3 Things To Watch – At Baltimore

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Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) is stopped by Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams (98) during the second half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

In a matchup between two teams in the thick of the AFC playoff race, the Bengals face the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC North rivalry game. 

One of the biggest storylines is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis taking over defensive play calling duties. Lewis was last a defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2002 and served as the Ravens coordinator from 1996-2001.

In a game that is equally important for the 5-4 Bengals and the 4-5 Ravens, Sunday's matchup should be a fun one. A game against the Ravens feels big, no matter what, but the added stakes have made Sunday's game feel even more important than usual.

Here are the three things to watch.

1. The Defense Overall – The Bengals have played six top 10 scoring offenses so far. They have faced potential Most Valuable Player candidates in Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger, as well as top tier quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan.

With playing so many high powered offenses, the numbers have not looked great. 

Lewis knows the Bengals need to get better and fast. They have allowed an average of 32.0 points per game, the second-most in the NFL. They also rank last in total defense allowing 454.6 yards per game, passing defense, allowing 313.3 yards and third down conversion rate at 56.2 percent.

With that in mind, everything will be on the table. How will the defense dial up pressure? Will there be more press coverage? Run blitzes? Different personnel groupings? 

Adding intrigue is who will be the Ravens starting quarterback. Joe Flacco is dealing with a hip injury and missed practice all week. With Flacco listed as doubtful and potentially out, Baltimore could turn to a pair of first round picks – Lamar Jackson or Robert Griffin III.

2. Ball Security – In the 22 Bengals-Ravens games during Marvin Lewis' tenure, the Bengals are 11-0 against the Ravens with a plus turnover differential, and 2-10 with a minus. 

Creating turnovers is the name of the game when it comes to the Baltimore defense. The Ravens are 76-5 since 2000 when the turnover ratio is plus-2 or better. The Ravens tallied the NFL's No. 1 turnover differential (+17) in 2017 and also registered the NFL's most takeaways (34).

Fast forward to 2018 and the Ravens have struggled in turnover ratio at minus-five. The defense has only forced seven turnovers total through nine games and only one in the past four contests. In the week two matchup, the Bengals forced three Baltimore turnovers and took care of the football. 

One of the more interesting sub-plots will be how offensive coordinator Bill Lazor scripts his looks early in the game, especially with the personnel available. The scheme looked good on the first series against New Orleans culminating in a touchdown pass to John Ross. After that series, the Bengals had five punts, two interceptions and a turnover on downs.

3. Avoid Negative Plays – After the Saints game Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said that negative plays killed the rhythm of the offense. Penalties, sacks, loss of yardage and even incompletions all can shut down the offensive rhythm. 

Balance on offense will be important against Baltimore's front seven. In the week two matchup, the Bengals put up 373 yards on the Ravens and controlled the clock for almost 32 minutes. 

Dalton also spread the ball around in the passing game throwing it to nine different receivers. That opened up holes in the running game for Joe Mixon to rush for 84 yards and Giovani Bernard to add 27 yards on the ground as well. 

Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said after the week two matchup at Cincinnati that the lack of sacks and pressure on the quarterback, as well as penalties on third down led to their slow start. Penalties have been an issue all season for Baltimore, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 69 infractions.

A look back at one of the best rivalries in the AFC North. Bengals versus Ravens. Images from the storied series.

Game Coverage

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Eastern.

Television: The game will air on CBS-TV. In the Bengals' home region, it will be carried by WKRC-TV (Ch. 12) in Cincinnati, WHIO-TV (Ch. 7) in Dayton and on WKYT-TV (Ch. 27) in Lexington. Broadcasters are Kevin Harlan (play-byplay), Rich Gannon (analyst) and Steve Tasker (sideline reporter).

Radio: The game will air on the Bengals Radio Network, led by Cincinnati flagship stations WLW-AM (700), WCKY-AM (ESPN 1530) and WEBN-FM (102.7). Broadcasters are Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Dave Lapham (analyst).