Previewing Week 1: Ravens at Bengals
It has been a bit of a tumultuous offseason for the Ravens. 12 players have already been placed on Injured Reserve, 3 players retired, and the health of Joe Flacco has been a primary concern since the start of training camp. All that said, the team still managed to impress in the preseason, finishing 4-0 behind a tenacious defense and top notch special teams unit. Unfortunately, the Ravens offense was not very impressive while missing Flacco. The question at the forefront of every Ravens fan’s mind is how will the offense look with Flacco at the helm after he missed the entire preseason. The other question is just how good can the Ravens defense be? Will it be good enough to carry a poor/mediocre offense to playoff contention? We have seen dominant Ravens defenses in 2000 and 2006 lead to successful seasons. These questions may not be answered in full in week 1, but we should get a good idea about both the offense and defense in an important divisional contest in Cincinatti.
The Bengals have historically given the Ravens a lot of problems, especially when playing in Cincinatti. A big reason for the Ravens struggles on the road at Paul Brown Stadium has been WR A.J. Green, who has absolutely torched the Ravens throughout his career. Green is one of the premier WRs in the NFL and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to figure out a way to slow him down for the Ravens to have a chance in this one. Of course the problem with dedicating too many resources towards Green is that the Bengals have a number of weapons on offense capable of hurting you, especially TE Tyler Eifert. At 6’6, 255 with above average speed and excellent hands, Eifert is an imposing presence on the field and a major redzone weapon. The Bengals also have veteran WR Brandon Lafell and 2nd year slot receiver Tyler Boyd to spread the Ravens defense out.
Where the Ravens will have the advantage is along the line of scrimmage. The Bengals lost their best 2 offensive lineman, OT Andrew Whitworth and OG Kevin Zeitler, in the offseason and did not bring in viable alternatives to replace them. As we have seen throughout the preseason, the Ravens defensive line, led by Brandon Williams, Brent Urban and Michael Pierce, is exceptionally deep and talented. The Ravens defensive approach will likely be to shut down the running game and attempt to aggressively pressure Andy Dalton. Pees will try to confuse Dalton with a number of different disguised coverages and secondary blitzes, probably with an emphasis towards zone blitz schemes that can bring pressure from anywhere on the second level. I would not expect CBs Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith to be left on an island with Green very frequently.
On offense, the Ravens will likely also struggle to move the ball effectively. Even though the Bengals will be without star LB Vontaze Burfict and ageless CB Adam Jones, they still have a very talented defense. The Ravens best bet will be to try to wear down the Bengals front 7 with a run-heavy approach led by Terrance West. If the Bengals have a weakness on their defense, it is against the run, especially with Burfict suspended and DT Domata Peko gone in free agency. The question here of course, will Marty Mornhinweg stick to the running game, or will he fall back into the pass-happy offense that has been so utterly inefficient the past 2 seasons.
The Ravens don’t have great weapons in the passing game, but between WRs Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin, TE Ben Watson and RB Danny Woodhead they have a solid group of veteran receivers that should be able to make some plays when needed. It’s just not a dynamic collection of talent that should be leaned on heavily, especially with Joe Flacco just recently starting to practice. The number of reps he has had with his top receiving options are quite low. Perhaps even more worrisome, is the Bengals pass-rush led by DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap and two rookie edge rushers, Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis, against a Ravens offensive line that has also not had much time to practice together this preseason.
For the Ravens to come away with a win against a tough divisional road opponent, they will need their defense and special teams to carry the day. If the defense can limit the Bengals offensively, keep the Ravens offense in good field position, and maybe come away with a couple of turnovers, I like the Ravens chances. Fortunately for the Ravens, the defense has given every impression that they are up to the task. On the flip side Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will have to limit costly mistakes. I don’t expect it to be a pretty game, and the score will likely be low and close throughout. All that said, I like the Ravens to come away with an upset victory on the road 17-13.