Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ravens-Bengals Preview: As Playoffs Approach, "Can Win" equals "Must Win"

Thanks to Falco for holding down the fort and doing both the pregame and postgame for the Terps on Saturday! Windsor and I were visiting our families over the break and barely had time for the free kick on Friday. However, we are sure to be home for the Ravens…

Make no mistake, Cincinnati wants this one badly. Baltimore better want it too. With upcoming games against Dallas, Washington, and Pittsburgh, the Ravens will need every win they can get to cling to that #6 spot in the wildcard race or have a whisper of a hope to win the division outright. Putting away the 1-9-1 Bengals won’t make the Ravens climb the power rankings or get them a segment on Sportscenter, but it will be another AFC win that will be essential when the litany of tiebreakers go into effect. The home team, for their part, has been playing its recent opponents tough since taking down Jacksonville and clawing from the ranks of the “beaten.” The mantra of this team has been to beat the teams they should beat (and lose to the others, but I doubt that is part of the plan), and luckily for them, this should be a late-season tune up. But much stranger things have happened, and I still have my questions.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Joe Play it Safe?
This week will be about mistake-free football. The Ravens are the better team, but the Bengals were tenacious against Donovan McNabb and even Ben Roethlisberger, forcing turnovers and staying in the ball game deep into the second half against the Steelers. The problem however, has been that their offense is more inept than a Kyle Boller squad. In fact, their performance in recent weeks has reminded me of the 11-5 Bengals squad of 3 years ago that won on a huge turnover margin but petered out when Carson Palmer was downed in the 1st quarter of the wildcard round against Pittsburgh. Do I think that this team is suddenly that good? Of course not, but the D has not packed it in for the season. Joe Flacco has kept a cool head this season and hasn’t shown the tendency to play down to competition, but this week will be a test in that regard. The Ravens quarterback ought not assume anything against the Bengals secondary or risk giving the Cincy offense easy opportunities to score. Will the Ravens quarterback take the inferior opponent for granted or patiently carve them up underneath?

How many turnovers/sacks for the Ravens D?
I cannot feign a serious anxiety about the Bengals’ ability to hold onto the ball or protect backup-turned-starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is a consummate backup- not good, not terrible, but not someone you want starting more than a game or two, especially on a team whose offense was struggling even before Palmer went down. This game is not a question of if, but when the Bengals make a horrific mistake. The Ravens defense returned with a vengeance against the Eagles after being gashed by the Giants, will that intensity hold up? Being a divisional game, it might. However, with the upcoming schedule, the defense could be tempted to look ahead as it did against the Browns for the first 3 quarters of their second matchup of the season. To sweep the season series, the Ravens will have to create opportunities for the offense to work with a short field and come away with points early and force the Bengals to attempt to come from behind. Will the Ravens defense make the 3rd year backup attempt to beat them with his arm or come out slow out of the gate and let the Bengals win field position?

Which of the Three Running Backs will succeed against the Bengals?
Willis McGahee has had his big games this season. So has Ray Rice. Last week, LaRon McClain bulldozed the Eagles for 88 yards and 1 score. Which back will perform the best this week? I’m leaning towards a repeat of McClain against one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL. The Bengals are like any other team 8 games under .500- they are playing tough but ready to break when they get into a hole. The best way to break a team is by sending a bruiser up the middle and dragging the linebackers for a few yards at a time. However, if the Bengals decide to pin their ears back and attack the line of scrimmage, don’t be surprised to see more screens to get the other backs involved? Who will have the biggest game? It might be a combination, but I wanted to ask anyway.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Bengals cannot score. Were it not for T.J. Houshmanzadeh and Chad Johnson, there would be little reason for them to not punt on 1st down and hope for a defensive touchdown. Perhaps I am exaggerating, let me backtrack here so we can break down what the Ravens will actually be facing. The Bengals running game is 29th in the NFL at a paltry 80.0 yards per game. Even if they exceed that by 50% or more (unlikely against the still stingy Ravens run defense), it wouldn’t be enough to put them in the top 3rd of the league! Why? The departure of reliable back Rudi Johnson is the easy explanation, but this team was still in the bottom half of the league when he was there last year. I would point to the lack of a threat from the quarterback position, allowing opponents to stack 8 or 9 men in the box to stop the run and daring Ryan Fitzpatrick to beat them… and he won’t.

