It’s a Monday night in Baltimore. It’s the Ravens’ home opener. Throw in the fact that Baltimore figurehead Art Modell bit the dust recently, and it’s a safe bet those fans will be spitting blood and smearing paste on their face by kick off.
I won’t say the Bengals can’t win. If there’s a consistently great team in the NFL that I think the Bengals can beat, it’s Baltimore (as opposed to, say, the Patriots/Steelers/Packers). After all, it’s happened plenty (Marvin Lewis is 10-8 against the Ravens in his nine seasons as Bengals HC). But, being that the crowd will be wild and (if we’re being honest) the Ravens are still just a better team, a lot has to go right.
Here are three things the Bengals must do in order to take 1,0,0,0 lead in the AFC North:
1) Pressure the bijesus out of Joe Flacco. Every year we hear about the steps Flacco’s made in the offseason. About how he’s ready to make the Ravens “his team.” Say what you want, but as someone who follows this division closely, Joe Flacco is puke. Sure, he was one Lee Evans boner away from going to the Super Bowl. But he’s also playing for a franchise that won a Superbowl with Trent “Dough Boy” Dilfer, so you could say he’s still a tad behind the curve. The Bengals have emerging stars Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and Domata Peko on their D-line, all guys who can drive offenses bonkers. The Ravens will counter with a patchwork offensive line that will be up to its rolly-polly neck trying to give Ray Rice a few inches. D-coordinator Mike Zimmer needs to take full advantage of that mismatch. I say bring fiery bile to Flacco’s doorstep and see how he responds. Chances are he’ll throw a couple balls that even I could pick off, and I’m an undersized white guy who eats too much cheese.
2) Realize there are only three ways the Ravens can score. Previously, I mentioned Ray Rice. There’s absolutely no way to minimize the effect this guy can have on a game. There’s a stat floating around out there about how he’s broken off more 50+-yard runs versus the Bengals than any other back since the Triassic Period. Now, I could very well have made that up, but the point is that Ray Rice heads the list of Bengal killers. There’s a reason he’s a consensus top Fantasy pick every year. The guy sees daylight, runs to it, and takes a giant doo-doo on its head. Containing him (not stopping him, because that’s inconceivable), is of paramount importance. With Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga, and Manny Lawson, the Bengals have the personnel to pull this off. I'm just hoping Rice doesn’t juke them all out of their shoes on one play, causing them to collide and land in a heap with X’s over their eyes and cartoon birds circling their heads. Sadly, this is a distinct possibility.
The only other offensive weapon I see on the Ravens’ roster is second-year speedster Torrey Smith. Pundits often talk about receivers who have the speed to “take the top off” a defense. Smith can take the top off, slice it into a hundred pieces, and sprinkle it over his dinner salad like goat cheese. That’s how fast he is. I say play it safe with this dude. Double coverage at all times with free safety Reggie Nelson and second CB Nate Clements. That’ll leave number one corner Leon Hall in single coverage on Jacoby Jones (another guy who can put a defense on his salad), and any combination of Adam Jones/Terence Newman/ the-overweight-cocktail-server-in-skybox-7 to deal with Anquan Boldin, aka Leadfoot McGhee.
That’s two. Two guys I think can beat us. And that may be enough, unfortunately. However, the third threat on the Raven’s roster is their defense, and it will remain that way until someone decides to stake Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Last time around, Andy Dalton tossed three picks and the Bengals lost. And besides that lovely Rice-ran-for-two-thousand-yards footnote, the picks were really the beginning and end of the story. Dalton needs to keep the ball away from the ballhawks. Short passes to Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins. Quick dumps to the Law Firm. Anything to amp up the frustration in the Raven secondary so that midway through the third quarter my man-crush (AJ Green) can sneak over the top for a 60-yard coffin-nailer.
3) Get one guy to step up. As much as we know about the Ravens’ dearth of weapons, ya’ll best believe they know about ours. Think about it. Green is really the only Bengal that scares anyone (assuming you don’t include Pacman Jones/all the other guys who at one point or another brandished guns in public). However, as Bengals fans we KNOW there is talent on the roster beyond AJ. We love the quickness of the slot receiver Hawkins, aka the Human Waterbug. We also love the progress shown by our number two receivers, Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. Still, all those guys have about two NFL snaps between them, so to expect fireworks of any kind from them would be foolish.
My hope is that Gresham picks tonight to establish himself. On paper, there’s nothing guys like Jimmy Graham, Ron Gronkowski, or any other receiving tight end in the league has that Jermaine doesn’t. He’s tall, he’s got hands the size of trash can lids, and he’s got the speed/strength combo to drag a DB ten yards. So, despite the fact that they seem to breed quality linebackers in John Harbaugh’s laundry room, I’d like to think the Raven’s don’t have the answer for big Jermaine. Assuming AJ Green gets pummeled by double-teams all night long (he will - everyone loves to touch him), someone has to answer the call, and we don’t seem to have anyone better.
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So that’s it. That’s what I’ve got. It seems simple. But then again, try telling Marvin Lewis that containing Ray Rice/keeping the ball away from Ed Reed/turning Jermaine Gresham into Jimmy Graham is simple, and he’ll probably make you do an Oklahoma Drill with one of those face-eating zombies from Miami. The fact is, it’s never that simple, especially in division, and especially against a 12-4 team like Baltimore.
Game’s at 7. Here’s to 1-0. Who Dey.
JOURNEYMEN Bawse and Future Mr. Green