1) Spread attack: In the first matchup between these two clubs, the Ravens emphasized protection first, and executed a conservative game plan. Given the potential mismatches up front, the offense stayed in more base formations and the drops were quicker for Joe Flacco.
With Jared Gaither back in the lineup at left tackle, the protection scheme is back in line. Now, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can trust his front five to pick up the rush without help from extra blockers.
Arguably, the best formation that this offense works from is a three-wide, single back, shotgun formation. With Kelley Washington on the field as the third receiver, Flacco has a big target to stretch the seam, and Washington’s ability to line up outside frees up Derrick Mason to operate from the slot. Moreover, tailback Ray Rice is adept at running the ball without a lead blocker, and overall, the offense runs the ball efficiently from this set.
From this formation, the offense will be in the best position to make plays against the Cincinnati defense. With Antwan Odom shelved for the rest of the season, this defense may be hard pressed to get after the Ravens with just four defenders as they did four weeks ago. In addition, with Washington on the field, the Bengals would have to use their nickel package, and Flacco would have the chance to work against the nickel back as opposed to consistently testing Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall on the outside.
2) Better balance on first down: One of the bigger play-calling missteps that Cameron made the first time around was relying on the pass on first down. Flacco often had to check the ball down, and was limited to 5.6 yards per attempt. As a result, the offense had more third-and-long conversion situations. On the whole, the offense was only 3-of-11 that day.
In order to have more success on third down, the offense has to more efficient on first down. Balance is the key to achieving this goal. The running game has to be a bigger piece of the puzzle. Even if the offense is spread out, Rice has to touch the ball often, and overall, the backs need to log close to 30 carries as they did against Denver.
3) Backs in space: When the Houston Texans gashed the Bengals in Week 6, they did a nice job of using the screen game to keep the defense off balance. Tailback Steve Slaton had a monster game, and singed the Bengals in the open field. On one play in particular, Slaton set up wide, caught a bubble screen, and followed a convoy of blockers to the end zone.
Rice already burned the Bengals on a dump-off pass in the first game, and he has the skills to have the same type of impact in the passing game as Slaton did. Look for Rice to flex out, as Cameron will attempt to isolate him against the Cincinnati defensive backs.
1) Interior rush: Why has Carson Palmer been so successful against the Ravens? He’s had time to throw the ball. Over the years, the Bengals have been one of the few teams in the league to consistently find a way to pick up the Baltimore rush.
In the first matchup, the Baltimore pass-rush did not sniff Palmer. When the rushers flew off the edges, Palmer was easily able to step up in the pocket and find his lanes.
For the defense to have a better day, they must find a way to pressure Palmer up the middle. As they did against the Broncos, the linebackers will need to be a part of the blitz scheme to push the pocket. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should sprinkle in a mix of cross blitzes on first and second down, using his two inside backers. In addition, look for these blitzes to be delayed, as rushers make their move after the lines are engaged and gaps are opened up.
2) Gap integrity: The front seven struggled to contain running back Cedric Benson in the previous matchup between these two teams. Benson’s biggest gashes came off tackle, as he did a superb job of pressing the hole and then cutting back to daylight.
Following the game, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata stated that the defense had poor gap discipline. Defenders didn’t stick to their gap assignments. As a result, there were wide avenues for Benson to rumble through.
Clearly, the defense has to do a better job of staying disciplined to contain Benson. Defenders cannot over-pursue, and they must fill their gaps. Also, the edge defenders will need to play just as physical when they take on blocks, and tackle just as soundly as they did this past Sunday.
3) Watch out for play-action: With the Baltimore defense so keyed in on shutting down Benson, Palmer could use play-action to manipulate defenders out of their coverage landmarks, just as Brett Favre did against Baltimore three weeks ago. The linebackers and the defensive backs will need to be aware of Palmer’s play-fake. They need to play aggressively to stop Benson, but if they are over-aggressive, Palmer will pick them apart downfield.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Fabian Washington versus Chad Ochocinco: The number has taken his share of verbal shots at Washington on his Twitter account, just as he did before the first matchup. Washington didn’t fire back this time around. It will be interesting to see how Washington – who played his best and most physical game of the season against Denver – responds on the field. Washington is a confounding player because he has the speed and the athleticism to match up with any receiver, yet he has too many mental lapses in coverage. Ochocinco has had a bounce back season, and he remains one of the best deep threats in the game. Washington will have to find a way to limit his gains in the rematch.