As the Ravens (5-2) square off with the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to keep an eye on:
1. Ravens running game
Since the Ravens' frustrating season-opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium, they've dramatically altered their approach to incorporate a more physical offensive strategy. During the 23-16 loss to the Bengals, the Ravens were admittedly off-kilter in their run-pass ratio. Quarterback Joe Flacco had a season-high 62 passes against the Bengals for 35 completions, 345 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Ravens ran the ball only 20 times, amassing 94 yards. Now the Ravens are emphasizing the running game every week and maintaining a more balanced philosophy. Led by elusive veteran running back Justin Forsett's 503 yards, the Ravens have 205 carries this season for 920 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns.
With the exception of a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in which the Ravens got away from their ground game, running the ball a season-low 15 times for 90 yards, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has been stubborn in his game plan. In wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers (36 carries for 157 yards), Cleveland Browns (33 for 160), Carolina Panthers (30 for 127), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (35 for 169) and Atlanta Falcons (36 for 123), the Ravens have used the run to wear down defenses. They're 5-0 this season when they've rushed for at least 120 yards.
The Bengals aren't particularly stout against the run. They've allowed 35.6 points per game over the past three games and rank 30th in the NFL against the run, surrendering 146.3 rushing yards per game. The Bengals will play Sunday without one of their top run stoppers, as starting linebacker Rey Maualuga is out with a hamstring injury. Plus, Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been bothered for weeks by concussion and neck problems. Although he's listed as probable for this game, he's been injury prone each week. Pounding the football against a vulnerable Bengals defense makes sense.
Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been one of the top pass rushers in the league, but the Pro Bowl selection traditionally has been stonewalled by Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
Suggs has just 7.5 career sacks against the Bengals in 21 games against them, with 90 tackles total. But he did the bulk of his damage earlier in his career against former Cincinnati offensive tackle Levi Jones, totaling five sacks in his first six career games against the AFC North rival.
Since the Bengals drafted Whitworth in 2006, Suggs has just 2.5 sacks against them. He had a half-sack in a game that Whitworth missed because of an injury. The other two sacks, meanwhile, didn't come against Whitworth, meaning Suggs never has beaten him for a sack.
"He's huge," Suggs said of Whitworth in a conference call with Cincinnati reporters. "You don't get too many left tackles that big. You can't run around the guy because he's so big and you can't run through him because he's so big. He's a rare tackle that poses those kinds of problems."
Suggs has 2.5 sacks this season, trailing fellow outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil (seven sacks) and Pernell McPhee (four sacks). Suggs had no sacks or quarterback hits in the first game against the Bengals.
It's pivotal for the Ravens that Suggs find a way to get around or through Whitworth to pressure quarterback Andy Dalton.
3. Crockett Gillmore
With veteran tight end Owen Daniels out after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, the rookie tight end will make his first NFL start Sunday.
Given how long the recovery period has been for other players in coming back from that kind of procedure, Gillmore might need to start anywhere from one to four games for the Ravens.
What the team has in Gillmore is a big target (6 feet 6, 251 pounds) with solid hands. His blocking is the strength of his game, but he has displayed signs of becoming a viable receiver. Gillmore has three receptions for 29 yards this season, including a 13-yard catch last Sunday in a 29-7 win over the Falcons. Gillmore appears capable of grabbing short passes and moving decently after the catch. The Ravens don't need him to duplicate Daniels' prowess as a receiver. They just need him to catch a few passes per game and provide a strong blocking presence at the point of attack.
4. C.J. Mosley
The rookie inside linebacker could be a big factor in this game as he shadows multidimensional Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, a former Ravens quarterbacks coach, loves to get the ball to Bernard in space on screens and swing passes.
Mosley has the speed and coverage skills to stay with Bernard, one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL out of the backfield.
5. Joe Flacco
Flacco doesn't have a particularly strong track record against the Bengals. He's 7-6 all time against them as a starter, completing 60.2 percent of his throws for 2,479 yards, 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for a mediocre 71.8 quarterback rating. The last time he played at Paul Brown Stadium, Flacco, hobbled by a sprained knee, struggled with his accuracy and ball security. The defeat in the Ravens' regular-season finale cost them a playoff berth, ending their streak of six consecutive years of having appeared in the postseason.