Posted: 11:45 p.m.
This is Cincinnati-Baltimore but it?s not Bengals-Ravens.
This has always been in the Marvin Lewis era the high-voltage Bengals offense pitted against the 60-minutes-of-hell Ravens defense. This is supposed to be Carson Palmer?s arm against Ed Reed?s eyes and Chad Ochocinco?s vowels vs. Ray Lewis? consonants. A Bengals offense carrying its defense and a Ravens defense carrying its carefully-managed offense, not to mention a grudge.
But on Sunday in Baltimore in the AFC North showdown for first place, it is the Ravens that have the top five offense at No. 3. It is the Ravens that have a young strong-armed quarterback in the person of Joe Flacco that flings the long ball with such efficacy it puts the fear of ?striking up the band? in Lewis, the old Ravens defensive coordinator that dreads the long ball. It is the Ravens that can run it well enough that a play-action pass or reverse can be a 60-yard dagger.
And it is the Bengals that have a defense (17th) ranked higher than its offense (No. 21) and has made sure they arrive at M&T Bank Stadium at 3-1. It is the Bengals hearing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer tell them this week that the best defense is going to win this game and the Bengals believing it.
It?s not totally changed, of course. Even without coordinator Rex Ryan, Baltimore still has an elite defense and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is still a top-shelf quarterback and twice the player any game manager the Ravens always rolled out there before Flacco arrived in 2008.
But Palmer knows there is a different feel to this one. His average yards per throw is down a full yard below his career mark, 6.1, his longest throw is a 44-yarder off a flea-flicker, and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski got on the headsets in the fourth quarter last Sunday and said he was sticking with the running game with an AFC North game in the balance.
?They?ve got a new coach," Palmer said Wednesday of new Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, ?and we?ve got kind of a new identity. It?s not like the old games. We have a different attitude and a different mentality.
?We don?t go into games thinking we?ve got to score 35. We don?t need to. We haven?t had to score more than 20, really. You don?t want to go out and throw the ball 50 times. You want to control the clock; you want to wear it down. You just want to keep the defense fresh and off the field so when they get back on they can dominate. You still have to be aggressive; you just have to pick your spots.?
We?ll re-use the line from earlier in the day. This isn?t your father?s Bengals-Ravens. Heck, it?s not even your Bengals-Ravens.
Best way to stop an offense in which Flacco has generated more first downs than anyone in the NFL? Do what the Bengals did to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay a few weeks ago and keep the ball more than 33 minutes.
?We?re structured different; we?ve got different players,? Bratkowski said. ?I just have to make sure that we do what we said were going to do in the preseason. ... Sometimes you have to keep running it to let the runner, the offensive line, the tight end know you have faith in them and that something is eventually going to break. It?s a challenge ... you don?t want to abandon the run, yet you want to generate something.?
Talk about Carson Comeback. When Palmer put 24 points on the Ravens at M&T in the fourth quarter of a 27-26 win in his first year as a starter in 2004, he had only two players who will be with him Sunday in wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and fullback Jeremi Johnson.
How different is this offense? In Palmer's last 24 starts dating back to 2007, the Bengals have matched those fourth-quarter 24 points in an entire game six times. Even before then the offense was criticized for not having an identity, not being able to do one thing well enough to hang its hat on with any consistency.
?We can?t worry about the Ravens; we have to worry about our style," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who then described it. ?We keep chopping, chopping. Put our head down and work and scratch and claw and if you do that by the end of the game you?re going to move the ball successfully.
?It might not be as wide open. But just going up and down the field and taking shots now and then, sometimes you get lucky when you do a lot of that stuff. It doesn?t mean you?re always good. I remember games we moved the ball in ?06 and there?s games we didn?t move the ball at all. This team moves the ball. We just need to be more consistent.?
Even wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is buying in. Of course, he hasn?t suffered all that much. He?s on pace for a career-best 12 touchdowns and his 15.2-yard average would be half a yard more than his career average.
