OWINGS MILLS, Md. — For as much difficulty as the Ravens have had in getting past the vaunted Pittsburgh defense in recent years, they’ve faced similar frustration when facing the Cincinnati Bengals.
Having lost three of the last four meetings to Cincinnati, the Ravens have scored just 44 points and committed eight turnovers over that stretch as head coach Marvin Lewis has watched his defense frustrate quarterback Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense. Much has been said about Flacco’s struggles against the Bengals’ Cover 2 defense in the past — his 62.3 quarterback rating in six regular-season games vs. Cincinnati is his worst among opponents he’s played more than twice — but the Ravens point to their talented personnel as well as multiple looks that have given them the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense.
“They’re just a good defense,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I think you’ve got to look at other quarterbacks that played against them as well. They really do an outstanding job. They’ve got an outstanding scheme, and they’ve got really good players. … We have to play hard in this game. We have to execute. The Cover 2 scheme, that’s gone out the window. I think once everybody realized it wasn’t a fact, everybody realized that it’s just a matter of them having a good defense that plays hard.”
What else has changed with the Bengals is their personnel in the secondary. After struggling against cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall in the Cincinnati defensive backfield for years, Flacco will not have to face either on Sunday. Joseph, of course, found a new home in Houston via free agency while Hall was lost for the season after suffering an Achilles tendon injury against the Steelers on Sunday.
Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings — veterans in their first year with Cincinnati — will now be expected to hold down the cornerback spots along with the volatile Adam “Pacman” Jones in place of the dynamic duo that haunted Flacco in the past. The Bengals rank 10th in pass defense but have only four interceptions, two of those granted to Hall before he was lost to the season.
“Obviously, you look at that and say, ‘OK, it’s obviously not their starting corner, the guy that they initially would like to have in there,’” Flacco said. “But at the same time, you can’t really underestimate people or try to do any of that. You have to go in there, you have to execute the game plan. Like I said, hopefully we can take advantage of that, just like we hope to every week when we go out there and play against a team.”
In order to find success in the passing game, Flacco expressed more concern with having ample time to deliver the football than trying to decipher different coverages defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might throw his way at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
The Bengals have accumulated 25 sacks in their first nine games, including 4 1/2 from second-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins. And they’ll offer another 4-3 front, a defensive look the Ravens have struggled with all season. Cincinnati has forced its opponent to go three-and-out on 33 percent of drives, the best mark in the NFL.
“I think they have a front four that is playing really well right now,” Flacco said. “I think the main thing is to stop the front four from getting pressure and not creating lanes to run the ball in. I think if we do that, then we are going to do a good job. These guys have done a good job all year and in the past of playing well up front against us. I think if we eliminate that the way we are capable of, then we are going to have success.”
All eyes will be on Cameron and his commitment to giving opportunities to running back Ray Rice, who was limited to only five carries after the Ravens fell behind by two possessions in the first half of their loss to Seattle. The Ravens have stated all week their need to be more productive in the running game, no easy task against the Bengals’ second-ranked run defense.
In order to move into a tie with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North — the Ravens own the tiebreaker after sweeping the regular-season series — Baltimore will have to display an attitude hellbent on running the football and playing a more physical style on offense, according to the star running back who’s seen his touches fall off this season.
“One thing we are going to do – hang our hats on – going forward, is establishing a run game,” Rice said. “You have to hang your head to it. That’s what the teams – Seattle did it, Jacksonville did it – the teams that want to run the ball, no matter what situation, they are going to do it. We all know this is the NFL; we are going to face top defenses. But at the same time, we have to make them defend the run.”