BENGALS DT GENO ATKINS VS. RAVENS RG BOBBIE WILLIAMS AND LG JAH REID and BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN VS. RAVENS CBs CARY WILLIAMS and COREY GRAHAM
The one thing the Bengals want to keep going in this 6-1 run in Sunday's season finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's-Channel 12) is how their best players have been grabbing games by the hashmarks when the team really needs them.
Whether it is left end Carlos Dunlap with a big late-game sack-and-strip of Philip Rivers in San Diego, cornerback Leon Hall's clutch interceptions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in back-to-back games, or Green and quarterback Andy Dalton playing a cool game of 21 when they hit the Steelers with the perfect sideline route with just eight seconds left at hostile Heinz for 21 yards and the win, the big names keep playing big.
So enter the two biggest names for the playoff's dress rehearsal, Green and Atkins, Cincinnati's two Pro Bowl starters.
Green has been relatively quiet in his two games against Baltimore, but this is not your father's Ravens defense. Not with ace corner Lardarius Webb and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis on the shelf and only two starters (Williams and safety Ed Reed) who have played all 15 games.
With Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata not expected to play Sunday, either, and the Ravens already struggling with a 24th ranking against the run, Baltimore may take a page out of the Steelers book, load up the box and dare the Bengals to do what they couldn't do in Pittsburgh and challenge them to go deep. Baltimore is in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing big passes (16th with seven of at least 40 yards) and has allowed the second-fewest TD passes in the league.
If the Bengals are going to advance, they need to loosen up defenses. Their wide receivers haven't caught pass longer than 21 yards since 6:32 left in the Nov. 25 Oakland win, when Dalton and Green responded to left tackle Andrew Whitworth's scuffle with a 48-yard bomb.
But Green and rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones have been inches away. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden counts oh-for-seven to eight shots last Sunday, and on two of them, one each to Green and Jones, the DBs knocked the ball away at the last instant, and Green couldn't get a handle on another down the left sideline in the third quarter on a great throw by Dalton. And while everyone was enraged by a bomb call on third-and-one from the Steelers 48 with 57 seconds left, people forget that Green was wide open for the winner and Dalton simply missed him.
While Dalton knows he has to hit a higher percentage of his deep balls, Gruden says it's not always the quarterback's fault.
"It's not as easy as it sounds. The deep ball, it's still a 55-yard throw and it's hard," Gruden says. "It's not a video game. We've got to get better, but the more we do it the better we'll get. We've got a young quarterback and young receivers.
"There's a lot of variable to the deep ball. There's a lot of different throws. Every deep throw is totally different. Back shoulder. Over the shoulder. The trajectory of the throw dictates it. If you throw it too high, you give Ed Reed a chance to run under it. You saw it when (Dalton) threw a long ball to A.J. and it was right there, but (Steelers safety Troy) Polamalu had time to get over there and knock it out of his hands."
Gruden is very encouraged how Dalton handled the third-and-longs against the vaunted Steelers blitz packages and how some of his throws generated first downs and bailed the offesne out of bad field position. He thinks the long game can't be very far away from that gutty outing.
"Every time you throw the deep ball, it's not always going to be a picture perfect five-step drop, sink your hips, a nice high release with a tight spiral, receivers with separation," Gruden said. "It's not like that all the time. It's not pat-and-go. It's not going to work if the line doesn't give the quarterback room to step through it, or if the receiver doesn't get separation or the quarterback doesn't get it there. There are a lot of variables."
The 6-1 Williams and the 6-0 Graham are GM Ozzie Newsome corners. Rangy, tall. Williams is a fifth-year player that according to Pro Football Focus has allowed six touchdown passes and a 96 passer rating to his receivers. Graham, an undrafted rookie out of New Hampshire, is making his eighth start and has held up well, according to PFF, allowing just one TD and a 70 rating.
But without Webb and safety Bernard Pollard, Green and his guys have to step up and do damage early.
Atkins would love to get going early as well against old friend Williams. Williams, a Bengals staple for the eight previous seasons, has had some problems from the ankle he dislocated as a Bengal late last season and rehabbed at PBS before he signed with the Ravens this spring.
After fighting through some scar tissue and swelling problems that cost him three games, Williams is expected to make his sixth start of the year in a backup role in place of Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda. That provides an intriguing matchup against the strongest two Bengals of the last decade.
In his prime, the 36-year-old Williams was one of the great prime movers in the NFL as the Bengals running game reaped the benefits of his ability to push the league's biggest bodies off the line. And it is Atkins's strength that is his asset, sprouting out of a dynamic 6-1, 300 pounds that is going to be a leverage problem for the 6-4, 345-pound Williams.
But Williams is the consummate pro and has two years of practices against Atkins, so it's the classic veteran-kid matchup, but Atkins is no longer the greenhorn out of Georgia and goes into this game as the league's dominant interior defender.
Atkins should also have the edge on the other guard after coming off a clinic against Pittsburgh first-rounder David DeCastro. He gets another youngin' in the massive 6-7, 340-pound Reid, a third-rounder out of Central Florida in '11 making his seventh NFL start.
Atkins says he treats every opponent, young or old, the same.
"I study them, watch then on tape, and then play them," Atkins says. "Away from work, I probably watch an hour, hour and a half of tape (each day) at home. I'll be lying in bed or watching TV with my iPad with me."
It doesn't take a software developer to figure out what the Bengals have to do Sunday. Running back Ray Rice has killed them in four straight wins over the Bengals and sent them reeling into the playoffs last year with runs of 51 and 70 yards in the finale. He also popped a 59-yarder against them in Baltimore last year on the way to 104 yards, and in this year's opener he averaged 6.8 yards on his 10 carries.
It would be shocking if Rice gets much work at all Sunday since he is Baltimore's leading rusher, one of its leading receivers, and the guy that makes it all go, but rookie running back Bernard Pierce is coming off a 124-yard game against the Giants.
The Bengals defense turned it around this season once it shut down that big play. The Bengals have one of the few defenses that hasn't allowed a 40-yard run all year and since Giants backup Andre Brown ripped off a 29-yarder against Cincinnati in garbage time Nov. 11, the Bengals have allowed just one 20-yard run and that was Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall with 20 exactly last week.
"Running to the ball," Atkins says of the key to stopping Rice. "Rallying to the ball, gang-tackling him so if one guy misses him, everyone else is there to get him to the ground."
Even if Rice doesn't play, one figures the Ravens are going to pound Pierce so they don't expose quarterback Joe Flacco to the Bengals front four. As screwed up as the Ravens were on offense in that three-game losing streak before last Sunday's win over the Giants, the numbers are pretty clear. In the games they run the ball 21 times or less, the 10-5 Ravens are 1-4 and they're coming off their biggest win of the year banging it 45 times against the Giants.
No one knows how long the studs like Green and Atkins are going to play Sunday. No doubt the Bengals would like Green to get five catches for 100 on the season and for Atkins to get another sack or two to pad his NFL interior-best of 12.5. But no matter how long they play, the thinking is just as long as they play well, the Bengals will be in better shape than they were last year heading into the postseason.
"We want to keep the momentum going," Atkins says. "That's why we're playing all our starters. Just to make sure we don't lose a breath or lose a step."