Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ravens-Bengals Preview: It's New, but how Different?

Okay, wow. I recommend everyone sit back and try to forget what you saw in Tennessee. It is a dark and evil place that we don’t have to worry about… at least until the Ravens play the Titans. Right now I am afraid of whatever comes out of there. Unfortunately I have been given the unenviable task of trying to get everyone’s mind off of the Terps and onto the Ravens opening weekend at home against the not-so-retooled and slightly less criminal (Chris Henry not withstanding) Cincinnati Bengals. In that spirit, prepare yourself for a long and involved preview to whet your appetite for NFL action in Baltimore.

The Ravens are hoping to open strong against an opponent that shocked them last year, providing a sneak peak at the collapse that followed en route to a 6-10 season. This year the Bengals begin the season hoping to continue their high powered offensive attack while bolstering their defense with first round pick Keith Rivers starting at outside linebacker. The Ravens however open with offensive questions at quarterback, along the offensive line, the tight ends… everywhere. The defense hopes to prove to critics that it is not “too old” just yet, and can hang together well enough to make up for the scoring deficiencies once again.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Flacco be on his Back(o)?
Joe Flacco is a rookie, we all understand that- so I won’t waste everyone’s time saying he is going to struggle, etc. What we should watch for is whether the offensive line can keep him upright long enough to make decent plays downfield. That big arm is good for something, but it isn’t worth anything if he doesn’t have time. Luckily the Bengals have never been particularly good at rushing the passer, registering only 22 sacks all of last season, putting them dead last in sacks in the NFL. Will the acquisition of former Bengal Willie Anderson help the o-line? Probably not this week, but he could be a starter sooner rather than later.

How many stretchers will the defense need?
Last season, Ravens defensive starters lost a total of 33 games due to injury, and it showed. The loss of Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle for large chunks of the season caused second year safety Dawan Landry to take a significant step back from his rookie season and the defense to end the season ranked 23rd in points allowed with 24 points per game. Terrible offensive play didn’t help the D, but that shouldn’t get any better this year. Should the D go through the same rash of injuries this year, you can forget any hopes of a .500 season. This is not a deep team, and any missing starter will show.

Same ol’ offense?
Cam Cameron, offensive genius comes over to work his magic with a formerly hapless unit. Have we heard this before? Luckily, he isn’t coming here as a head coach. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything in the preseason that showed me anything new from this offense- nor did I see it in Miami last year when he ran the train wreck of the Dolphins’ 1-15 season. Let’s not forget, LaDainian Tomlinson isn’t exactly walking into Owings Mills anytime soon. However, we know a coaching staff never shows its cards during the preseason. Even so, look for more creative play calling (especially if Willis McGahee makes a miraculous recovery for tomorrow’s game) to mask the more obvious offensive deficiencies.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Yes, the Bengals are criminals. Yes, the Bengals have an awful defense, especially against the run. But the former doesn’t matter on the football field, and the latter isn’t as much of a factor with the Raven’s starting running back out, an offensive line with “potential,” and a rookie quarterback making his first start. What the Bengals DO have is 3 healthy high-end receivers in Chad Ocho Cinco (don’t get me started), T.J. Houshmanzadeh (I spelled that correctly without looking it up), and yes, Chris Henry (I looked that up with a police report). The Ravens, at best have 2 high-end cornerbacks, neither of whom can keep up downfield with the Bengals deep threats.

On the other hand, the Ravens could key in on the Bengals running game, recently flung wide open with the release of perennial 1200-yard back in Rudi Johnson. The Ravens front seven could torment the Cincinnati offensive line and allow the safeties to stay back in coverage. The Ravens offense could find significant opportunities in the Bengals D- the lack of push by the defensive line could force the Bengals into blitzing situations, opening up slant and curl routes and allowing Joe Flacco to pick up key first downs against their secondary. Most importantly this would allow Flacco to develop a comfort zone before taking advantage of one-on-one coverage to make a big play downfield. This has been Cam Cameron’s style in San Diego and could serve well if Joe Flacco can stay on his feet and deliver the occasional strike- a very big "if."

In the end, this will be a question of whose weakness is less egregious- Cincinnati’s defense or Baltimore’s offense? This past offseason, Cincinnati improved their defense, if only slightly. While Baltimore put some pieces together for the future, this year the offense took a step back (losing Ogden, McNair, and half your tight ends will do that to you).

The nod goes to the Bengals, 24-13

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