In a game that had huge implications for the AFC North and the AFC playoff picture, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals 31-24. With the Steelers on their bye week, the Ravens tied Pittsburgh’s 7-3 record with the win over the Bengals. Since their two wins over the Steelers give them the tiebreaker, the Ravens are officially in control of the AFC North again.
The Bengals and the Ravens are two very similar teams that have taken different paths this season and are in different stages of team development. The Ravens are a mature team with veterans at key positions on both side of the ball, while the Bengals are a young team with up-and-coming players. But both teams play the same brand of tough football that has become a trademark of the AFC North.
What the Bengals are doing with quarterback Andy Dalton is remarkable and reminds many people of how the Ravens made the playoffs with quarterback Joe Flacco in his rookie season. The Bengals are winning games by playing good defense and allowing Dalton to manage games.
Dalton looked sensational for most of the game against the Ravens and didn’t really look like a rookie–or merely a game manager. He made big plays when the Bengals needed them most, but he also made some mistakes. Dalton threw three costly interceptions, and the Ravens were able to capitalize by scoring two touchdowns off of those three turnovers.
The turnovers were ultimately the key to the Ravens victory. The Bengals were having success throwing and running against the Ravens defense all day long, but the turnovers negated several opportunities for the Bengals to get points in a close game.
On the other hand, the Ravens made the most of their opportunities. They didn’t always look great, but when they got the ball in good field position, they made it count. When their receivers were open down the field, Flacco hit them for big plays.
That’s really what the game boiled down to.
The Ravens made the plays it took to win and the Bengals couldn’t seem to capitalize on opportunities even though they were having some success against the Ravens.
The Ravens went into this game showing a disturbing amount of inconsistency, and it seemed to be getting worse as the season went on. They were horribly inconsistent on offense and even their mighty defense was getting exploited at times. Against the Seahawks last week, they seemed like they forgot how to win as a team.
The Ravens certainly were not perfect against the Bengals and couldn’t seem to stop anything that they were doing at the beginning of the game. Baltimore looked terrible on offense as well, but we need to give offensive coordinator Cam Cameron some credit. He stuck to his game plan, kept running the ball and eventually was able to find some cracks in the Bengals defense.
The Bengals started out by doing exactly what we’ve seen many defenses do with great success in the past. They clouded the line of scrimmage with defenders to stop the run and played a simple cover-2 defense to shut down the passing game.
In the past, that type of defense was very effective against the Ravens because they didn’t have the speed they needed to challenge a crowded line of scrimmage.
Against the Bengals, the Ravens made them pay with wide receiver Torrey Smith. Smith was able to challenge the deep coverage and force the safeties to respect his speed. That opened up the coverage for the underneath receivers and made the passing game easier for Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron.
The biggest positive about the victory over the Bengals is that the Ravens found a way to win even though it wasn’t pretty. “Finding a way to win” is an overused cliché in the NFL, but there may not be a better way to explain why this victory was so important for the Ravens as a team outside of the standings.
The Ravens faced all of the same problems that they have all season. The running game was slow, the passing game started out slow and even the defense showed signs of weakness. It would have been easy for the Ravens to roll over against the Bengals, a team that historically plays them very tough, but they pulled together and used all of the lessons that they learned from their struggles to beat Bengals.
The fact is that the Ravens are who they are at this point in the season. There isn’t an unsigned player out there that can help them, and there isn’t a magical game plan that can cover up all of their weaknesses.
The only thing that the Ravens can do to improve is to take what they’ve learned from each game they’ve played and find a way to improve on their strengths and weakness.
That’s exactly how the Ravens beat the Bengals. They had problems and it wasn’t easy, but they entire team found a way to win.
The Ravens run defense has been challenged over the last two weeks. Against the Seahawks, the Ravens defense allowed running back Marshawn Lynch to run all over them. On the last drive of the game, they could not stop Lynch from marching down the field and burning up the clock. That drive ultimately won the game for the Seahawks.
Don’t be fooled by the statistics against the Bengals. Even though the Ravens didn’t allow more than 50 yards rushing to a single player, they allowed 119 yards rushing as a team and two rushing touchdowns to Bengals running back Cedric Benson.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect about the Ravens' struggles against the run is the fact that they seem to be susceptible to the inside running game, and that’s hard to explain because the Ravens have one of the best defensive tackles in the game in Haloti Ngata. The Ravens also have nose tackle Terrence Cody, who is supposed to specialize in stopping the run, on the line right next to Ngata.
