RAVENS PASSING GAME: In the past two weeks, the Ravens have gotten back to using predominantly three wide-receiver sets, trying to recapture the success from last year’s Super Bowl run. However, standing in the offense’s way has been quarterback Joe Flacco’s inaccuracy, poor pass protection and a lack of a down-field passing attack. In 10 career games against the Bengals, Flacco has thrown nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. The Ravens have to find ways to get Torrey Smith the ball more.
BENGALS PASSING GAME: Andy Dalton’s breakout season hit a little bit of turbulence in a 22-20 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins last week as he was intercepted three times and sacked for a game-ending safety. Dalton is fourth in the NFL in passing yards (2,587) and tied for fifth in touchdown passes. He’s got weapons everywhere, from A.J. Green, who has four straight 100-yard receiving games, to Marvin Jones, who caught four touchdown passes in Week 8. Six Bengals have more than 25 receptions.
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RAVENS RUNNING GAME: Head coach John Harbaugh and his staff keep tinkering in the hopes of rejuvenating the Ravens’ punchless running game, but nothing has worked so far. Their latest adjustment has been to run the ball out of the pistol formation but that was mostly unsuccessful last week against the Cleveland Browns. Forty-one NFL players, including five quarterbacks, have more rushing yards than Ray Rice (259). Rice and Bernard Pierce are both averaging just 2.7 yards a carry.
BENGALS RUNNING GAME: The Ravens are familiar with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the physical back who has three touchdowns and is considered the Bengals’ workhorse. However, they’ll get their first look at rookie Giovani Bernard, the speedy second-round pick who had the best game of his career last week with 79 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Bernard already has six touchdowns and is just as big of a threat as a receiver than as a runner. Cincinnati averages 106.8 rushing yards per game, 19th in the NFL.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: After struggling to stop the run in three of the previous four games, the Ravens held Cleveland to 73 rushing yards on 28 carries. They also didn’t allow a rushing touchdown for an NFL-best seventh time in eight games. Overall, the Ravens are allowing 100.4 rushing yards per game, the eighth lowest total in the NFL. Rookie backs Le’Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy have had the most success against the Ravens who now have to stop another first-year back, Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard.
BENGALS RUSH DEFENSE: This group shut down Matt Forte and Reggie Bush this year, yet allowed unproven backs Johnathan Franklin and Lamar Miller to eclipse the 100-yard mark against them. Overall, the Bengals rank 10th in the league against the run, surrendering 103.9 rushing yards per game. Weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict, an undrafted free agent last year, leads the Bengals with 113 tackles, 36 more than any other teammate. Nose tackle Domata Peko is tough to move inside.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has had many battles with Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, is fifth in the NFL with nine sacks, but the Ravens’ defense needs to cause more havoc and force more turnovers. The Ravens have fallen to seventh in the NFL with 28 sacks and they have only four interceptions on the season and two of them are by middle linebacker Daryl Smith. If cornerback Jimmy Smith (groin) can’t play, Corey Graham would likely start in his place.
BENGALS PASS DEFENSE: In the last three weeks, the Bengals have lost arguably their top two defensive players with Pro Bowl defensive tackle and sack leader Geno Atkins tearing up his knee last week and cornerback Leon Hall tearing his Achilles three weeks ago. Adam Jones is starting in Hall’s place while Brandon Thompson has stepped in for Atkins. Even without Atkins, Mike Zimmer’s defense still has multiple pass-rushing threats, including Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Ravens haven’t been able to put a full game together in this area and it has cost them. While Tandon Doss’ muffed punt result resulted in the Browns’ game-winning score, the Ravens exited the game with bigger concerns about punter Sam Koch, who punted two balls in the end zone and shanked a 25-yard punt that set up Cleveland’s final drive. The Ravens need him to be consistent. Field goal kicker Justin Tucker has made 14 consecutive attempts.
BENGALS SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike Nugent has been clutch for the Bengals, winning two games with field goals, including a 54-yarder that beat the Detroit Lions in Week Seven. He’s 12-for-15 on the season and 3-for-4 from 50 yards or beyond. Long-time Bengal punter Kevin Huber doesn’t have a huge leg but his specialty is pinning the opposition inside the 20 and he did it on all four of his punts last week. Brandon Tate is Cincinnati’s primary return man but Adam Jones is used on punt returns as well.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have won seven of their last eight home games against AFC North rivals but as they have proved so many times this year, this is a different team. This team has started slow, commits too many penalties, doesn’t force enough turnovers and loses close games. Their motivation certainly couldn’t be any higher as the Ravens know that a loss all but ends their two-year reign atop the division. It would also significantly damage already fading playoff hope.
BENGALS INTANGIBLES: Marvin Lewis’ Bengals are ranked in the top 10 in the league in both offense and defense. If there is a weakness, it’s their propensity to turn the ball over as they rank 25th in the NFL with a minus four turnover ratio. Injuries have also started to mount in recent weeks, which will challenge the Bengals’ depth, particularly on defense. But Cincinnati has always given the Ravens problems. Lewis has an 11-9 record against the Ravens, for whom he used to serve as defensive coordinator.
PREDICTION: The Ravens seem to understand the urgency of the situation that they’ve played themselves into with losses in four of the past five games. However, what they haven’t shown to this point is an ability to correct the issues that have caused the skid, and I don’t see them doing that Sunday. Even without Atkins, Zimmer’s defense will find a way to rattle Flacco who has yet to find a rhythm. And on offense, the Bengals just have too many weapons for the Ravens to deal with right now. The Ravens will keep it close, only to suffer another setback to their sagging playoff chances. Bengals, 27-23