Andy does not have to be lights-out and throw for 300+ yds to beat the Ravens. In fact, I think 180 yds may be enough to get the win. He needs simply to continue to make good decisions like he has in previous wins. Protect the ball and set up his guys to make plays.

Offensive Line:

The Bengals have already faced the #1 defensive line in SF, and now they go up against the #2 crew in Baltimore. The Bengals have done a good job of keeping Dalton clean, allowing only 13 sacks in 9 games. Despite Baltimore averaging 3 sacks/game, I believe the line will not allow more than one, since they have only given up 2 sacks in the last four games, including blanking Freeney/Mathis as well as Pittsburgh.

LT Andrew Whitworth v. RDE Haloti Ngata. This will be a 15-round heavy-weight brawl. Ngata doesn’t make a lot of sacks, but he is well-known for disrupting plays. Whitworth continues to grind with little recognition nationally for the quality player he has become. The winner of this matchup will partly determine the potency of the Bengals’ offense.

Running Game:

The Ravens’ run defense is as stingy as ever, allowing 90.3 yds/game on the ground, ranking 3rd behind the 49ers and the Bengals! They allowed only their second 100+ yd game to Marshawn Lynch last week. Jay Gruden has to study how the Seahawks were able to get Lynch free. If the Seahawks can get that done, the Bengals have the capacity to run it as well. But will they? The running game has been less than explosive lately.

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Ray Lewis. Cedric has only popped two 100+ yd games this year, and none since the win over Buffalo in week 4. If he can get 20 touches for 80 yards, and if Scott can throw in another 30 yds, I like the Bengals’ chances.

Mike Prescott of The Baltimore Sun points out a weak spot that the Seahawks exploited last week: throwing underneath against the LBs, especially Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnson. Benson and Scott only have 14 catches this season between them. This week would be a great time to revisit that part of the play book.

Passing Game:

The Ravens rank #6 against the pass, but there is a little secret behind that stat. Don’t tell anybody, but the Ravens haven’t faced that many good passing teams. The Rams, the Jets, the Panthers, the Seahawks… these are not big passing teams. Half of their competition so far ranks in the bottom 8 in passing efficiency (FO).

WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. The availability of A.J. Green will be a huge difference-maker in this game. If he is a full go, I can see him getting 80+ yds and a TD, possibly even joining Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Kenny Britt as guys who got 100+ yds against the Ravens. (Larry Fitzgerald fell 2 yds short.)

But it is not imperative that A.J. have a huge day to get a win. Spreading around the ball (which Andy does) and some success with the running game is the recipe for the win.

With the success he had against Pittsburgh, look for Jay Gruden to work Andrew Hawkins into the mix more, especially if Green is limited or cannot go. He could turn some short passes over the middle into some nice plays, since that is where the Ravens are the most vulnerable.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Terrell Suggs. Again, with soft spots under the LBs on the left side, this is a game where Gresham can and needs to shine. Crossing patterns and slants for 5-7 yds will be the order for the day, and Dalton will need his hot read to be open and ready.

Special teams…

I would not be surprised at all to see special teams be the deciding factor in this game. The Ravens’ special teams — both coverage and return — have been weak this season. But the Bengals’ special teams has been above average in nearly every phase (except kick returns). That bodes well for the Bengals in both field position and potential takeaways.

P Sam Koch v. P Kevin Huber. Huber’s longest punt is 71 yds, 9 yds more than Koch’s. But his average is 2.1 yds lower than Koch’s, though, and he does not seem to be driving them quite as well as he did early in the season.

K Billy Cundiff v. K Mike Nugent. Cundiff has missed 6 kicks in 27 opportunities this year, so field goals are not exactly a lock. Making 78% isn’t a good way to keep a kicking job in the NFL. Nugent has missed only 1 of 18.

PR Lardarius Webb v. PR Brandon Tate. Webb has 14 returns for 105 yds, a 7.5 yd/ret average. Take away his long of 29 yds, and his average drops under 6 yd/ret. Tate has 33 returns and is averaging is 10.5 yds/ret, which offsets the slight advantage of Koch over Huber.

KR David Reed v. KR Brandon Tate. Reed is doing a nice job this season, averaging 4.3 yds/ret better than Tate. But the Bengals have been solid in containment and should hold him below that average. He also dropped two balls last week in Seattle. I would love to see the Bengals get in his head. If he is thinking about just catching the ball, it will slow down his returns.

Like last week, field position is the name of the game. The Bengals (#5) have allowed only 304.2 yds/game to opponents, while the Ravens (#3) have allowed only 284.7 yds/game. Both teams saw their opponents exceed those number last week, although that is less surprising with the Steelers than with the Seahawks. The defense closest to their average will win this game.

Both teams will struggle with running the ball, especially the Ravens. If Gruden can find some success by copying the Seahawks’ recipe from last week, I feel good about the Bengals’ chances to win.

On paper, the Bengals’ secondary is weaker, but I do not think it is as big of a difference as it may appear. The loss of Leon Hall hurts and could be the opening that Baltimore needs if Jennings struggles.

The Bengals need the defense and/or special teams to create a big opportunity in the game. Getting one early to jump out to a lead will get the Ravens to abandon the running game, but a late one in a close game (which these usually are) could be the difference too.

After negating their run game, the Bengals’ defense will hold the Ravens below their average production. The Bengals’ average production is lower, but they will get close to their average. That, combined with better average starting field position, gives the Bengals a win!

Final Score: Cincinnati 17. Baltimore 14.