The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to bounce back after a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10 of the NFL season. The team played admirably in the losing effort, but if this Bengals team wants to be taken seriously, they can take no solace in moral victories.
A win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11 will be critical in the AFC North race, but is more important for the young team’s psyche. The Bengals five game winning streak was enormous for their confidence, but two straight losses to divisional foes can quickly erase those good feelings.
The odds are against Cincinnati as they travel to Baltimore to face a Ravens team that is coming off an embarrassing loss to the Seattle Seahawks. You can be sure Ray Lewis and the Ravens will be in a foul mood.
The trend the Ravens have followed this season is to play at their peak in an emotionally-charged game and play poorly against an inferior opponent. After beating the Steelers in Week 1, the team lost to the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. Then after defeating Houston in Week 6, Baltimore lost to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 7. One week before the loss to the fledgling Seahawks, the Ravens beat Pittsburgh for the second time.
If this pattern holds, the Bengals are in for a fight on Sunday, but if Cincinnati does five things, they will leave Baltimore with a critical victory.
Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements allowed Steelers receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown plenty of room off the line of scrimmage in Week 10, and Pittsburgh made them pay for it.
Wallace and Brown did not burn the Bengals defensive backs down the field, but this extraordinary amount of space allowed Ben Roethlisberger to zip the football to his big play receivers and let them juke the defense all the way down the field.
To keep the Ravens from picking apart the defense one short pass at a time, Clements, Kelly Jennings and Brandon Ghee must jam Baltimore’s wide receivers at the beginning of each play. This will disrupt the receivers’ routes and the timing of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are not anywhere near as fast as Wallace and Brown. Bengals defensive backs should be able to fight with them in the five yards they are allotted without losing ground in coverage down the field.
Baltimore has a pair of absolute monsters on the defensive line in Terrence Cody and Haloti Ngata, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will often line up as a defensive end. Cody, Suggs and Ngata can blow up any running game by dominating opposing offensive lines. Beating this trio is like trying to stop bullets by swinging a shovel.
It is not often that the Ravens defense plays on their heels, but the Bengals offensive line needs to be the more aggressive unit. To establish Cedric Benson in the running game, the Cincinnati offensive line must fire off the line on the snap of the ball and sustain blocks against the relentless Baltimore front seven.
If the Bengals can make the Ravens play on skates, holes will open up for Benson and Bernard Scott in the running game, and the Bengals can control the clock, wear out the Baltimore defense, and put pressure on their offense.
Last week against Pittsburgh, the Bengals provided no quarterback pressure in the first quarter. Ben Roethlisberger had the time to read the defense, allow his receivers to outrun their defenders, throw an accurate pass, make a sandwich and read a magazine. And that was just on third down.
From the second quarter on, the Cincinnati defensive front played with much more energy and wore out the Steelers offensive line. Domata Peko and Robert Geathers battered Roethlisberger to throw him off his game. The defensive front may have played even better if Carlos Dunlap, arguably the team’s best d-lineman, were not out of the game with a hamstring injury.
The Bengals defensive line needs to throttle Joe Flacco early and often. Flacco has played inconsistently this season, mostly because he lets early struggles turn into four quarters of bad play.
If Cincinnati can take Flacco off his game early, they will have success late.
A.J. Green is officially day-to-day, but all indications are he will play on Sunday. Whether he takes to the field or not, the Bengals need major contributions from their secondary receivers if they are to beat the Ravens on Sunday.
In Week 10, the Bengals unproven receivers played like unproven receivers. Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson looked intimidated by the Steelers defense, and did not compete for contested passes. At crucial points of the game last week, when the team needed first downs, Caldwell and Simpson would not reach for passes.
Jerome Simpson ran sloppy routes, none more lax than one that led to a William Gay interception in the fourth quarter to put the nail in Cincinnati’s coffin.
The one bright spot for receivers not named Green was Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins had five catches for 56 yards against the Steelers. More importantly, he did not cower from the hard-hitting Pittsburgh defensive backs. When he was upended by Troy Polamalu, he rose up and showed no weakness.
Hawkins’ gritty attitude needs to rub off on his fellow receivers to give quarterback Andy Dalton legitimate threats in the passing game. The Ravens have a stellar defensive unit, but if the Bengals can spread them out, they will move the ball down the field.
Wide receiver play will be especially important against Baltimore because offensive coordinator Cam Cameron tends to abandon the running game if the team is playing from behind. In Week 10, Baltimore fell behind early to the Seattle Seahawks. In an effort to get back in the game, Cameron called upon Joe Flacco to the ball 52 times, compared with only five carries for Ray Rice.
If the Bengals receivers step up and the team plays with a lead, Cam Cameron will panic. This panic will spread to Joe Flacco and the Cincinnati defense can take more chances as the Baltimore offense becomes more predictable.
In the first half of the game in Week 9 against the Titans, Tennessee running back Chris Johnson ran all over the Bengals by getting to the edges of the defensive front. The Bengals adjusted to this strategy in the second half and won the game, but the damage was done.
The word is out.
The book on Cincinnati’s second ranked rush defense is to stretch plays beyond the defensive ends so running backs can find some open field and make a move on the linebackers. This strategy nullifies the Bengals’ strong defensive front and takes advantage of a laterally slow group of linebackers.
In Week 10, Steelers running backs gained yards on the ground by getting to the edge. The team’s ability to keep drives alive kept the Cincinnati defense on the field and left to a 24-17 Pittsburgh victory.
If the Bengals are going to beat the Ravens on Sunday, they must contain Baltimore running back Ray Rice. Baltimore wants to hand Rice the ball 20 to 30 times, and the Cincinnati defensive ends must hold their ground to force Rice to turn back toward the middle of the field where Bengals linebackers can tackle him.
If Ray Rice is not productive, the Ravens will struggle to score.
A.J. Green has the word "exceptional" written all over him. He is always the fastest man on the field, he makes plays in the clutch, and he recklessly disregards his own health to help the team. Last week against Pittsburgh, that recklessness caught up to him.
If Green is gimpy against Baltimore and cannot play like the threat he has proven to be this season, the Bengals will be offensively limited and the Ravens can load up the tackle box to stop the run.
If Green plays to his ability, Baltimore will be forced to respect the pass and Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will have the entire playbook at his disposal.