Matchup of the Game: Ravens still defending

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A.J. Green went off for 227 yards back in September in Baltimore.            

      BENGALS OC HUE JACKSON VS. RAVENS DC DEAN PEES

The Bengals are 7-1 in their last eight Paul Brown Stadium regular-season finales and if they're going to win this one Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) and tie a franchise best 12-4 record, they're going to have to do it against a proud Baltimore defense challenging Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in his first NFL home start.

The Ravens doused the NFL's hottest offense last week when they held the Steelers to a scant 303 yards of offense, just 193 net from Ben Roethlisberger's passing game that usually nets 283. Baltimore may have eight Opening Day starters on injured reserve, but only two come from a defense that is on the cusp of the top ten.

After coaxing McCarron to a 90 passer rating on the road against the NFL's No. 1 defense on Monday night, Jackson and his staff are faced with a vintage Baltimore defense that has roamed the AFC Central and North since Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis set the Ravens standard at the turn of the century.

Big and physical up front, fast and loose at linebacker and long and lean in the secondary. Microcosm of the matchup is center Russell Bodine on the monstrous Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, as well as a pair of dueling first-rounders, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

The last time we saw Smith, he had his head in his hands in front of his locker after Green torched him for two TD passes for a combined 87 yards in a span of 4:27 in the fourth quarter, including the seven-yarder with 2:10 left to win it.

Things have gotten better for the Ravens secondary since their mid-season bye, when they lead the NFL in pass defense. They don't give up the big play like they did back on Sept. 27. Green's 80-yarder is the longest pass against them this season. Since the bye the longest pass they've allowed is 49 yards, but Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson also threw for five TDs against them.

Pees figures to take the long ball away and make McCarron march it down the field, much like he did last week against the Steelers' high-octane receiving corps that was held to a long ball of 29 yards.

Jackson, the Ravens quarterbacks coach in head coach John Harbaugh's first two seasons in Baltimore, is already pulling out all the stops in throwing all kinds of formations at Pees in the running game. With H-Back Ryan Hewitt (knee) sidelined, Jackson switched rookie backup tackle Jake Fisher's number from 74 to 44 and the 306-pounder is going to be an interesting lead blocker against the Ravens' marvelous inside backer, the 235-pound C.J. Mosley.

The 6-3, 308-pound Bodine has a lot of regard for the 6-1, 335-pound Williams. Baltimore always makes it tough on every team they play in the running game. The Bengals have won the last four games, but in the last three running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have split 69 carries for an average three yards per run. As tough of a year as it's been in Baltimore, they are still rock-ribbed against the run thanks to Williams. In the tradition of the departed Haloti Ngata, they are ranked seventh in allowing yards per rush.

"He's probably the best guy I've faced this year," Bodine said this week. "He's a big, strong dude who plays hard. You know what you're going to get. I didn't play Ngata in his prime, but from what I understand, this is the way it's been for years. They've got big, strong guys up front that try and get their linebackers loose to run free."

The Bengals have been seeking a big yardage day on the ground in the last month, but it's been elusive since Andy Dalton went down and teams are inching up to the line to test McCarron. The Ravens are never a game to find a lot of yards on the ground, but that won't stop Jackson from running it because he knows how dangerous the Ravens' pass rush is if you go one-dimensional.  In two of the last three games the Bengals ran it 36 and 31 times despite the scarcity.

"There are no secrets out there," Bodine said. "It's an AFC North game and Baltimore is one of those tough, physical teams that keep it going."

No secrets. After Green went for 227 yards against them, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said it would be nice to cover Green just once before he retires. He's killed them in the fourth quarter in the last three years, catching two winners and a tying Hail Mary at 0:00.

They're going to need him in the fourth quarter in the postseason. On Monday night in Denver he didn't have a catch in the second half and since Dalton went down they have only one TD in the second half.

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