Scouting report for Sunday's Ravens-Bengals game

RAVENS PASSING GAME: This is the biggest question going into the game, because we don’t know who will start at quarterback. Joe Flacco’s production had dropped even before he hurt his hip early in the team’s 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had a passer rating of 90 or higher three of the first four games but has cleared that mark just once in the past five. If he plays through the injury, recall how he struggled with a back injury in the first half of last season. If Lamar Jackson starts, we’ll get our first real glimpse of him as an NFL passer. Meanwhile, opponents have neutralized the Ravens’ top receiver, John Brown, holding him to 28 yards or fewer in three of the past four games.

BENGALS PASSING GAME: Andy Dalton’s play has slipped considerably as the Bengals have fallen on hard times. He averaged 299 passing yards a game during the team’s 3-1 start and has averaged just 212 as the Bengals have gone 2-3 since. Cincinnati’s best offensive player, wide receiver A.J. Green, could miss Sunday’s game because of a toe injury. He punished Ravens slot cornerback Tavon Young in the Bengals’ 34-23 victory in Week 2. Cincinnati will also play without tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s on injured reserve. Tyler Boyd has stepped forward to become the team’s top receiver. He’s caught 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games against the Ravens.

EDGE: Bengals

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RAVENS RUNNING GAME: The Ravens have played from behind in recent weeks, making it difficult for them to ramp up a rushing attack that still ranks second worst in the league in yards per carry. Jackson has been the team’s most efficient runner, and it will be fascinating to see how he affects the team’s overall production on the ground if he starts. The Ravens would also benefit from the return of left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who grades as their second best run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus.

BENGALS RUNNING GAME: Cincinnati ranks 25th in rushing yards per game but 11th in yards per carry at 4.6. Running back Joe Mixon has taken a significant step forward in his second season, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and 81.4 rushing yards per game. But he’s carried fewer than 15 times in three of the team’s past four games. Expect that to change Sunday if the Bengals keep the game close. Giovani Bernard is a dangerous complement now that he’s back from an MCL sprain.

EDGE: Bengals

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RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: The Ravens have been solid, though not overwhelming, against the run, ranking 10th in the league in fewest yards allowed per game and ninth in fewest yards allowed per carry. They’ve struggled with mobile quarterbacks, but that won’t be a problem against Dalton. The strength of their run defense remains up front, where Michael Pierce, Brent Urban and Brandon Williams have all played well.

BENGALS RUSH DEFENSE: If the Ravens are to get their rushing attack rolling, this might be the week. Cincinnati ranks 31st in the league in run defense and allows opposing backs to gain 5 yards per carry. Three teams have rushed for at least 198 yards against the Bengals, though the Ravens managed just 66 in Week 2 as they played from behind. Despite the poor overall performance, Cincinnati has two individual standouts against the run in safety Jessie Bates and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

EDGE: Ravens

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RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The Baltimore secondary has slipped in recent weeks as opponents have attacked it with short, quick passes in the middle of the field. Dalton has hurt the Ravens with that approach in the past, including a four-touchdown performance in Week 2. After they racked up a franchise-record 11 sacks against the Tennessee Titans, they’ve dropped opposing quarterbacks just twice in the past three games. They haven’t intercepted a pass since Week 5. On the plus side, cornerback Jimmy Smith finally played up to his standards in Week 9 against the Steelers, benefiting from the lighter workload afforded him by Marlon Humphrey’s return from a thigh injury.

BENGALS PASS DEFENSE: Cincinnati is even worse against the pass, ranking last in the league in yards allowed per game. The Bengals have been torched by some of the league’s best quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger — over the past month. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick suffered a concussion in Cincinnati’s blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints, and he did not practice Wednesday. Neither of his fellow cornerbacks, William Jackson nor Darqueze Dennard, has excelled in coverage, and Dennard is also dealing with a shoulder injury. The Bengals’ top pass-rushing threats remain Atkins up the middle and defensive end Carlos Dunlap from the edge.

EDGE: Ravens

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RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Sam Koch has produced another solid season, ranking 11th in the league in net punting average and tied for seventh in punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Justin Tucker has been perfect since his extra-point miss against the Saints. Cyrus Jones has boosted the Ravens’ performance on punt returns, averaging 12.9 yards on seven attempts and handling the ball cleanly.

BENGALS SPECIAL TEAMS: The only area of special teams where the Bengals excel is on kickoffs, where Alex Erickson has averaged 26.8 yards on 18 returns. Kicker Randy Bullock has made nine of 11 field-goal attempts. Kevin Huber ranks second-to-last in the league in net punting average, though he has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 19 times, same as Koch.

EDGE: Ravens

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RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The Ravens face substantial uncertainty at quarterback and longer-term questions about coach John Harbaugh’s job security. But they know they have to win at home this week to keep pace in the wild-card race, and they thrived under similar circumstances last season. They should be refreshed coming off their bye week.

STEELERS INTANGIBLES: The Bengals are a team in decline, with injuries to key offensive players and a defense so porous that coach Marvin Lewis fired his coordinator after a 51-14 blowout loss to the Saints. They’ve lost three of their past four and bear little resemblance to the team that beat the Ravens in Week 2. Now they’re on the road against a highly motivated divisional opponent.

EDGE: Ravens

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PREDICTION: We don’t know who will start at quarterback for the Ravens, and they also have problems to fix on defense and along the offensive line. But they’re still in better shape than the Bengals, who’ve struggled in every area over the past month. Expect the Ravens to remain in wild-card contention with a 23-17 win at home.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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