When the Bengals open the season in Baltimore Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), it will be six years to the day Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco made his NFL debut against first-year Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer at M&T Bank Stadium. Somehow, the slow-footed Flacco beat the Bengals on an improbable 38-yard touchdown run, but the game set the parameters of the rivalry since that mosh pit of a 17-10 loss.
Flacco would get his team to the AFC title game that year and later secure a Super Bowl. Zimmer would lead the Bengals to four top 10 rankings in the next six years that were the centerpieces of two division titles before he became head coach of the Vikings this year and bequeathed the scheme to one of the architects, linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
Whatever Flacco has got against the Bengals, it's been hard-fought. He has more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (12) against them and has a 7-5 record vs. Cincinnati that includes an overtime victory and is 26 games over .500 against everybody else.
All of Sunday's major participants are quite aware of each other. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson coached Flacco that day and has been in Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's meeting room when it comes to defense.
Harbaugh's new offensive coordinator, former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, has a running game scheme that claimed that vaunted Bengals defense in back-to-back Wild Card Games.
The Bengals haven't forgotten any of the games. Not Flacco's debut or the Texans running for 188 and 158, yards, respectively, in the 2011 and 2012 post-seasons out of Kubiak's crafty zone scheme that running back Arian Foster could bounce from inside to outside and back again.
"its different guys, but it's the same scheme," said defensive tackle Domata Peko before Monday's practice. "We'll see how it works. We've been watching film from our Houston games."
Guenther, present for all three games in various roles, is no doubt directing the Texans-thon on the screens. And he's probably getting a lot of help on the set from new cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph, Kubiak's secondary coach in Houston.
"It's one of the best schemes in the league," Guenther said. "The personnel is different, but the structure is pretty much the same and it's well done with a good mix of the running game and play-action."
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham doubts the Ravens can run the zones as deftly as the Texans simply because Kubiak was in Houston so long. Baltimore has upgraded at center, picking up Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay, but Lapham says he's got a different style than Texans center Chris Myers.
"The thing that separates the Texans offensive line is how well they move laterally. Myers does such a great job getting to a couple of different levels," Lapham said. "The Houston line and the Baltimore line are as different as night and day. It's going to be a lot different.
"What the Bengals have to do is knock the Ravens backward and set the edge. Don't let them bounce it outside so the back can cut it back."
That is going to be running back Bernard Pierce, the backup to suspended Ray Rice, a bigger guy that had a better year than Rice last year.
"We've had some fits with it. We've seen it enough. We've made some adjustments," said defensive lineman Robert Geathers, who has seen it all in his 11th season. "You don't see many people do it. There are maybe five teams that run it. Not many can run it like Foster. We have to do our job, do what we're supposed to do, and be in the right place at the right time."
If the Ravens are going to look a little different than the Texans, then Kubiak is going to see a different defense. The Bengals were good in '11 and '12, and were ranked 10th and 12th against the run respectively. But last year they brought it up a notch and were fifth. In two games against the Ravens, they stifled Baltimore on three yards per 44 rushes.
"Stopping the run will be the key to the game,' Peko said. "In order to rush the passer, that's what you have to do."
And no one probably knows how to rush Flacco better than Guenther and Geathers just because they've been facing him for so long. They know Kubiak is going to try and cool the Bengals' pass rush with play-action.
"We've got our hands full with him. Especially in Baltimore," Geathers said. "He's got the big arm. Not many guys can make all the throws like he can. If we can get to Flacco and hit him early, we'll be OK. If we let him stand back there and be comfortable and he gets in a rhythm, it will be a long day."
Geathers remembers that long day from six years ago. He remembers how ballistic Zimmer went when Flacco turned a broken play into a touchdown. It is still Flacco's longest run from an NFL scrimmage.
Guenther remembers, and so does Flacco. They've played golf together a couple of times on the Jersey Shore and Guenther asked him this year, "Remember when you ran it 40 yards for a touchdown?"
The Bengals were in an all-out blitz and Flacco told Guenther they missed the handoff on a double reverse and "I was just trying to get five or six yards on the edge and when I looked up, nobody was there, so I kept running."
Flacco won that day, but you can believe a QB has never broken a broken play against the Bengals since after Zimmer's harangue following his first of 100 Bengals games.
"We had a young group and Zim was the kind of coach we needed," Geathers said. "He brought attention to detail and accountability. And guys bought in. That's what Paulie is doing right now. The guys are buying in and doing their job."
Six years later and it is still the recipe for an Opening Day victory. Guenther is dumping in all the spices, but he's holding the broken play.