Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks about preparing for Thursday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Now that the Ravens concluded what should be considered their sixth preseason game Sunday with a 47-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills, it’s time for the 2018 regular season to begin.
We’re talking about the real NFL.
The Ravens travel to Cincinnati on Thursday night for the Bengals’ home opener at Paul Brown Stadium. As impressive as the Ravens were and as much excitement as they created against Buffalo, the game had the flavor of a preseason contest.
It was as if the Ravens’ first string played against the Bills’ third teamers. By midway through the third quarter, the Ravens had started to empty their bench, and the only remaining questions were if the Ravens would score 50 points and if Buffalo could manage a field goal.
The Ravens will be playing on the road in a hostile environment for the first time in 2018, and this will be an AFC North game. In this series that dates to 1996, both teams have won 22 games, but the Bengals caused the Ravens franchise great angst with a last-minute 31-27 victory at M&T Bank Stadium in the final game of the 2017 season that knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention.
The revenge motive is here, but secondary. The Ravens need to show improvement from a year ago after an offseason facelift that included the addition of three new free-agent wide receivers and the promotion of first-year defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
“It’s only one game,” Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said of the win against Buffalo. “It’s a good start but you know, we think we can get better.”
The Bengals (1-0) will certainly be more of a test than Buffalo. The Bills lacked top big-name talent at every position except running back with LeSean McCoy.
Cincinnati, though, counters with several star players that will challenge weaknesses. The Ravens will be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith for the second straight week because of four-game league suspension, so who will cover A.J. Green, one of the top receivers in the NFL?
Ravens linebackers have had problems covering running backs out of the backfield one-on-one for years, and it showed again in the preseason. It will be interesting to see how they plan to slow Cincinnati’s duo of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard.
Plus, the Bengals want to be more physical on the offensive line this season, which is why they hired former Dallas Cowboys assistant Frank Pollack as the line coach, acquired left tackle Cordy Glenn from the Bills and drafted rookie center Billy Price.
Martindale has been consistent in bringing pressure, but Bengals veteran quarterback Andy Dalton will be more cagey than Buffalo’s Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen.
If Dalton gets hot, the Ravens will most likely lose.
“I think guys are ready to roll,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. “Our offense is rolling, executing drives. We’re playing Ravens football. We just need to keep it rolling. We’ve got a short week this week, but just keep it rolling.”
Cincinnati’s defense will present just as many problems to the Ravens offense. The Ravens protected quarterback Joe Flacco well against Buffalo, but the Bengals have tackles Geno Atkins and Andrew Billings, who will present challenges to center Matt Skura and left guard Alex Lewis.
The Bengals also have Carlos Dunlap to face right tackle James Hurst, who is a better guard than tackle and struggles with speed rushers.
It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati attacks Flacco. In the past, the Bengals have used a lot of two-deep coverages and forced Flacco to throw underneath. But the Bengals have a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin, a former Ravens secondary coach.
Flacco has thrown 130 career interceptions and 23 have come against Cincinnati, compared with a combined 24 against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens were fortunate against Buffalo because they got to rest some of their starters over the last 22 minutes of the game. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s very helpful when a team has only one day to actually practice and then jumps on a plane Wednesday for Cincinnati.