The Ravens defense has endured 44 seconds and an entire offseason to get a shot at the Bengals while the Cincinnati offense didn’t wait around and ripped up its playbook and line. The wait is over Thursday night (8:20-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) in the Paul Brown Stadium opener as both emerge from their corners as potential heavyweights in the AFC North.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable has a ring-side seat and we’ve tabulated the cards. With plenty of round-house punches expected from two formidable front sevens … a split decision.
The Athletic’s double-team in this game, Bengals reporter Jay Morrison and Ravens reporter Jeff Zrebiec, both see Cincinnati winning a one-score game despite Baltimore’s Opening Day annihilation of Buffalo. Katherine Terrell, who covers the Bengals for ESPN.com, also opts for a tight Bengals victory, largely because of intangibles like home-field advantage and short-week travel for the Ravens.
The only ballot for the Ravens comes from Sirius NFL Radio TalkMaster Alex Marvez, a former Bengals beat reporter for the Dayton Daily News when the Browns moved to Baltimore. He likes both clubs, but thinks the revival of quarterback Joe Flacco has put the Ravens slightly ahead of the Bengals four days into the season.
Let’s go around The Table. As always, ladies and visitors, first:
It’s hard to figure out what kind of team the Bengals are going to be from that win on Sunday because they did make a lot of mistakes. But the biggest thing is they made the right plays at the right moments and for such a young team that says a lot. I think this game is going to be harder because the Ravens have a better defense and it’s hard to say how the right side of that offensive line is going to hold up.
I view the Ravens about equal with the Bengals, but with the game at home I think the Bengals might have a slight advantage. It’s just about how their offensive line holds up. That’s the biggest matchup. Maybe they have to take a page from the Colts’ book and just go to a short, quick passing game to get the ball out quickly. Otherwise, it could get ugly. I think the other big key to the game is the Bengals linebackers. Without Vontaze Burfict that unit as a whole took a significant hit.
THE EDGE: If the Bengals overcome all the mistakes they made, then they can be really good. If they can play that badly and still win I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about this team. BENGALS, 20-17.
I started falling in love with the Bengals again during the preseason and they didn’t let me down vs. the Colts. John Ross heavily involved in the offense, which you love to see, it opened up so many things. You saw Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard become the type of running back tandem they could have been last season, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. The offensive line was solid enough. Unlike some other Bengals teams this one came through in the fourth quarter when things were looking really rough, so I like that part of their team.
I will say this, though; the Baltimore Ravens might be a bear this season. With quarterback Joe Flacco now having wide receivers, it totally changes for that offense. For the first time since 2014 he connected with three wide receivers for touchdown passes. That hasn’t happened in four seasons. It’s clear they made some strides. Look, the Bills are terrible offensively, but I think it looks like the Ravens are back.
This is a pivotal game because I think in the end the Bengals and Ravens are going to be in the thick of it for play-off berths. The Bengals offensive line is not five blocks of granite just yet, but I do think for the most part they held up OK. The Ravens are definitely going to be bringing the heat. It’s a sound team. You know what you’re going to get from the Ravens every time. It’s a strong defense with Terrell Suggs’ nastiness and attitude. It’s going to be an angry team simply because of the way the Bengals ended their season last year.
THE EDGE: I normally go with the Bengals but I’m going with the Ravens this time in a hard-fought game. I’m bullish on both teams, but I just think the Ravens are a little bit ahead right now. They were one of the better teams in the NFL last year and you wonder how much damage they could have done in the playoffs if the Bengals didn’t knock them out. I think what happened in Week 17 last year makes the Ravens even hungrier coming in there. It won’t knock them out of the playoffs, but it would be big. RAVENS, 20-17.
If someone asked me if it was more are the Ravens that good or the Bills that bad, I would lean to the Bills being that bad. It was a perfect storm in Buffalo. Young quarterback coming into a tough place to win and the Ravens had a long training camp with the Hall of Fame Game and they were really keyed up for this game against a team that made the playoffs over them. They were looking forward to this one for a while.
That said, the Ravens are improved. They’ve overhauled their offense. Their quarterback is healthy. They have competent wide receivers. They don’t have one of the best groups in the league, but they have more weapons than they’ve had in previous years and their defense returns basically intact. It’s a veteran defense and they’ve done a good job projecting the youth pieces of depth and they overwhelmed Buffalo.
I think they’re going to be better, but Thursday is a test just because we know how they’ve struggled against the Bengals in recent years. Don Martindale, the Ravens’ new defensive coordinator, is more aggressive than Dean Pees. He sends people. There was one play where they had all five of their outside linebackers on the field at the same time and they all went after the passer. Obviously Martindale has been with the Ravens for a while and I’m sure Marvin Lewis knows him so it’s not going to be a huge surprise. But they’ve being more aggressive even with their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, on suspension. They’re putting a lot of faith in second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey and veteran safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. They’ll go hard after Dalton trying to cause turnovers and that’s the way they’re going to have to play their games defensively. While their offense is better, I still think their defense is the more proven, sounder unit.
