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Battling injuries, Bengals look for much-needed win vs. Ravens

Battling injuries, Bengals look for much-needed win vs. Ravens
Ravens running back Justin Forsett is stopped by Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur after a short reception in the fourth quarter. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

During the first three weeks of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL.

Now they are on a crash course.

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Again.

You can count on a Bengals slide like you can death and taxes. The downfall usually comes at the end of the season when Cincinnati goes one and done in the playoffs. This year's plummet is coming early.

Every team has injuries, but in Cincinnati's case, the team's top playmakers have been involved. The team's No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green, has missed the last two games with a toe injury. The team's top linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, has missed two entire games with a concussion, and parts of two others with a neck injury.

That's like the Ravens being without receiver Steve Smith and cornerback Jimmy Smith.

There is more.

The Bengals have been without receiver Marvin Jones since early in training camp and tight end Tyler Eifert since the season opener. Linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga also have missed extensive time.

The recent meltdown isn't because of poor play or questionable play calling, but mounting injuries the Bengals haven't been able to overcome.

"I don't know that I've ever experienced a team that has had so many injuries," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "To lose so many starting players, and we've only played six games."

And maybe that is what makes the Bengals, the Ravens' opponent Sunday, so dangerous. Cincinnati has lost two of its last three games, suffering lopsided losses to the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, who hammered the Bengals, 27-0, last week.

Both of those losses were on the road. On Sunday, the Bengals will play the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, where they are 11-0-1 in their last 12 regular-season games, and they have beaten the Ravens in three of their last four meetings.

If the Ravens win, they can extend their lead over the Bengals to essentially 1 1/2 games in the AFC North. If the Bengals win, Cincinnati will grab the lead by percentage points, but they also would have swept the Ravens in head-to-head matchups in 2014.

"The NFL is a crazy league," Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko said. "I remember when Dallas lost their first game and everybody was, 'Hey, get [Tony] Romo out of there,' and now look at them."

The Ravens couldn't have picked a more opportune time to play Cincinnati. It's just not the injuries. Despite the strong and fast start, the Bengals were a team in transition.

In the offseason, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden became the head coach of the Washington Redskins and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was named head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

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And with the injuries to Green, Eifert and Jones, the Bengals are still a team in search of an offensive identity. It showed last week against the Colts. Indianapolis played a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts on defense, and dared the Bengals receivers to beat them one-on-one.

They couldn't do it, even though Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw 38 passes. The Bengals had only 12 rushing attempts for 32 yards.

The Ravens probably will use a similar game plan. If Jimmy Smith matches up against receiver Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals have no one else worthwhile unless Green plays.

"You have to assume that any player on any team that might have a chance to play, you have to prepare for him, because he could be out there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But you always look and see in the injury report and see whether they practiced or not. But, we're not going to know anything, really, until they announce something, and that's with any injury every week."

Green is a difference-maker who opens up the entire field for the Bengals. And when he and Jones are healthy, Cincinnati's offense is as explosive as any team in the league even with an inconsistent Dalton at quarterback.

It's the same on defense without Burfict. The third-year linebacker out of Arizona State was one of the best defensive players in the league last season with 171 tackles. That's Ray Lewis-type numbers. Combined with Maualuga, the Bengals had one of the strongest linebacking corps in the league.

But now they are playing their No. 5 and No. 6 linebackers. Both Peko and defensive tackle Geno Atkins have struggled as well, with Atkins still recovering from major knee surgery last year.

In the first three games, when almost everyone was healthy, the Bengals allowed 113 rushing and 253 passing yards per game. In their last three, Cincinnati has allowed an average of 179 rushing and 360 passing yards.

A portion of the Bengals fan base wants a new coach.

"Well, I think everybody's the same," said Lewis, seemingly not bothered by the criticism. "Players win, and coaches lose."

With Lewis, there seems to be a sense of reality. The Bengals played the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., one week after New England was embarrassed from a 41-14 beating by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Patriots were in playoff mode while the Bengals left their "A" game in Cincinnati. The Bengals played the Carolina Panthers when Cam Newton was healthy and threw for 284 yards and ran for another 107, certainly not the limited and injured Newton who played against the Ravens on Sept. 28.

The Colts punished Cincinnati, just like they did the Ravens. The score was closer against the Ravens, but if Andrew Luck had been hot, the Colts would have beaten the Ravens by at least two touchdowns.

That will all be meaningless Sunday in Cincinnati. A win is desperately needed for either team.

"I think it's a really important football game for us. We just got our head beat in," Lewis said. "As I said, we got shut out, and we didn't play very well, and we lost to an AFC team.

"We lost to New England already, and this is a division football game, so it's a really important game for us because it means, at the end of the year, if we get our ship right and keep going, and the Ravens continue to play the way they're playing, it'll help us in the standings in this division."

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