- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Ravens reporter
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It's desperation time for the Ravens (3-5), who have fallen into third place in the AFC North and 2½ games behind Cincinnati. But despite losing three straight games, the Ravens aren't ready to concede the division and have two games left with the Bengals.
Cincinnati (6-3) also has something to prove. The Bengals are coming off a deflating overtime loss in Miami, where injuries continued to pile up. Cincinnati lost its best defensive player in defensive tackle Geno Atkins (season-ending knee injury) and watched one its most explosive offensive players in running back Giovani Bernard (ribs) get banged up.
Here is how Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see this game unfolding:
Hensley: The Ravens have been a team that has been banged up for most of the season, from wide receivers to offensive linemen to linebackers. But they look relatively healthy compared to the Bengals right now. How much of an impact will these injuries have on Cincinnati in Baltimore?
Harvey: They should have some type of impact, Jamison -- particularly losing Atkins. Without the Pro Bowl lineman in the mix, opposing teams will be much more comfortable matching their offensive linemen man-for-man with the Bengals' D-line. Much of the year, Atkins has been drawing double-teams, freeing up teammates to make plays in pass-rush and run-stop situations. Without their imposing man in the middle, the Bengals will turn to second-year tackle Brandon Thompson to pick up the slack.
As far as Bernard is concerned, I would be surprised if he didn’t play Sunday. Even though he was banged up last Thursday, the Bengals sound optimistic about his return to action this week. With a defense that is now down five key contributors (cornerback Leon Hall, defensive back Taylor Mays, defensive end Robert Geathers and linebacker Rey Maualuga), Cincinnati’s offense can ill afford for one of its best offensive playmakers to be slowed or unable to play at all.
More than anything, the Bengals will miss Atkins’ pass-rush presence from the line’s interior. The Ravens had some issues protecting Joe Flacco at Cleveland last weekend. What fixes do you think they make this week to ensure he doesn’t get sacked five times against a tamer Bengals defensive front?
Hensley: Protecting Joe Flacco has been an issue all season. He has been sacked 25 times, and only six quarterbacks have been sacked more. The issue lately has been picking up the blitz, and I wonder whether the Bengals will send five or more rushers with Atkins not penetrating the middle. Running back Ray Rice has been solid at picking up blitzes throughout his career, but he has whiffed more this season in blocking free runners.
Flacco can help himself out by getting rid of the ball quicker. He has been running for his life at times this season, but he can avoid some sacks by throwing to his hot read. This is where Flacco has missed tight end Dennis Pitta, one of his favorite targets when the pocket collapsed. Pitta, who is on the injured reserve designated for return list with a hip injury, will be missed Sunday. In his past two games against the Bengals, Pitta caught 11 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Pressure hasn't been a deciding factor in the rivalry with the Bengals. In his past five full games against Cincinnati, Flacco has been sacked 10 times.
Speaking of quarterbacks, how would you evaluate Andy Dalton this year? Is he the quarterback who threw 11 touchdowns in three wins in October? Or is he more like the quarterback who threw three interceptions in the Bengals' last game on Oct. 31?
Harvey: That's the million-dollar question among Bengals fans this season. Who is the real Andy Dalton? Right now, it’s tough to say. If I had to evaluate his season, though, I would say Dalton is more like the player we saw most of October than the one who made an appearance at Miami last Thursday. I mean, even though he had a QBR of 13.5 in the 22-20 overtime loss to the Dolphins, he still threw for 338 yards. Against Miami, he also wasn’t helped much by his receivers, who dropped five passes.
Dalton isn’t the only AFC North player who has struggled with consistency this year. It looks like Rice hasn’t gotten off to a strong start at all this season. I know he’s been banged up a little, but what’s the story with his lackluster showing?
Hensley: Rice is having easily his worst season since becoming the featured back in 2009. He is on pace to gain fewer than 600 yards rushing. Five quarterbacks have rushed for more yards than Rice this season. In the past, Rice has fared well against Cincinnati. He's averaged 105.4 yards from scrimmage against the Bengals, scoring nine touchdowns in 10 games. But this hasn't been the same Rice. He insists that he's healthy after suffering a hip injury in Week 2, but I have my doubts because of his lack of burst.
The inability to run the ball has made the Ravens one-dimensional. Flacco has thrown 310 passes this season, which is ninth most in the NFL. With the Bengals having a top-10 run defense, the Ravens may have to go into pass-heavy mode again. How has the Bengals' secondary held up this season?
Harvey: Considering they’ve lost Hall for the year with an Achilles injury, it’s amazing that the Bengals have still fielded a competitive secondary the past few weeks. While run defense is Cincinnati’s defensive calling card, the defense has been able to disrupt passers in recent games. Just two weeks ago, the Bengals’ cornerbacks had two interceptions off Jets rookie QB Geno Smith, both pick-sixes.
What explains the Cincinnati secondary’s ability to hang with opposing offenses despite losing Hall and Mays? It’s the fact that the Bengals have veterans in Chris Crocker, Terence Newman and Adam Jones who have been able to keep the unit afloat.
There will be a territorial battle Sunday at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium between the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals and the two-time defending division champion Baltimore Ravens.