In this game-day staple, blogger Matt Vensel makes four sometimes-courageous predictions for the game. All he asks is that you don’t hold it against him whenever those predictions end up being embarrassingly wrong.
For the Ravens, the season begins tonight at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, who were a playoff team a year ago. Most of us probably have a feeling that the Ravens are going to be pretty competitive this year and should challenge for a playoff spot for a fifth straight season. Honestly, though, I don’t know what to expect. It’s not that the Ravens have an exorbitant number of question marks; it’s just that this is how the NFL works.
Take last season for example. The secondary and the offensive line were considered the biggest concerns entering 2011, but the secondary turned out to be one of their biggest strengths and the offensive line was good enough. Meanwhile, the widely praised trade for wide-out Lee Evans flopped and the special teams unit disappointed as the Ravens allowed three return touchdowns and Billy Cundiff -- well, we know what he did.
That’s why this week’s debut installment of “Four Ravens Predictions Sure to Go Wrong” will probably be a little trickier than it will be going forward. We have a good idea what might go down tonight and go down this season, but we don’t really know and won’t until we see the Ravens play a game that actually matters. Thankfully, these two teams have a lot of history, so I can base some of my predictions on recent trends in the rivalry.
1. RAY RICE WON’T GET 100 YARDS, AND IT WON’T MATTER
Rice rushed for 295 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Bengals last year, but prior to that, he had never rushed for more than 87 against them. The Bengals are stout up front. I can see them giving the Ravens’ offensive line trouble. The Ravens had been shuffling seven players in and out of the offensive line, and it looks like center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda are going to be the only ones who will line up where they did a year ago. If this group isn’t in sync, Rice might not have big holes to run though. But it will be OK. I expect quarterback Joe Flacco to play well at home and the Ravens to score around 30 points.
2. DEFENSIVE BACKS RECORD MORE SACKS THAN THE FRONT 7
Clearly, the Ravens’ coaching staff is tired of answering questions about the pass rush and the challenge of replacing Terrell Suggs, but it’s going to be a major concern until they prove they can get to the quarterback without him. The Bengals have a big, strong offensive line, so it will be a challenge to beat them straight up. To put pressure on Andy Dalton, I could see the Ravens blitzing a lot Monday night, including out of the slot with cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham. Strong safety Bernard Pollard could get the green light at times, too. Obviously, I don’t see many sacks for the Ravens -- maybe three, with DBs getting two of them.
3. CINCY WIDE-OUT A.J. GREEN WILL HAVE A BIG EVENING
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week that A.J. Green might be the best wide receiver in the NFL. Now Calvin Johnson might have something to say about that, but trust me, that wasn’t coach-speak. The Ravens have a lot of respect for Green, and they know he is going to be a thorn in their side until Bengals ownership is too cheap to give him a big contract. The Ravens struggled against tall, athletic wide-outs in the preseason (though many defenses can relate to those struggles). Johnson had five catches for 111 yards and a score in a Detroit win and Atlanta's Julio Jones had six for 109 and one touchdown. Green could have a similar stat line.
4. ONE OF THE TEAMS WILL SCORE A BIG SPECIAL TEAMS TD
As I mentioned above, special teams were an issue last season, so the Ravens signed a few quality veteran special-teamers and focused on special teams late in the draft. There will be growing pains with the young guys -- see that long punt return by Atlanta’s Dominique Franks -- but it’s clear the explosiveness is there. Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson and Asa Jackson all made big plays in the return game during the preseason. Jackson danced in the end zone after one punt return touchdown, only to turn around and see a yellow flag on the field. I see a special-teams play swinging momentum tonight. The question is: Who will score it?