We're only halfway through the season, but the Baltimore Ravens face a must-win game this week. They host the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ravens need to come out victorious to have any chance at winning the AFC North. Here's how they can do it.
This isn’t a specific aspect of the game plan against Cincinnati, but it’s an issue that needs to be resolved moving forward. The Bengals will be one of the best teams the Ravens have faced this season, so they won’t have any margin for error in this game.
The most concerning aspect of their slow starts is that they're affecting everybody on the offense.
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In addition, the little success that the running backs have found has come in the second half, and the offensive line has struggled with early penalties to go with its awful performance.
Baltimore can’t afford to fall behind early and have to come from behind to win this game. The Ravens need to start well to beat a tough Bengals squad.
Protect Joe Flacco
There are still pass-rushers to be worried about, like Michael Johnson, but Atkins attracts so much attention and makes the rest of his defensive line so much better.
For example, on this play against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, Atkins is double-teamed but still manages to get pressure on Thad Lewis.
Lewis has to step up into the pocket as a result—right into Wallace Gilberry who picks up the sack.
Without Atkins, the pass rush won’t be the same. After he went down midway through the second quarter, Cincinnati only registered five quarterback pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) against a Miami Dolphins offensive line that has given up the most sacks in the NFL.
The Ravens have to take advantage of Atkins’ absence to keep Flacco off the ground and give him time to throw.
More of the Pistol and Inside Runs
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell introduced a new wrinkle into the offense last week: the Pistol formation. The Pistol has made the leap to the NFL from the collegiate ranks, heavily used by teams with mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.
Is this a sign that the Ravens think Flacco is suddenly a mobile quarterback? After all, he has looked like the most effective runner on the roster and led them in rushing yards last week.
No, but it is another attempt to jump-start the rushing attack, and we’re going to see more of it next week.
They used the pistol formation five times last week with mixed results. They picked up nine yards on their first two attempts but then lost yards on their next three carries and finished with an average of one yard per carry from the Pistol.
Despite this, it’s another thing that defensive coordinators have to plan for, and it’s a good way to use the shotgun formation, while keeping an emphasis on running the ball.
It gives the offensive line more time to set up its blocks and gives the backs different angles from running out of the gun. It will also allow the Ravens to run the ball up the middle, while maintaining a quick-strike ability in the passing game.
Without Atkins dominating the interior of the line and Rey Maualuga, their starting middle linebacker, Baltimore needs to test its run-stopping ability with inside runs.
Take Advantage of Opportunities to Create Turnovers
The revamped defense has only been able to produce nine turnovers this season, ranking 24th in the league.
Andy Dalton has played well this year, but he can struggle with his ball placement and decision-making when he’s under pressure.
One area where he’s had issues this season has been with accuracy on “out” routes. Too often, his passes are behind his target which leaves defenders with opportunities to make a play.
This happened twice last week against the Miami Dolphins. One of those occasions was a pick-six in the red zone to Brent Grimes.
Dalton had a clean pocket to throw from, and Marvin Jones gained separation as he broke into his out route. The timing on the throw was good, as it was released just as Jones made his cut, so it would have hit him early enough so he still had the space to make a play in open space and get into the end zone.
The accuracy, however, is not good.
The ball has to be in front of Jones where only he can make a play (green box), but it’s on his back shoulder which allows Grimes to drive on the ball and take it to the house.
Baltimore’s defense needs to take advantage of these opportunities if they occur because the Ravens could use any advantage they can get.
The Explosiveness of Giovani Bernard
He may still be No. 2 on the depth chart, but Giovani Bernard has emerged as a legitimate weapon and a dynamic playmaker in his rookie season for the Bengals.
Bernard is reminiscent of Ray Rice in many ways, but he’s even more explosive.
He’s a small back, but he is adept at running both inside and outside the tackles. Additionally, he’s incredibly difficult to bring down with his shifty footwork and ability to break tackles.
According to Pro Football Focus, he’s sixth out of all running backs with an average of 2.75 yards after contact per rushing attempt (subscription required), and he can make ridiculous plays out of nothing—like he did against the Dolphins last week:
While he’s a good runner, he’s even more dangerous as a receiver. Cincinnati gets him involved with screens, and he’s become a go-to checkdown option for Andy Dalton.
He’s a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers in the passing game because he has such good hands and can make defenders miss in space, as he does here en route to the end zone:
We very well could see more of Arthur Brown in this game just to keep up with his fellow rookie.
All eyes should be on A.J. Green, but the defense cannot afford to sleep on Pro Football Focus’ second-best running back (subscription required).
Spread Offense in the Red Zone
This is not a good matchup for the Ravens secondary. Cincinnati has a ton of weapons on the outside, and Dalton has been playing brilliant football (excluding his poor showing last week).
The defense will need to be prepared for the Bengals’ spread offense—particularly in the red zone.
Cincinnati is the third-best red-zone offense in the league, according to Team Rankings, and one big reason for that is because offensive coordinator Jay Gruden likes to spread defenses out and attack with the team's plethora of receivers.
This is so difficult for opposing defenses to deal with because the Bengals can use so many different personnel groupings and formations.
Their two tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, are excellent receivers, and they are sometimes both on the field at the same time. On this six-yard touchdown to Marvin Jones, there are stacked receivers on both sides of the field.
Both tight ends block, while the receivers behind them are ready to receive a quick screen pass. On this occasion, the ball goes to Jones who fights his way into the end zone.
In addition, they frequently go five-wide with an empty backfield and Bernard split out wide. They did this against the Detroit Lions in Week 7, and Dalton found Jones in the back of the end zone.
Defensive communication will be a priority for the Ravens against this offense, but there have been multiple breakdowns in coverage throughout the season.
It would also be a huge help if Jimmy Smith is able to play; his recovery from a thigh injury that knocked him out of last week’s game will be crucial.
The Bengals offense is full of weapons, and that is never more evident than in the red zone. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have to get the right personnel on the field and make sure his men are all on the same page to keep the Bengals out of the end zone.