The waiting is finally over! Tonight the Bengals begin their 2012 journey on Monday Night Football from the very unfriendly confines of M&T Stadium in Baltimore.
The Bengals couldn’t have (and probably wouldn’t have) asked for a more challenging way to open the season. Baltimore hasn’t lost a regular season home game since 2009, and the Ravens return a top 10 defense led by the ageless wonders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Plus, Baltimore will sport a rapidly improving offense that plans to utilize a no-huddle attack. Joe Flacco is eager to prove he is an upper echelon quarterback, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are capable receivers, and Ray Rice is perhaps one of the top 3 or 4 backs in the league.
As for the Bengals, they’ll enter the lion’s den with unanswered questions about their interior offensive line, the running game, and the complimentary receiving positions. While the argument can be readily made that they have improved in all of these areas over the 2011 squad, the frank truth is this has yet to be proven. What’s known is that starting center Jeff Faine is a post-camp signee learning a new offense, starting left guard Clint Boling has four starts to his name, and a rookie, Kevin Zeitler, will man the right guard. Brandon Tate, with all of 24 career receptions will start at WR, backed up by similarly untested vet Armon Binns and rookies in Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu.
All of which is to say this will be no easy task for the Bengals tonight.
On the bright side, Jay Gruden will be able to truly unveil his second offensive playbook after a vanilla preseason. We’ll finally get an elongated look at new starting tailback BJGE, and the Bengals do have a history of success through the air against the Ravens. Mike Zimmer’s defense will be eager to atone for some poor performances against Rice last year, and I think they will. The defensive line has been fairly effective at rattling Flacco in the past, and he’s been known to throw interceptions to our defensive backs.
With both the Browns and the Steelers losing yesterday, The Bengals could end week one with a one-game lead on the entire division with a victory, and put to bed some of the criticisms around their 0-4 performance versus the Steelers and Ravens and 0-7 mark against winning teams last season.
To make it happen, here are my five keys to victory tonight:
- Score First: The Bengals are usually happy to defer to the second half if they win the coin toss, and I generally agree with this strategy. However tonight they need to make every effort possible to score first. Getting on the board early, even if it’s only a Mike Nugent field goal, will go a long way towards quieting what’s sure to be a raucous crowd and giving our guys a chance to settle into the football game. If the Bengals fall behind by 2 scores early, the ability for the new offensive line to hear calls and pick-up blitzes will be seriously curtailed, and it could get ugly fast.
- Play Disciplined Defense: A big play, whether it be a long run by Rice or an over-their-heads touchdown to Smith or Boldin cannot happen. The Bengals need to apply the “live to fight another play” mentaility on defense. Gap responsibility, playing disciplined zones, and staying in rush lanes will be vital. If the Ravens choose to go no-huddle, the Bengals need to make them earn their drives. From watching many years of our own “sugar huddle” attack, I know that disciplined defense can kill a hurry-up offense. Three-and-outs are more damning when they happen faster. The more plays they run, the more opportunities for mistakes that can turn into offensive penalties, sacks, and turnovers–especially with Flacco directing the plays and doing so in a rush.
- Win the Turnover Battle: Kind of obvious, but against this caliber of team it’s even more vital to eliminate turnovers on offense and get as many extra opportunities as possible on defense. Andy Dalton needs to be smart with the football, have good pocket awareness, and be willing to throw the ball away rather than force a pass or hang in the pocket too long.
- Spread ‘em out: The Bengals need to protect the interior of their offensive line by loosening the Ravens’ front seven defense. Some three or four receiver sets (even to run out of) would be ideal, as well as some well-devised screen passes, reverses, and pitches to the edge. I like Andrew Hawkins to have a few opportunities to beat the defense to the outside. With success in this area, the line should get an extra ½ second on more traditional drop-backs, and give BJGE and Brian Leonard more space in the run game.
- Long, sustained drives: The Bengals need to counter the hurry up from Baltimore’s offense by being slow and methodical when they have the ball. This will serve to keep the Bengals defense rested, quiet the crowd, and take the wind out of the Flacco/Rice sails. Careful protection of the football is key here, and smart play-calling is essential. Marvin Lewis loves to harp on being effective on 3rd downs and they’ll need to be tonight to keep these drives going. Of course, ending them with seven points will be most ideal, but even if field goals or punts are necessary, the key thing is to hold onto the ball as long as possible and slow the game down for Cam Cameron’s offense.
Overall, this will be a tough test for the Bengals. They’ve proven in the past that they can win here, and Marvin Lewis seems to have a decent success rate against his old team. That being said, it’s the opener for Monday Night Football and it’s on the road. A tough task for any team.
If the Bengals lose, they can accept the fact that it was a tough assignment, and regroup to face a more palatable opponent at home next week. It’s not the worst fate possible. If they win, on the other hand, they can silence a truckload of critics and make a statement that they not only belong in the AFC North division, but as a team to be reckoned with in the AFC as a whole.