Getting to Joe Flacco early and often is the key for a Bengals victory on Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals have already earned themselves a trip to the playoffs. And their Week 17 opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, have a postseason berth of their own and have the AFC North title already wrapped up. However, that doesn't mean the Bengals need to take Sunday off and rest up for next week's playoff contest.
The Bengals are the biggest underdog in the AFC playoff picture—even though they don't necessarily deserve to be—which means they must make a statement against the Ravens on Sunday and head into the postseason with momentum.
How to do this is pretty self-explanatory: Do not relent when bringing pressure to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. However, if last week's Ravens domination of the New York Giants is any indicator, it won't come as easy for the Bengals as it has in previous contests.
Flacco is generally an easy quarterback to throw off with good pressure. Of the 39 quarterbacks Pro Football Focus ranks based on their success under pressure, Flacco ranks 25th this season.
He's had a total of 562 dropbacks thus far, with 183 of them under pressure. He's been sacked 34 times when facing pressure and has thrown 146 pressured pass attempts, completing 68 of them—a completion percentage of 46.6—for seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
However, his ability to handle pressure against the Giants last week was a marked improvement. His offensive line, which has taken criticism all season long for not giving Flacco precious time in the pocket, held up, and the result was a shockingly-good completion rate of 78.6 percent when under pressure and 66.7 percent when facing the blitz.
Though it may be fair to assume that Flacco won't handle pressure as handily in a second consecutive week, that's a dangerous assumption for Cincinnati's defense to make. Instead, the unit has to commit to the pass rush, break through Flacco's line and rattle his focus as often as possible as well as it has all season.
The Bengals defense currently ranks second in the league in getting to opposing quarterbacks, with 47 total sacks—or 52, based on Pro Football Focus' metrics. According to their numbers, the Bengals defense has a combined 274 quarterback pressures (52 sacks, 59 hits and 163 hurries), making it the most formidable group of pass-rushers the Ravens will have faced all season.
It appears that the switch at offensive coordinators from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell has finally taken hold, if the Ravens' performance against the Giants last week is any indication. However, the Bengals do have an advantage to this latest Baltimore offensive iteration, because they were the only team to face them when they were attempting a similar approach at the beginning of the season.
Granted, that meeting—in Week 1—led to a 44-13 loss, but it does provide the Bengals defense with clues regarding what it could expect this week when it faces Baltimore for the second time this season.
With Caldwell calling plays, the Ravens offense looked more like it did to open the season, with more no-huddle play calls, a variety of passing routes and, of course, effective running behind Ray Rice (and last week, also Bernard Pierce).
In Week 1, Flacco completed 21 of his 29 pass attempts for 299 yards, two touchdowns and took three sacks. Last Sunday, he completed 25 of his 36 attempts for 309 yards, two touchdowns, an additional rushing score and no sacks. The run game was also strong in its opener, with a total of 122 yards on 23 rushes. Rice led the way with 10 carries for 68 yards and two scores.
Rushing was more prominent last week, with the Ravens controlling both the score and the time of possession—they defeated the Giants, 33-14 and had the ball for 39:21, compared to just 20:39 for New York—running the ball a total of 45 times. And both Rice and Pierce had over 100 yards on the ground apiece.
However, it is not hard to see similarities between Baltimore's offense last week and the one it employed in Week 1 against Cincinnati. This will help the Bengals be better prepared for this new-look offense than the Giants were last Sunday.
And with Cincinnati's pass rush better than it was in the first week of the year, as well as better than the Giants' fairly anemic attempts at getting to Flacco last week, it shouldn't be difficult for it to throw off the Ravens quarterback and prevent a repeat of those two successful Ravens offensive outings.
That strong front seven is also useful for more than just the pass rush—it will also play the biggest role in keeping the two Ravens running backs under control. Last week, Pierce had 123 rushing yards on 14 carries and Rice, 107 on 24.
With the Ravens also gearing up for what they hope to be a deep playoff run, expect those rush numbers to flip-flop, at least when it comes to carries. Rice will need to be kept relatively fresh for the postseason, so Pierce will likely be heavily featured. Either way, the Bengals need to keep Baltimore's run game under control so that Flacco will more easily fall right into their hands.
Last Sunday, the Bengals did a great job of keeping the Pittsburgh Steelers' run game under wraps, allowing just 95 yards on 31 carries, with Rashard Mendenhall the team's leading rusher with 50 yards (20 of which game on one run).
Though the Steelers tried to attack the Bengals with three different backs, none found their footing against Cincinnati's terrific defensive front. The Bengals will need a similar performance and outcome this week if they're to get the better of Baltimore.
With this potentially not being the last time the Bengals and Ravens meet this season, it's important that the Bengals send a message. Even if starters for both sides end up not playing an entire four quarters, when Flacco and the stars of the Ravens run game are on the field, up-front pressure needs to be the focus of Cincinnati's defensive attack.
Throwing Flacco off-balance while forcing him into more passing situations by cutting off their run game will show the rest of the AFC playoff field just what kind of defense it's about to be facing. And it will also provide the Bengals with the valuable momentum of a season-closing win.