But before we go onto the sexy passing game, let’s keep on the ground. The addition of Cedric Benson did provide a brief spark to the Bengals running game, but we would be wise to keep it in perspective. After a 104 yard, 4.3 yard per carry effort against Jacksonville (currently sitting at 4-7, for what it’s worth), the former Chicago 1st round pick and legendary drunken boater has since been given 39 carries for 77 yards, worse than a 2 yard average. Clearly teams caught on rather quickly to the addition of Benson, and I doubt his running style- predictable and not powerful enough to get away with it will be a problem for Haloti Ngata. Now watch him gash the Ravens for 140 yards runaway-beer-truck style…

The Harvard boy quarterbacks the worst offense in the NFL. Yes, dead last. That is, the Lions, Raiders, and Rams can all claim more competent yardage numbers, and it isn’t close. As far as points are concerned, a paltry 13.5 points per game is good for 31st, edging out the Rams. For his part however, Fitzpatrick has not been awful on paper. In fact, his numbers are similar to what Joe Flacco’s were 8 games into the season- completing 61% of his passes for 6 touchdowns and 7 interceptions- about what you would expect out of a backup in this league. All of you who think a Pro Bowler should be the team’s backup can shut up and get a clue. Backups are supposed to be mediocre, and Fitzpatrick is run-of-the-mill backup material. What is holding him back is his embarrassing 4.9 yards per attempt, which is shocking given the big-play receivers available to him. Either his nerves are keeping him holding the ball too long or his receivers aren’t getting open or he is getting too much pressure to launch the ball deep. We have a winner! Bengals quarterbacks have been sacked an astonishing 39 times this season; only the Lions and 9ers are worse.

Is there any question what the Ravens defensive strategy will be? In case you just stumbled on this blog for the first time… The Ravens will blitz early, often, and from as many directions as possible to fluster and confuse Fitzpatrick the same way the Steelers did a couple weeks ago. Once the running game is contained, this front 7 will pin its ears back and hit Fitzpatrick until he is nervous to take the snap. The secondary might be left on man against a talented group of receivers, but I doubt Fitzpatrick will have much time to consider the matchups, much less throw the ball accurately.

Wow, I just spent an awful lot of time on the 32nd ranked offense against the #3 ranked defense. I may have just written more about the Bengals offense than anyone has been able to all season… there is a reason for that, read on.

Luckily, there is a much more intriguing matchup on the defensive end. The Bengals have the reputation for hemorrhaging points, and it is still true this season as they are in the bottom half of the league with 25.1 points per game allowed, roughly in line with their status from last season. However, they are doing this despite being given much worse field position and a much more mistake-prone offense than any time in recent history (i.e. since Carson Palmer/Jon Kitna). How? I referenced to turnovers earlier, but that was what gave the Bengals the tie with the Eagles, and what sealed the win against the Jaguars. Honestly, it comes down to a passing defense that, while only tallying 8 interceptions all season, is still in the middle of the league in yardage allowed. This is probably a misleading statistic, however. The Bengals have been behind so often there has been little motivation for teams to pass the football for long gains. Teams much prefer to run on them, as they rank 7th in the league in most rushing attempts against.

Does this playbook sound familiar? This sounds very promising for teams that like to run the ball and try to pass conservatively in safe situations. Like the Ravens? Yea, I thought so. We don’t know a whole lot about the Bengals defense because of the state of their offense and the situations they are placed under. The way the Bengals offense plays will be much more indicative of how many points the Ravens can score than will the Bengals defense.

The Rundown

I don’t see how the Bengals win this one aside from pure unadulterated hate and the unpredictable nature of divisional games. The Ravens’ gameplan plays right into the Bengals weaknesses, and if Baltimore’s defense forces an early turnover or helps the offense jump out to a double-digit lead, this could be over quickly. Don’t look for Coach Harbaugh to get fancy this week; he will get a lead and beat Cincy down for the rest of the afternoon.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 27-6

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