Okay, so I am a little nervous in writing this preview. So far I have been ridiculously off in many of my predictions on this blog, but as far as the previews go I have been pretty solid. I am 4-0 this season up front, and my margins of victory were conservative, even in predicting that the Pats would win by 4. However, the team the Ravens are going up against this weekend is a wildcard. The 3-1 Bengals lost an embarrassing game against the Broncos but aside from that are undefeated, including a last minute drive to upend the defending champions. Baltimore will be charged with cutting down this early-season surprise and realign the top of the AFC North. After losing a game they could have won after last week’s errors, they won’t have room for many more in this division.
What I’m Wondering:
Will these cornerbacks improve?
Man do I ever hope so. They are looking pretty terrible right now, and won’t get much of a respite against a Bengals team that boasts Laveranues Coles and Chad Ochocinco with Chris Henry waiting to take on Frank Walker. If Joe Flacco had that group of receivers, the Ravens could start printing home playoff tickets right now. Instead, Baltimore’s quick but undersized cornerbacks will have their hands full. Ed Reed is so occupied by cleaning up for blown coverages that he can’t make the plays he is accustomed to. Forcing the quarterback to throw is great… If you can stop the pass. The Ravens can’t do that right now.
Will the Ravens return to the run?
They would be very wise to. I believe that Cam Cameron needs to readjust his look back to what the Ravens are more built for- pounding the football. When you average 7.1 yards on the ground, that should be an indication of what the defense is giving you. I understand that the offense has grown to include more things, but it should not exclude what got them here. I have already talked about this before, but for this game, against this team, I will be pulling my hair out if Joe Flacco is dropping back anywhere near 40 times.
Are the Bengals a contender?
To make life difficult on the Ravens and Steelers? Yes. To win the division? No. This team is good, but the defense is too young and lacks true playmakers for Flacco to be afraid of. Yes, they boast the NFL’s sacks leader in Antwan Odom, but we have seen one-season wonders before, and Odom lacks the history to make me think that he will keep up his torrid pace. If Ray Rice is scuttling by him, it won’t make a difference what jump Odom has on the quarterback. Carson Palmer has been solid, but he isn’t yet back to Pro Bowl form. Even if he does return to form this weekend, he doesn’t have the supporting cast to beat the elite teams in the AFC week after week.
My Mildly Informed Analysis:
Ravens Defense vs. Bengals Offense
Cedric Benson has revived his career in Cincinnati after flaming out in Chicago, but he is not playing like the #4 overall pick by any stretch. He has been a serviceable back, but I would put him in the Chester Taylor category of running back- capable of starting, but in a perfect world I don’t have him start. The Ravens defensive line will swallow up Benson at the line of scrimmage, and while his tough running style will keep him from getting knocked backwards, he won’t pick up his 4.4 yards per carry. I will put him down for 50 or 60 yards at most on Sunday.
The Ravens defense will have to rely on its secondary to win this one on that side of the ball. Chad Ochocinco is out to prove that he is still an elite wide receiver and can back up his comedic behavior with solid play on the field. He leads the team with 17 receptions and 238 yards. He will beat whichever Ravens corner is assigned to him, as noted above. He’ll get his catches and probably a touchdown, which he has promised to follow up with a Ricky Bobby celebration. Baltimore will not be able to double Ochocinco or risk being burned by speedster Laveranues Coles. However, Coles isn’t known for being a very tough receiver, and if you can keep up with him down the field (which either Foxworth or Washington can do), you can cover him. I am more concerned with Chris Henry at the slot position against Frank Walker. If Carson Palmer can get into a rhythm and avoid Baltimore’s pressure, this could be a shootout.
Ravens Offense vs. Bengals Defense
Speaking of which, this is not a good defense the Ravens will have to face this weekend, regardless of the sacks that Antwan Odom has managed to rack up. The only major challenge I foresee comes from cornerback Leon Hall against Derrick Mason. Not because I necessarily think that Hall will shut him down, but only that he will cover him well enough to limit his production and force Joe Flacco to look at his other receivers. Johnathan Joseph is a solid corner as well and could give Mark Clayton some problems on the other side. The matchup I am looking at is Morgan Trent against Kelley Washington. I watched Trent victimized countless times on the sidelines of Michigan games, and Washington could have the size and speed to take on Trent’s only marginal quickness. Todd Heap should have opportunities as well, but keep an eye on the Bengals top two cornerbacks- they are the real deal.
Cam, run the football. Please. The Bengals are about average in the league, allowing 103 yards per game, but the Ravens should be able to pound the ball against a front 4 that features pass-rushing Antwan Odom and Tank Johnson, who hasn’t done much of anything in several years, having been cut by the Cowboys after last season. The Bengals have two athletic but inexperienced linebackers in Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, but this part of the game can’t be broken down just by personnel. The Ravens identity as a team is to pound the opponent into the ground by running the football and breaking them down by the second half. The Bengals are off to a hot start and if they feel like they are in an air battle with the Ravens they will stay confident, knowing they have Carson Palmer on their side. Teams like this need their bubble burst early, and a heavy dose of the ground game goes a long way towards asserting one’s will over an opponent.
This game will depend on how crisp Carson Palmer is. If he plays like he did several years ago and Chad Ochocinco follows through on his promise to victimize the Ravens cornerbacks, the Bengals have a good shot to win this game. However, given the performances of the Ravens and Bengals against their common opponent, the Browns, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Baltimore has done a great job this season of converting long drives into points in ways that fans haven’t seen before. They keep it up this weekend and turn possessions into touchdowns.
The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-17.