Friday, December 19th, 2014

Bengals (6-3) @ Ravens (6-3)

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Instead of having some breathing room entering this Week 11 divisional clash with the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, thanks to their third road hiccup against an inferior opponent, the Ravens find themselves needing a win on Sunday to avoid falling to third place in the AFC North. As ridiculous as that proposition seemed just two weeks ago after completing a season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s nonetheless the situation this team finds itself in, due to their inability to go on the road and take care of business against the Seattle Seahawks.

As if last week’s debacle didn’t have Ravens fans edgy enough already, the news late Thursday night that Ray Lewis will miss Sunday’s game with a toe injury has only added fuel to the fire of purple angst engulfing B’More. Number 52 will be missing his first start since late in the 2007 season, before John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, or Ray Rice were even members of the organization.

What Ravens fans have to hope will happen on Sunday is that what “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons calls the “Ewing Theory” will take effect. Basically what the idea says is that a team, suddenly devoid of their superstar, will raise their individual games to new heights, in order to – consciously or not – prove to the rest of the league that they can, and will, win without said superstar.

Hell, look no further than the Bengals for a relevant example of this phenomenon. They jettisoned Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, and a 4-12 team is suddenly 6-3.

It’s a lot to ask of the Ravens’ defense to go out and perform at their usual level without their emotional leader and coach on the field out there with them. But their ability to do so may very well – more so than Joe Flacco’s inconsistencies or Cam Cameron’s stubbornness – be the main component in the story of the Ravens’ 2011 season down the stretch.

The “good” news is that inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, sidelined the last four games with a hamstring injury, has practiced fully this week and should be able to go Sunday in Lewis’s stead. Fellow linebackers Jameel McClain and Brendan Ayanbadejo will see their roles increased. Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed will need to carry the emotional torch for Lewis and keep the team and crowd pumped up. You can’t replace Ray-Ray with one man, but the collective unit of the Baltimore defense should be up to the challenge.

They’d better be.

These are obviously not the Cincinnati Bengals we expected to see at the start of the season. They’ve taken a page out of the Ravens’ 2008 script, riding a Top 5 defense and a rookie quarterback into surprise playoff contention. Even when the Bengals are “bad,” they’ve given the Ravens fits, as Flacco and Harbaugh are just 1-3 against Cincy in the last four meetings after sweeping them in back in ’08. Ravens fans were delighted to see perennial thorn-in-the-Ravens’-side Palmer leave town, but Andy Dalton looks like the real deal.

Real deal Bengal

Dalton’s 14 touchdown passes through Week 10 are the most of any rookie since the AFL-NFL merger. Luckily for the Ravens, he may be without his favorite target, fellow rookie A.J. Green. Green, who has hauled in 41 passes for 635 yards and 6 scores, will be a game-time decision with a hyperextended knee. Even if he is on the field, he should be at less than 100%.

Dalton has other options though, including 6’5″ tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is a match up nightmare, Jerome Simpson, and Andre Caldwell, who has given the Ravens problems before. I’m confident in the Ravens’ secondary though, and even more so because rookie Jimmy Smith is expected to see more of the field this week. Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, Smith, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard should be able to handle things on the back end.

What I’m more concerned with is the lack of pass rush we’ve seen recently. The Ravens have just a single sack in each of their last two games, and those were against teams near the top of the league in sacks allowed. Chuck Pagano seemed very Greg Mattison-esque last week in Seattle, opting for coverage rather than blitzes in giving Tarvaris Jackson way too much respect. Dalton can move some, but isn’t near the athlete Jackson or Ben Roethlisberger are, so here’s hoping the Ravens can push the Ginger QB takedown total closer to 4 or 5 on Sunday.

On the other side, Marvin Lewis’s defenses have had Joe Flacco’s number. Since 2009, he has thrown just two touchdowns and nine interceptions against Cincinnati. His main nemesis, cornerback Jonathan Joseph, is now with Houston, though, and the Bengals lost their current top corner Leon Hall for the season last week with a torn Achilles tendon. Joe should be able to breathe a little easier when he drops back and doesn’t see Hall or Joseph, but at this point it’s a matter of “I’ll believe he can play well against the Bengals when I see it.”

For all the talk this week about needing to get Ray Rice the ball more, the Cincy defense isn’t very inviting as a target to do so. They are #2 in the NFL against the run, and trail only the Ravens (3.3 ypc) allowing 3.4 yards per carry. Add that fact to the aforementioned weakened secondary, and the smart game plan seems to be to throw the ball.

Rice, for his part, has had much more success against the orange and black than has his quarterback. He had a streak of three consecutive games with 100+ yards from scrimmage against the Bengals snapped in Week 17 last year, when they held him to 77 yards rushing and 0 receiving. Marvin does a good job taking away Rice as a check down option, which is a big reason for all the interceptions when these two teams meet. Flacco has been more willing to chuck it this year, as opposed to looking for Rice underneath, so it will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out. Especially if Lee Evans, who practiced again this week, can finally get back on the field. The improved play of the Ravens’ tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, should also help them break down the Bengals’ Cover 2 by exploiting the linebackers in coverage down the seam.

The best way to be sure that Rice gets more touches would be for the Ravens to get out to an early lead, something they’ve struggled mightily to do here in 2011. Last year they led in the fourth quarter of every game. This season they’ve trailed in the fourth in six of their nine contests. Which means they have been fighting to come back from deficits – sometimes big ones – which renders Rice and the running game in general largely impotent.

Score early. Get to Dalton. Force turnovers. Feed the horse. That’s the script that will lead to a 7-3 record and a seat back atop the AFC North.

I’m confident in the Ravens Sunday even without Lewis. They are a completely different team at home, and – as they’ve shown – against “good” opponents. The M&T crowd will be rockin’ after two straight road games, the boys will be eager to prove they can win without Ray, and without David Reed returning kicks and letting the other team play “make it, take it,” the good guys will come out with a convincing win.

Ravens 23 Bengals 13

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