Baltimore Ravens vs. Cincinnati Bengals: Week 1 Game Preview
The Cincinnati Bengals come to town after overcoming Baltimore to win the AFC North in 2014. Prior to that, the Ravens won the division in 2011 and 2012 while going 3-1 versus Cincinnati in those seasons.
However, Baltimore floundered to an 8-8 record in 2013, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Since that year, Baltimore, Cincinnati and the Pittsburgh Steelers have each won the AFC North twice.
Speaking of the Steelers, the Ravens will host them in Week 2 on Thursday Night Football. That means the winners of the past six division titles will play in Baltimore in the first two weeks of the 2014 NFL season.
The Ravens could go a long way in being this year's AFC North winner if they can beat Cincinnati in Week 1. Here is my breakdown of the matchup.
News and Notes
Darian Stewart Not Afraid Of AJ Green
The Ravens will have a new starting free safety this year in Darian Stewart. The former St. Louis Rams safety signed with Baltimore this offseason in hopes of starting, and he'll get his opportunity Week 1 against a Bengal offense that features one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers.
Wide receiver A.J. Green caught 98 passes for 1,426 yards and eight scores in 2013, just his third year in the NFL. Stewart faced Green once in 2011 while still playing for the Rams.
Apparently, he doesn't consider Green to be a real challenge for Baltimore's defense, per ESPN.
I don't consider it a challenge. He's just one guy...We have to make plays when it comes to us and just be aware of where he's going to be at all times.
Stewart may actually have a point. In five career games versus Baltimore, Green has just 21 catches for 334 yards and just two scores.
Still, it probably was not wise for Stewart to give bulletin-board material to the Bengals and their best offensive weapon.
Bengals Get Andre Smith Back
Cincinnati has been without one of their best players on offense for the majority of the preseason. When healthy, Andre Smith is one of the best right tackles in football. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was the fifth-best right tackle in 2013.
The Bengals need him Sunday against the vaunted Ravens pass-rushing duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Two Ravens Make ESPN All-Rookie Team
The Ravens appear to have done very well in the 2014 NFL draft, and two of their rookies from that class are getting some nice preseason pub. Linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Terrence Brooks were named to the ESPN Mel Kiper 2014 All-Rookie Team.
Mosley, who will start at inside linebacker this year for Baltimore, figures to be in the running for several rookie awards this year.
As for Brooks, he's currently listed as the third-string free safety on Baltimore's most recent depth chart. He needs to earn more playing time before he even thinks about earning any accolades as a rookie.
|DATE||POS||PLAYER||INJURY||NFL STATUS||FANTASY NEWS|
|09/04/14||RB||Bernard Pierce||Concussion||PROBABLE||Full practice. Probable for Week 1 vs. Cincinnati|
|09/04/14||CB||Lardarius Webb||Back||PROBABLE||Full practice. Probable for Week 1 vs. Cincinnati|
|08/30/14||DB||Will Hill||Suspension||SUSPENDED||Eligible to return Week 7 vs. Atlanta|
|08/30/14||RB||Ray Rice||Suspension||SUSPENDED||Eligible to return Week 3 at Cleveland|
*All injury information gathered from CBSSports.com.
The Ravens were depleted at cornerback during the preseason, but they look much healthier heading into Week 1 of the regular season.
The same goes for Jimmy Smith, the other starting cornerback. Smith suffered a chest injury in Week 2 of the preseason that knocked him out of action for the rest of the preseason.
However, Smith is back at practice and expects to play versus Cincinnati. His injury isn't believed to be as serious as Webb's, and Smith did play in two preseason games.
In addition to the Ravens' two starting cornerbacks dealing with injuries, key reserve Asa Jackson also missed a good portion of the preseason with an ankle injury.
Jackson is also back at practice, and all three corners look to be healthy enough to play in Week 1.
The only other notable injury is to starting running back Bernard Pierce. He suffered a concussion in Week 3 of the preseason that ended his preseason.
He's since returned to to practice, and is on track to start Sunday against the Bengals.
Matchups and X-Factor to Watch
A.J. Green vs. Lardarius Webb
The matchup to watch this week will be All-Pro receiver A.J. Green going against cornerback Lardarius Webb. As mentioned before, Webb is coming off a back injury that's caused him to miss nearly two months of football activities.
It's hard to see Webb being back to his self when he plays in his first football game of 2014 on Sunday. When healthy, Webb is one of the NFL's best corners.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Webb's 8.0 grade in 2013 was the 19th best of 77 eligible corners. He will need to be playing close to that level if he hopes to contain Green on Sunday.
As for the aforementioned Green, he caught 98 passes for 1,426 yards and eight scores in 2013. However, in five career games versus Baltimore, Green has just 21 receptions for 334 yards and just two touchdowns.
Webb and the Ravens secondary have done a great job of containing Green when the two teams have faced each other. Whether or not Baltimore can keep this trend going will go a long way toward determining Sunday's winner.
Andre Smith vs. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil
As mentioned previously, Andre Smith is a great right tackle when healthy, but a concussion caused him to miss most of the preseason.
He could be a little rusty on Sunday, and that could lead to Baltimore's two fierce pass-rushers having big games.
In Baltimore's 3-4 defense, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil combine to form one of the NFL's best pass-rushing duos. In 2013, they combined for 19.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Dumervil registered 40 QB hurries and Suggs 37.
On the other side, while Smith had a great 2013 season, one of his worst games came at Baltimore in Week 10. That game saw Smith surrender one sack and five QB hurries.
Ravens X-Factor OT Rick Wagner
Heading into the 2013 NFL season, offensive tackle Rick Wagner is a fairly unknown commodity. As a rookie in 2013, Wagner registered just 131 offensive snaps.
Once starting right tackle Michael Oher left in free agency this offseason, Wagner eventually won the starting job in training camp.
During this preseason, Wagner played in 112 snaps and received a solid 1.2 grade from Pro Football Focus, while surrendering just one sack and one QB hurry.
The Bengals will use several quality defensive ends against Wagner. How well he holds up will go a long way toward determining how effective Baltimore can be on offense.
Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry combined for 15 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2013. They'll both likely get their shots at testing Wagner.
The Ravens are at home for their first game of the 2014 NFL season.
That's great news for Baltimore, which has won eight consecutive home openers dating back to the 2006 NFL season and has also won 14 consecutive home games in September, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun.
At the end of the day, it will be the Ravens' fierce defense that suffocates Dalton and the Bengals. Dumervil and Suggs will have big games while keeping Dalton uncomfortable for the majority of the contest.
They'll force him into two turnovers that the Ravens convert into at least 10 points. On the other side, Joe Flacco will play efficient enough to both put points on the board and not turn the ball over.
In the end, Baltimore squeaks by with a win that comes down to the final minutes of the game that sees the defense stop Cincinnati on fourth down to seal the victory.
Prediction: Baltimore 23, Cincinnati 20