The Cincinnati Bengals open the season against division rivals Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The Bengals are looking to extend their winning streak having won the last five meetings between the two franchises. Both teams have undergone minor revamps with head coaches Marvin Lewis and John Harbaugh looking to revitalise their rosters with an injection of youth. Whoever lands the first blow will have a jump start in what looks to be a hotly contested AFC North. Let’s take a look at where the game could be won and lost:
Ravens fans can breathe a sigh of relief this week as Joe Flacco practised for the first time after a back injury delayed his return to off-season preparations. However, the concern is that having missed so much time can Flacco reunite seamlessly with an offense that has made several changes since the end of 2016? The biggest concern is likely to be keeping Flacco protected while he shakes the rust off. Having lost guard Kelechi Osemele last offseason the Ravens saw Ricky Wagner and Jeremy Zuttah also depart this time around. It is vital that James Hurst and Ryan Jensen can step in and provide adequate security on the interior of the line.
Key to lessening the burden on Flacco will be establishing the run game. With Kenneth Dixon out for the year, Terence West looks set to be the main workhorse back. By bringing in third down specialist Danny Woodhead the Ravens have given Flacco a safety valve in the passing game who he is likely to lean on while he gets up to speed. Both Woodhead and tight end Nick Boyle will look to exploit the gap between the defensive line and the secondary that the Bengals had such a problem defending last year.
The passing game should be more effective for the Ravens with Mike Wallace and new addition Jeremy Maclin providing legitimate deep speed and Breshad Perriman finally looking to solidify his spot as the no.1 wide receiver on this team.
Loss of key personnel on Defense for Cincinnati
Across the line the Bengals will have to make do without two key men, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones through suspension. Safety Shawn Williams also looks set to miss out through injury. In their absence the Bengals will likely target the interior of Baltimore’s offensive line with pro-bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins will hope that an injection of youth into the Bengals pass rush should take away some of the double teams he faced last year. The extra pressure will be brought from rookies Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis who have already flashed enough in pre-season to suggest this Bengals defense should be much improved.
Nick Vigil looks set to play a big role for the Bengals at linebacker and expect to see him around the ball in order to shut down the Ravens running attack and also provide coverage of offensive weapon Danny Woodhead. Rookie linebacker Jordan Evans will likely see snaps in Burfict’s absence and his athleticism will be key in stopping the short passing game, that Flacco will likely lean on, from developing.
It will be a youthful secondary for the Bengals and likely a tough afternoon against a strong receiving corps like the Ravens have. It will be important that Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson can live up to their first round billing in Jones’ absence. At safety Clayton Fejedelem looks set to start and his physical presence slightly alters the style the Bengals like to play with two deep safeties but expect him to be of use in certain blitzing packages.
Cincinnati’s new looking offensive line
On the offensive side of the ball the lingering question for Cincy fans remains the new look offensive line. Trey Hopkins was a surprise bright spot in pre-season and deservedly starts at guard but the real questions will be posed to Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher who had an up and down start to the year.
If the protection can hold up then this is a potentially explosive offense. Too often last year the Bengals failed to properly set up the run game but with three different options expect them to establish it early here. Jeremy Hill starts as a battering ram with Gio Bernard offering a pass-catching option, the real x-factor is rookie Joe Mixon and it will be intriguing to see how much time the precocious back gets in the season opener.
The hope will be that the run game can encourage the Ravens to stack the box allowing QB Andy Dalton to use the deep threat posed by AJ Green. Although speedster John Ross misses out the Bengals are loaded at receiver and keep an eye out for Cody Core, the second year man, who has shown great speed and ability in the off-season. The return of Tyler Eifert should also mean Dalton can turn redzone opportunities into touchdowns and not just field goals.
Baltimore’s new look secondary and who will generate a pass rush
The Bengals passing game will ask plenty of questions of this Ravens secondary and there are plenty of unknowns. Brandon Carr arrives from Dallas and the hope is he can be more productive in a man coverage heavy scheme. Across from him Jimmy Smith is reliable when fit. First rounder, Marlon Humphrey is talented but cornerback is notoriously difficult to adjust to at the pro level. He will be helped by one of the best safety combinations in the league, Eric Weddle and new arrival Tony Jefferson.
The real question up front will be can Terrell Suggs continue to provide the bulk of the pass rush at age 34. His performance is likely to be key and he will fancy his chances against the inexperienced offensive tackles the Bengals will field. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams is likely to target Russell Bodine, who has proved less than assured at center, and force him back into Dalton, something the Bengals saw happen all too often last year. Speed seemed to be one of the biggest undoings for young tackle Ogbuehi so don’t be surprised if the raw Tim Williams is deployed in certain situations by the Ravens.
Verdict- As with all AFC North matchups, this will likely be a battle of attrition and the ability of these two young defenses could be the main factor in deciding a winner. With the additional pass rush ability the Bengals added and the explosive offensive pieces in place I see a slim victory for the home team.