Two teams seemingly going in opposite directions will meet in a key midseason AFC North matchup as the surging Ravens travel to Cincinnati to take on the struggling Bengals.
Baltimore is looking for its third straight victory and sixth in seven weeks while the Bengals haven’t won a game in over a month as their season-opening win against the Ravens and 3-0 start feel like distant memories. In going 0-2-1 since its Week 4 bye, Cincinnati has been outscored by 53 points in the last three games.
Health is a key storyline entering this contest as Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is unlikely to play due to a lingering turf toe injury and Ravens tight end Owen Daniels is out after undergoing a cleanup procedure in his left knee this week. However, the Ravens will benefit from the return of the starting left side of their offensive line as Eugene Monroe and Kelechi Osemele are probable to play.
Sunday marks the 38th all-time meeting between these division rivals with the Ravens holding a 20-17 edge. However, the Bengals are 11-7 against Baltimore in Cincinnati and have won three of the last four in the series.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to improve to 6-2 for the fourth time under head coach John Harbaugh …
1. With the Ravens hurting at the tight end position, fullback Kyle Juszczyk sets career highs in receptions and receiving yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco targeted his tight ends 20 times in the Week 1 meeting with the Bengals, but Dennis Pitta and Daniels won’t be on the field Sunday and rookie Crockett Gillmore is more of a blocker. This will lead to a bigger role for Juszczyk, who will see targets out of the backfield as well as when he occasionally lines up at a tight end spot. Flacco is likely to look Steve Smith’s way even more with Daniels sidelined, but Juszczyk could be a wild card against the league’s seventh-ranked third-down defense. The second-year fullback’s best game as a receiver came against Cleveland in Week 3 when he caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
2. The Bengals will make a better effort to get the ball to running back Giovani Bernard than they did last week and he will crack 75 receiving yards. Cincinnati failed to get the ball to the impact back in its shutout loss to Indianapolis as Bernard received only nine touches. That will change Sunday as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson must find creative ways to involve Bernard with his top two receivers — Green and No. 2 wideout Marvin Jones — both out. Top cornerback Jimmy Smith could be used to shadow leading receiver Mohamed Sanu, which would leave quarterback Andy Dalton with few downfield weapons. Cincinnati will use screens to try to neutralize a pass rush growing more confident by the week, and Bernard will give the Bengals some much-needed production.
3. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth will keep Terrell Suggs in check, but Elvis Dumervil will pick up a sack and several pressures working against right tackle Andre Smith. The Bengals have only allowed Dalton to be sacked five times this season, but the emergence of interior rush specialist Pernell McPhee creates a problem for the Cincinnati offensive line that must account for Suggs and Dumervil on the edges. Smith has been dealing with a shoulder issue and has allowed three sacks in his last two games while Dumervil has 3 1/2 sacks over the last two weeks. The Bengals must offer the interior line help with blocking McPhee, which will give Dumervil some 1-on-1 chances to run around Smith and get to Dalton in the pocket. Dalton will get rid of the ball quickly to counteract the rush, but the Ravens will get more pressure than they did in Week 1.
4. Safety Will Hill will receive more playing time than last week and will record his first interception on a tipped pass. The 24-year-old made his 2014 debut last week and immediately found himself in the mix by playing 22 defensive snaps. He was effective close to the line of scrimmage, but Hill has good range in coverage and could find himself in a starting role sooner rather than later. With Green likely out, the Bengals won’t have many vertical options, so Hill will again be used closer to the line of scrimmage and will continue taking away snaps from Darian Stewart and Matt Elam, especially if Cincinnati can’t get its running game going. He will record his first interception as a Raven on a tipped pass intended for Bernard and will make a strong claim for a starting role in the defense.
5. The Ravens will use an effective running game and good field position to grind out a 23-16 win over Cincinnati. These teams are trending in different directions, but the Bengals are better than what they’ve shown over the last three weeks and Baltimore will miss Daniels in the middle of the field. This will add up to a tighter game between AFC North rivals, but the Bengals just haven’t shown enough firepower without Green to consistently move the ball and put up enough points against a defense getting better every week. The Ravens will use a balanced attack through three quarters before leaning heavily on the running game in the fourth as the Bengals’ front seven wears down and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak controls the clock with a lead. The Ravens improve to 6-2 with their biggest road win of the season.