Here’s what to expect when the Ravens welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium for the season opener and Baltimore’s first Monday night home game since 2007 …
1. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will exploit a vulnerable interior offensive line to collect a sack and put inside pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals only signed veteran center Jeff Faine at the end of August after starter Kyle Cook suffered an ankle injury and rookie Kevin Zeitler has struggled at right guard, meaning the interior of the Cincinnati offensive line is ripe for the picking. Ngata had a quiet preseason, but he appeared to be in much better shape by the end of training camp. He knows there’s more pressure on him to help the pass rush from the interior, and the All-Pro starter does just that in the opening game of the season.
2. Wide receiver Torrey Smith will build on a strong preseason with 90 yards and a touchdown reception. No one seems to talk about quarterback Joe Flacco struggling against Cover 2 defenses since the emergence of Smith last season. The University of Maryland product caught 11 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown in two games against the Bengals last season. The Ravens will use Smith on underneath routes early in the game — causing safeties Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson to creep closer to the line of scrimmage — before the speedy receiver burns the Cincinnati defense for a long touchdown. The Bengals will be without rookie corner Dre Kirkpatrick and his absence will hurt their secondary.
3. Dalton will throw for 230 yards and two touchdowns as the Bengals test the Baltimore pass rush and go after the secondary. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives the Bengals a better threat in the running game, but Cincinnati will not hesitate in being aggressive with their passing game. The secondary must remain cognizant of Bengals wideout A.J. Green at all times and will likely roll coverage his way often, but the Baltimore linebackers will struggle in coverage against Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham, who had eight catches for 120 yards against the Ravens last year. The Bengals will need to be aggressive to pull off the upset in Baltimore, meaning Dalton will have plenty of opportunities to gain yardage against the most vulnerable Ravens defense we’ve seen in quite some time.
4. Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth will make the rush linebacker spot a non-factor for the Ravens in Week 1. Linebacker Terrell Suggs was often made to look quite mortal against the Bengals left tackle in prior seasons, so you can imagine how much of a challenge he’ll pose for starting rush linebacker Albert McClellan on Monday night. I’m still expecting the Ravens to use Paul Kruger at the rush spot at different times, but Whitworth is one of the most underrated left tackles in the game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to rely on the interior defensive line and blitzes to get to Dalton because the trio of Kruger, McClellan, and rookie Courtney Upshaw will not be up to the task in this matchup.
5. On an emotional night remembering the late Art Modell, the Ravens continue their impressive winning streak against the AFC North with a 24-21 win over Cincinnati. Until I see the Bengals prove they can do it in consecutive seasons, I still have a tough time viewing them as anything but third fiddle in the AFC North behind the Ravens and Pittsburgh. The combination of Dalton to Green will pose a major challenge to the defense, but running back Ray Rice rushed for almost 300 yards against the Bengals defense last year. The Ravens will start aggressively in the no-huddle attack to build an early lead through the passing game and wear down the Cincinnati defense with Rice in the second half. The emotion of honoring Modell and the home crowd will help propel the Ravens to their ninth straight win against AFC North opponents and their 19th win in the last 20 regular-season games played at M&T Bank Stadium.