?We haven?t opened up the offense yet; that?s what I?m waiting for,? The Ocho said. ?The ground game has been very good. With all the attention Ced (Benson) is attracting ... at some point it?s going to be a beautiful day.?
Ochocinco said he?s fine with the button-down offense because it?s winning. Which is the idea because they?re trying to protect the quarterback behind inexperienced blockers on the line and at tight end, as well as play to the strengths of a good defense and good punter.
And The Ocho better get ready because it sounds like Bratkowski is ready to load up Benson against Baltimore and add to that NFL-high 84 carries against a notoriously stingy defense that allows just 2.6 yards per carry and less than 60 yards per game on the ground.
Some things never change.
But the Bengals have.
It hasn?t looked very pretty but they are averaging 4.5 yards per carry after three straight seasons of finishing below four yards per carry.
?We?re going to have to find a happy mix somewhere between throwing it and keeping them off balance,? Bratkowski said of the Ravens. ?You can?t go in four quarters and run the ball 15 times and think you?re going to make hay. You?re going to have no gain plays against these guys. You?re going to have maybe back-to-back no gain plays, but you have to stay with it and keep going. You have to find that happy mix. OK, enough throws to keep them off balance and guessing and then came back and hit them when they?re not expecting the run.?
The Ocho knows all about this defense. The reason he looks forward to playing the Ravens above all others, he says, is because they are so good you have to account for all 11 players.
?It?s a challenge and I?m sure the rest of the offense is looking forward to the challenge,? he said.
Ochocinco said he also believes the Bengals feed off his energy, but the defense sounds like it wants to set the tone for this one. Of the 11 defensive starters who got the call here back on Nov. 30 when Flacco lit them for 280 yards on 19-of-29 passing in a 34-3 loss, the Bengals have the potential to have seven different starters.
Because of injury they didn?t have their two defensive ends, a linebacker, a cornerback and safety. With defensive tackle Tank Williams and safety Roy Williams back at practice Wednesday, it looks like they?ll have all their Opening Day starters in there.
?We feel good about the game plan. We know how good they are on offense. Zimmer told us whoever plays best on defense is going to win,? said tackle Domata Peko. ?We want to change things to make it different so everyone isn?t always (putting pressure on) our offense. In order to change, you have to win.?
Flacco fried the Bengals with big plays in both games last season, including a 70-yard bomb to wide receiver Mark Clayton at PBS. Clayton also threw a 32-yard touchdown off a reverse to wide receiver Derrick Mason that day. Flacco has already thrown three touchdown passes of at least 27 yards this season, a bad vibe for the Bengals. They?ve allowed a league-high 19 plays of 20-plus yards and a league-high 17 passes of at least 20 yards.
Palmer?s longest touchdown pass this season, on the other hand, is 13 yards.
Chris Crocker, who should join Peko, middle linebacker Dhani Jones, and cornerback Leon Hall as the only Nov. 30 starters to start Sunday, says he and fellow safety Roy Williams won?t tone down their aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage because of the dangers of Flacco?s arm and the possibility of the dipsy-do.
?We gave up big plays on small plays, plays we should have had,? Crocker said. ?We?re not going to be any less aggressive, but we?re going to be more aware. That?s Baltimore?s thing. Two, three yards, and a cloud of dust and then they go for the (big) play. That?s the focus. Don?t give up those plays. Just be more aware of the broken play, the quarterback scrambling, reverse. We?ve got to stop giving up those 20-yard plays.?
But he thinks his offense will be coming up with them soon.
?They?re doing a good job, but they haven?t clicked yet,? Crocker said. ?That?s a positive. We?re 3-1 and they still haven?t clicked. They?ve got weapons. I just don?t think they?ve opened it up yet. They will. They?ll have to pull it out for us one day, too.?
Sunday may not be the day.
It?s not the usual Bengals-Ravens.