Week 9 Preview: Baltimore at Cincinnati

In the backroom of a shady saloon just on the edge of town, the Ravens await. They sit there hunkered over a card-table with a half-bottle of cheap rum and an old, shaggy dog named Cleveland, curled up and sleeping at their feet. They’ve been there since daybreak and they say they ain’t leavin’ til the Bengals give ’em another chance. On Sunday they’ll get their wish, but once again, might live to regret it.

Baltimore is still bitter about what happened last time. Cincinnati caught them by surprise and it took a month for the Ravens to recover. They rediscovered their hot hand last week on the way to pounding Denver 30-9, and now they’re ready for revenge.

Cincinnati is ready too. After completing their best win in years, the Bengals enjoyed a relaxing few days away from football and recuperated their damaged bodies. Now they ride back into town, healthier and more prepared than they’ve been all season, eager to keep the Ravens in their place: behind them in the standings.

The game plan is becoming redundant against these kinds of teams; spread out the wide-receivers, exploit the middle of the field against zone coverages, run hand-offs outside of the tackles to Cedric Benson, throw early to set up the run late. All of these efforts are designed to soften the hard edges of the Ravens defensive front seven. They’re still a tough team to run on (fourth in the league), but the Bengals smashed them to bits with the run in their first meeting. If Cincinnati can protect Carson Palmer and the passing-game gets moving early on, Benson and the offensive line will find life easier in the second half and wind down the clock while sustaining long drives.

Let’s face it; after last week, the Bengals offense appears that it cannot be defended in any one particular way. Palmer is back to playing at an elite level, Benson has demonstrated a blend of speed and power that now has him ranked among the league’s best runners, and the team is suddenly faced with a glut of quality offensive linemen; opponents can’t repel firepower of that magnitude!

The Ravens freaked out Bronco quarterback, Kyle Orton, early in the game last week by sending heavy pressure on blitzes which caused the scruffy signal-caller to scramble around and lose his composure. Still fueled by their hostility toward Palmer and the Bengals, I would expect Baltimore to cut loose and come after our golden boy with hatchets and spears all day on blitz-packages.

The theory makes sense; Palmer will eat any defense alive if he’s allowed time in the pocket to hang back and find open guys, and after their recent success with the blitz, there’s no reason to think Ray Lewis and his band of lunatics won’t go nuts at the mere sight of No. 9. He’s a marked man pursued by nasty renegades, bent on finishing the job and escaping with a win.

Therefore, something as basic as the screen-pass could lead the Ravens right into Cincinnati’s trap. Like an experienced matador, Palmer could invite the all-out blitz, wait for its raging eyes to come into sight, and at the last second side-step the violent encounter and dump off the screen to Benson with both an open field and a wall of blockers to work with. Voila!

If the Ravens pick up on the screen, yet continue to send additional blitzers, quick-outs to the Bengal receivers would force Baltimore’s corners to make open-field tackles—something they’ve struggled doing throughout the season. Once Palmer and the Bengals find success in the short-passing game in the face of the blitz, the Ravens will be forced to back off from sending all that pressure, and Cedric Benson will have room to operate on the ground.

At this point in time, it’s up to the Bengals to stop themselves on offense because opposing defenses aren’t rising to the challenge. If they can come close to matching the success they had against the Bears, the Ravens will have little chance of slowing Cincinnati down and winning the game.

On defense, nothing has changed since the last meeting between these two; stop Ray Rice first and Todd Heap second. Leave their receivers alone in one-on-one coverage, our corners can handle it. Keep the defensive line stretched out and contain Rice between the hash-marks. Play a shallow zone to keep Heap from finding space alone in the flats, and when the Bengals do blitz, send linebackers and safeties up the middle to flush Joe Flacco out of the pocket and make plays with his legs.

Cincinnati did a decent job containing Rice on the ground in Week 5, but missed a tackle to allow the big play on a screen pass; that can’t happen again this week. The newest version of the NFL running back—squat and meaty, compact and hard to tackle—has plagued the Bengals defense more than the league’s traditional backs. Two smallish, quicker runners, Rice and Houston’s Steve Slaton, have had the biggest impact in games against Cincinnati so far. That’s why stopping Rice, and not worrying about Willis McGahee or the trio of mediocre receivers, remains the defense’s top priority.

There is little reason to worry about the Bengals this week. Sure the Ravens are always a formidable group of roughnecks that seem consistently hellbent on pulverizing anything in sight. Sure they take pleasure in making Sundays a brutal affair where only the gruffest survive and often times bully their way into wins and playoffs. Sure they’re dressed like a bruise, but the team they so eagerly await at that rickety card table in the dingy hole-in-the-wall on the outskirts of town will not be out-muscled. They won’t be intimidated or shaken from their game-plan. They will take their seat opposite from these goons, stare them in the eye, and beat them for their pile once again.

Bengals 17, Ravens 0

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