THE EDGE: I expect it to be a one-possession game. I don’t think the Bengals are much better than the Ravens, if at all. Home crowd. Thursday night. Road game. You look at the numbers and no one has given Flacco more problems than the Bengals. He’s thrown 11 more interceptions against Cincinnati than any other team and that’s significant. It seems like the Bengals just have his number. Even when the Ravens won last year in Cincinnati, they won it with their defense. I give the nod and the matchup to the Bengals just because they’ve been historically better than the Ravens in this matchup. BENGALS, 24-17.
I thought the Bengals played well in Indy. They overcame a lot of mistakes. Not just the penalties and fumbles, but there were a lot of losses on first down. There was a play Andy threw a terrible pass and Mixon caught it one-handed. If that bounces up that could have been an interception. That’s always encouraging when they overcome things like that.
The offensive line is a concern. Margus Hunt getting two sacks on the right side of your line. Right tackle Bobby Hart also had a holding penalty. It was not a good day for Bobby. You wonder if there is going to be a change or a rotation like they did in week three last year in Green Bay. You know the degree of difficulty is going up against Baltimore’s defense.
The Bengals defense played well despite the injury to middle linebacker Preston Brown and the ejection of safety Shawn Williams. Middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson played well and that was kind of a surprise they ran him out there instead of Vincent Rey. Rookie safety Jessie Bates played really well. There were a couple of runs where he was engaged with a blocker and he shed the blocker and made the tackle and kept an eight- or nine-yard run from being much longer. I thought he played well in his first game despite losing a veteran presence back there in Shawn. He had to take control of the communication.
THE EDGE: The home-field advantage. The short turnaround for Baltimore on the road. But if you look at early last year the road teams dominated the Thursday night games. Another advantage the Ravens have is they were able to rest some people in the 47-3 blowout against Buffalo. But the Bengals played well enough in Indy and I think we see them play even better this week. Buffalo is terrible. This is obviously going to be a much tougher game for the Ravens. With the advantage of playing at home in a short week, I think the Bengals find a way to get that late score. BENGALS, 20-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
Stat 1 of the night: The Ravens are 20-1 when Suggs gets at least two sacks so that makes you think they’ll line him up over Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart after Hart gave up two sacks to Margus Hunt in Indy. Suggs lines up over either tackle, but Hart played for a Giants team that beat Suggs and the Ravens two years ago so it’s not his first rodeo against T. Sizzle. And it will be interesting to see how the Bengals attack Suggs with a new offensive line coach. Will they give Hart and left tackle Cordy Glenn help?
This is a huge game for the Bengals’ revamped line because, let’s face it. For the Bengals this game has always come down to protecting the quarterback ever since Ravens end Rob Burnett hit Akili Smith under the chin in the Marvin Lewis 37-0 game of 2000. When they’ve protected Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, they’ve had a pretty good shot.
The Ravens are going to blitz them because, well, they’re the Ravens, and if Bengals like running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert pick it up like they did in 2015 when A.J. Green had a career day with 227 yards, that’s the type of big stuff that can happen. This is also one of those games they can’t ignore the run even though the Ravens are historically stingy. Running back Joe Mixon may not come near his 95 yards rushing from last Sunday, but he has to get at least 17 carries and more to fend off Suggs and friends. The last game of last season is a good read. The Bengals’ re-shuffled O-line stayed in against the Ravens’ pressure by giving it to Mixon 18 times and he responded with 96 yards.
(And the last time they won in Cincy, the Ravens didn’t have Suggs, but the Bengals protected AJ McCarron with 22 runs from Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Stat 2 of the night? Joe Flacco is not only 9-10 against the Bengals but he’s thrown 23 picks against them in those 19 games. He complied those numbers against the defensive scheme crafted by Mike Zimmer and expanded by Paul Guenther, so it’ll be interesting to see if new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s scheme attacks Flacco in the same way.
It’s far from Austin’s first look at Flacco and vice versa. They faced each other every day in practice for three seasons when Austin was the Baltimore secondary coach during the stretch the Ravens won it all with Flacco going off.
And no Bengals-Ravens game can be discussed without emphasizing the special teams. Baltimore can beat you late if Flacco makes one play beyond the 50 because Justin Tucker’s field-goal range is more than 60 yards. You’ve got two of the best special teams coaches in the business in the Bengals’ Darrin Simmons and the Ravens’ Jerry Rosburg. The Bengals have been competitive because they’re usually step-for-step with a Baltimore unit that has been in the top five each of the last six seasons in Goose Gosselin’s NFL special teams rankings.