1. Open attack: Although this is a decimated version of the Cincinnati defenses that the Ravens have faced in the past, the scheme will remain the same on Sunday afternoon. The Baltimore offense will get its best chance to attack a two-deep shell before the postseason begins.
Since the four interception performance by quarterback Joe Flacco, he has fared much better against zone defenses, including Atlanta, Carolina, and Tampa Bay.
Still, the Bengals have had Flacco’s number. In his last three games against this unit, he has thrown eight interceptions. A couple of these picks were last second desperation heaves. However, most of these mistakes have occurred when Flacco has forced the ball into tight coverage.
The Ravens have usually attacked the Bengals using compact, power formations. Flacco has also forced passes to the outside, against corners Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. They have not been successful with that approach.
The better approach would be to keep Flacco in the gun, open up the formations, and throw short, quick passes over the middle to pierce the zone. If the coaches rely on more three-wide, one tight end sets, they should be able to create matchup problems with the inside pass defenders.
Flacco has gotten more comfortable throwing intermediate passes. He will have a prime opportunity to execute a two-minute style offense to bust up the zone shell.
2. Rice the decoy: One of the other major keys for the Bengals’ success stems from their ability to shut down Ray Rice. Rice has been a non-factor in the passing game against the Bengals. They have taken him away underneath using a spy of sorts, and their corners crowd Flacco’s outside routes, forcing the action to the middle, where Flacco has not delivered.
Rice has to be a factor for the Ravens. However, at the beginning of the game, it may behoove the offensive staff to use Rice to open things up for everyone else.
Fakes to Rice, including pump fakes in the passing game, could shift coverage to his side. Rice should be in motion often to pull a linebacker with him.
In addition, if Rice does leak out as a target, he should stay in the backfield as long as possible before he releases. He will need to keep the linebackers honest to find openings in the open field.
3. Third down offense: The Baltimore third down offense has been nothing short of putrid against the Bengals, including a 4-of-21 outing in 2009, and a 4-of-15 showing this season. That’s an average of approximately 22% in third down efficiency over a three-game stretch.
The Ravens must do a better job of sustaining drives if they are to be productive on Sunday. The Bengals have been able to force a lot of third-and-long situations. Flacco has to be more efficient throwing the ball on early downs. Moreover, they need to shorten up the down-and-distance, and they must covert when they have the chance.
1. Stuff the run: Conversely, as the Ravens have not been able to run the ball consistently against the Cincinnati defense, the Bengals have been able to pound the ball.
Cedric Benson is a patient runner who allows his blocks to develop before hitting the hole. His style has been tough to contend with, and he’s been able to spring at least one run over 10 yards against the Ravens in their last three meetings.
The front seven must bottle up Benson on first and second down. Just as they did against Peyton Hillis, the edge defenders need to maintain the C gaps to prevent against the cutback.
Being able to get off blocks is another key to slowing down Benson. The linemen and the backers need to stay clean, especially at the second level.
2. Jump the short routes: In his latest incarnation, quarterback Carson Palmer has been more of a short-yardage passer. Given the downfield threats that the Bengals have boasted in the past, defenses have forced Palmer’s hand and he has adapted nicely, especially against the Ravens.
Palmer has been efficient as an intermediate passer, but that was with two deep threats in Ocho Cinco and Terrell Owens stretching the field. With those receivers out for this game, the short passes won’t be as easy to convert because the defensive backs won’t have to stay deep.
The Ravens should be able to play more man coverage against the Bengals, and the safeties will have their chances to converge coming downhill.
Overall, the defensive backs should squeeze the underneath routes and force Palmer to air it downfield.
3. Deceptive rush: Two weeks ago, the Ravens had the perfect formula to foil the high-powered passing game of the New Orleans Saints. They played more man coverage, took chances with their blitz packages, and mixed up their rush looks. The result was an outstanding pass-rush scheme.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will need to use that same type of attack going forward. The key to being able to blitz more is the improved play of the cornerbacks, particularly Josh Wilson and Lardarius Webb.
The Ravens also have the ability to get after the quarterback using just four or five defenders. When they have had success, they have brought defenders from different angles – not merely through a basic four-man, down rush.
It will be important for Mattison to mix things up against Palmer and the Bengals. The all-out blitzes should be in play, but Palmer has proven that he can adjust his protection to pick up the blitz. Therefore, more often than not, Mattison should use some twists, stunts, and deceptive rush formations to get after the Cincinnati signal caller.
One-on-one Matchup to Watch
Andrew Whitworth versus Terrell Suggs: There has been acrimony from the Bengals side over Whitworth not making it to the Pro Bowl. The Cincinnati left tackle was shut out, despite arguably being the best blindside blocker this season. The former Clemson Tiger is not the most athletic tackle, but he is massive, physical, tough, and stays with his blocks. Suggs has played like a man possessed all season. He has especially been outstanding playing down the line as a backside pursuer. He may try to rush inside more often against Whitworth, who normally contains the edge.