The Ravens are out to prove their disappointing 2013 campaign was an aberration and not the start of a downward trend as they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to M&T Bank Stadium to begin the 2014 season.
There is plenty of optimism that an offense ranking 29th in the NFL in total yards a year ago will be much improved with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the offseason signing of five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith. However, growing concerns exist for a defense that lost defensive tackle Arthur Jones and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham in free agency and experienced a rash of injuries to the secondary that limited practice time during the summer.
Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are expected to battle the Bengals for AFC North supremacy as Cincinnati won the division going away a year ago. Predictions have been all over the place in terms of how the pundits expect this division to play out after the Bengals didn’t make any significant upgrades and lost both coordinators in the offseason.
Sunday will mark the 37th time these AFC North rivals have met with the Ravens owning a 13-5 mark in Baltimore. The Ravens have won five of the last seven games between these teams and are 7-5 against Cincinnati in the John Harbaugh era.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to begin their journey back to the postseason after their first non-playoff season since 2007 a year ago …
1. Nose tackle Brandon Williams will control the battle against Bengals rookie center Russell Bodine. So many AFC North meetings come down to which team better controls the line of scrimmage, making this an intriguing matchup of first-year starters in the middle. Cincinnati will try to establish the run to limit quarterback Andy Dalton’s propensity for making mistakes against the Ravens defense, but Williams will build on what was an impressive summer by consistently disrupting run plays up the middle for minimal yardage. The Bengals are excited about Bodine’s potential, but Williams will make him look exactly like a fourth-round pick playing in his first NFL game.
2. Miscommunication in the secondary will lead to a long Andy Dalton touchdown to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. The Ravens’ decision to cut veteran Derek Cox Saturday suggests they’re confident in the health of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, and Asa Jackson, but the defense was unable to practice with its starting secondary intact all summer. That reality will make a difference along with free safety Darian Stewart making his first start for the Ravens as there are bound to be some communication issues and missed assignments. The absence of No. 2 wide receiver Marvin Jones will help, but the elite Green will take advantage of a busted coverage to catch a long touchdown from Dalton.
3. Steve Smith will catch six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in his Baltimore debut. New Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will employ plenty of Cover 2 to attempt to neutralize the speed of Torrey Smith on the outside, which will give the 35-year-old Smith the opportunity to work the intermediate middle to move the chains. It’s fair to doubt how well Smith holds up over 16 weeks of football, but he is too fresh and motivated not to make a significant impact early in the season. A Joe Flacco touchdown pass to the former Carolina Panther will send M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy and give the Ravens a touchdown to move ahead after a long scoring drive.
4. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown, giving the Ravens fits as a receiver out of the backfield. Linebacker Daryl Smith said the key to slowing the shifty second-year back is for all 11 defensive players to fly to the ball whenever he gets it, but that’s easier said than done as he collected more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in a part-time role as a rookie. The Ravens must be cognizant of his ability to make defenders miss when catching screens and check-downs from Dalton, but Cincinnati’s other weapons all over the field make this easier said than done. Bernard will be a tough test for Smith and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who can’t lose him in underneath zone coverage while paying attention to tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert down the seam.
5. The home-field advantage and a late turnover by Dalton will be enough for the Ravens to come away with a 23-21 win in the first of three AFC North games to start the season. I expect the Bengals to be the better team over the course of the 2014 season, but the Ravens’ improved offense and overall toughness playing at M&T Bank Stadium will prove to be the difference in Week 1. The revamped running game will be just effective enough to keep pressure off of Flacco, and the Ravens defense will use the emotion of the crowd to pressure Dalton and compensate for a vulnerable secondary that is sure to make coaches and fans nervous throughout the 2014 season. The Ravens need to hold serve at home in their divisional games and will do just that on Sunday.