Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Bengals could go a long way in determining the 2014 AFC North championship, if history is any indication. Since 2009, four of the five AFC North titles have gone to either Cincinnati (2009, 2013) or Baltimore (2011, 2012).
All signs point to Sunday’s game being physical, chippy, close and exciting.
Here are five things to look for in this game.
Joe Flacco’s performance
In 11 career games against the Bengals (not including the 2012 road game in which he barely played), Flacco has averaged 191 passing yards and a 62.9 percent completion rate, while throwing 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Although his completion percentage is very good, Flacco needs to stop turning the ball over against the Bengals. They are a tough defense that doesn’t need any extra help.
Score six, not three
Dennis Pitta is healthy, Marlon Brown is no longer a rookie, Torrey Smith keeps getting better and Steve Smith, Sr. is now in the fold. Obviously Flacco won’t look to just one player in the red zone, but when he does drop back to pass, who will be the player that causes the most problems for the Bengals? In my opinion, it’ll be Brown.
Last year Brown had nine receptions in the red zone, seven of which went for touchdowns. If you throw the ball his way on that part of the field, chances are very good he’s going to score. After all, his size (6’5″, 214 pounds) always makes him a threat.
Of course others could beat the Bengals defense for six points, but given his size advantage, look for Brown to draw the most favorable coverage of all the Ravens’ receivers.
New and improved O.line will need to be on their “A” game
Jeremy Zuttah takes over for Gino Gradkowski at center. Eugene Monroe has had a full offseason to digest and process playing left tackle for the Ravens. Rick Wagner has been a pleasant addition to the starting five. Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, two of the premier offensive linemen in football, enter the season healthy.
What a difference a year makes.
Cincinnati presents one of, if not the most formidable front seven Baltimore will encounter all season. The Ravens offensive linemen will all need to be on the same page, every snap, if they want to win on Sunday. Based on these players’ individual performances in the preseason and on their past accomplishments, it shouldn’t take long for that to happen.
Fans should be able to admire this group for a long time, as the average age of Baltimore’s starting offensive linemen is approximately 26 1/2 years.
Can Pierce assume Rice’s starting role?
You all know what’s at stake for Bernard Pierce over these next two weeks. This is his chance to really make a name for himself; not only because of the playing time he’ll get but because of the caliber of the opponents he’ll be facing.
Is Pierce good enough to start? Absolutely! But don’t look for Ray Rice to take a back seat to Pierce when he returns in Week 3.
Pierce possesses the exact traits a running back in Gary Kubiak’s system needs to have, but Rice has accomplished much more over a longer period of time. Average yards per touch (career): Rice, 6.3; Pierce, 4.7.
Pierce just needs to get it done while Rice is out, then slide comfortably back into his role behind #27.
How will Baltimore’s cornerbacks deal with A.J. Green?
Let’s be honest–if you stop Green you’re probably going to stop the Bengals offense.
Green has played against the Ravens five times in his career. In those games he’s had 21 receptions for 334 yards (15.9 average) and has scored twice. In 2013, Green and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon led the league in receptions of 40 yards or more with nine each.
Say what you want, but the state of the Ravens cornerbacks is unsettled. That said, pass defense isn’t only up to cornerbacks. If defensive linemen can collapse the pocket and safeties can take away chunks of the field, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball where he doesn’t want to, that’s a good thing for the defense.
Baltimore’s cornerbacks will, in all likelihood, find themselves locked up in man-to-man coverage with Green at some point. How they respond in those moments could dictate the outcome of this game, as well as the reps they receive in the future.