With more than 700 pounds on the interior line between Ngata and Cody, it leaves everyone wondering why the Ravens seem to have so much trouble stopping the inside running game, which should be one of their strengths.
The only possible explanation is that the Ravens players outside of Ngata are not doing a very good job stopping the run. On many plays, Ngata will get triple-teamed and the rest of the defensive line will get easily driven backwards. That gives the opposing offense an easy four or five yards.
The Ravens really need a few more complete defensive linemen, because as good as Ngata is, he’s only one player and can be double- and triple-teamed. The Ravens have run-stuffing players and pass-rushers on their defensive line, but they don’t really have a complete lineman that can rush the passer and defend the run equally.
At this point, Terrell Suggs is basically a pass-rusher because of where he plays in the defense. The Ravens need a good 3-4 defensive end that can be a threat next to Ngata, but since they cannot get a new 3-4 defensive end mid-season, the Ravens should try playing more four-man fronts in certain situations to offset their weakness.
Again, don’t be fooled by the statistics. Even though Ray Rice had more than 100 yards, the Ravens didn’t really have a very good day running the ball against the Bengals. Rice had most of his yardage on one big play, which was the result of a missed tackle by the Bengals.
The most puzzling part of the Ravens' struggles running the ball is that they should be a very good running team if you examine their individual parts. They have Ray Rice, who may be one of the most complete backs in the league, Vonta Leach, Marshal Yanda, Ben Grubbs and Michael Oher, who despite his struggles is still a good run-blocker.
When you look at their roster, you’d assume that the Ravens are a running team and should be leading the league in rushing yardage and maybe even yards per attempt.
Unfortunately, the Ravens rushing offense is not the sum of its parts. In fact, it's not even close. They have had trouble running the ball against almost every team that they’ve faced this season, and if it weren’t for the dynamic abilities of Rice, the Ravens would possibly have the worst rushing attack in the league.
This basically boils down to two things–play calling and coaching. There’s no question that the Ravens play calling has been suspect this season. Cam Cameron isn’t always calling running plays at the best times, but that isn’t really the biggest problem with the Ravens' rushing offense.
Their biggest problem is that they don’t know the type of running team that they want to be. Sometimes they try to be a power running team, and sometimes they try to be an outside, zone running team. The problem is that they aren’t doing either very well and it doesn’t seem like the Ravens offensive linemen are always executing like they should.
There’s no question that the Ravens linemen are more than capable of executing either scheme, so the only conclusion is that the offensive line coaches and coordinators aren’t drawing up very effective blocking schemes for the right situations.
Obviously, we can only speculate as to why the running game is underachieving, but there’s very little doubt that the positional coaching staff deserves some blame there. They have great players to work with, and more than any other positional group in football, the offensive line’s success is determined by putting the players in positions to be successful.
That simply isn’t happening.
There is no question that the Bengals are a good, up-and-coming team, but their time has not come yet. In the AFC West, the Bengals would rule the division and probably be the unquestioned leaders, but the AFC North is just too competitive.
The Ravens and the Steelers have the most heated rivalry in the league. They have perfected their game plans against each other, and just as iron sharpens iron, they have both become great teams as a result.
The extreme competition drives both teams to be great, and the Bengals are trying to jump right into the middle of that—with little success, as we have seen over the last two weeks. They certainly haven’t been embarrassed, but they are not good enough to be the division leaders yet.
The fact that we’re even having this conversation about the Bengals is remarkable and a real testament to their coaching staff. They definitely have some good players on their team, but the coaches deserve almost all of the credit behind the Bengals recent success because they have made the Bengals better than the sum of their parts.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden are both excellent coaches could both be head coaches one day.
The only thing holding the Bengals back from being a perennially good team is their owner, Mike Brown. The Bengals will always have good years with head coach Marvin Lewis, who is still one of the best coaches in the business, but they will continue to be inconsistent year to year.
Until the Bengals change ownership, the Ravens and the Steelers will be the teams to beat year in and year out. They’ll just need to look out for the Bengals when they’re having a good year.