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Jeff Zrebiec's scouting report for the Ravens-Bengals season opener


RAVENS: This will be Joe Flacco's 13th game against the Bengals, but the quarterback will present Cincinnati with a different look. In Gary Kubiak's offense, Flacco will use more play-action and try to get the ball out quicker. It should help him limit mistakes, which he often has made against the Bengals, who have 15 interceptions against him. Flacco has more weapons than ever before, and the Bengals will provide a good test of how much the Ravens passing game has progressed.


BENGALS: Quarterback Andy Dalton has put up huge regular-season numbers but has been mistake-prone against the Ravens, throwing 11 interceptions in six games. The Bengals will be without wide receiver Marvin Jones, who had 10 touchdown catches last year. But they still have A.J. Green, whose 260 career receptions are the most in NFL history for a player over his first three seasons. Dalton has plenty of targets, including wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Jermaine Gresham.



RAVENS: With Ray Rice suspended for the first two games of the season, Bernard Pierce will make just the second start of his pro career. Veteran back Justin Forsett also figures to have a role, as could rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. The Ravens averaged just 83.3 rushing yards per game last year but have altered their blocking schemes and simplified their approach under Kubiak. So far, the results have been good, as no team averaged more rushing yardage in the preseason than the Ravens.


BENGALS: Cincinnati averaged 109.7 rushing yards per game last year, 18th in the NFL. After the Bengals cut veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, their backfield is headed by elusive second-year player Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, a bruiser out of LSU. Bernard had 1,209 yards from scrimmage last season and is a big-play threat. He had 168 total all-purpose yards in two games against the Ravens last year. One thing to watch is how rookie center Russell Bodine handles Haloti Ngata.



RAVENS: The Ravens were solid against the run last season, but they want to get back to being dominant. For six straight seasons, they had a top-five run defense. Then they ranked 20th in 2012 and 11th last year. To get back to that dominance, first-year starting nose tackle Brandon Williams will have to clog the middle and occupy blockers, and the outside linebackers will need to be more disciplined. The Bengals exploited the linebackers' overaggressiveness last season.


BENGALS: The Bengals essentially return everyone from what was one of the NFL's best run defenses last year. They held opponents to 96.5 rushing yards per game and limited the Ravens to 132 total rushing yards in two games last year. The group is backed by weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has 378 total tackles over the past two seasons. Cincinnati is formidable up front with tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, and its linebackers are quick and disruptive.



RAVENS: Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been quiet all week about the status of his top cornerbacks, but indications are that Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson will play. How they'll perform, given that each missed a good part of the preseason — or, in Webb's case, all of it — is open for debate. If healthy, Smith likely will get the assignment of shadowing Green. The Ravens badly need a steady pass rush from their front four to take pressure off the secondary.


BENGALS: Atkins, one of the game's best interior defensive linemen, and cornerback Leon Hall are healthy and return to a defense that was fifth in the league against the pass last season. Atkins has 26 sacks in his past 41 games and will present a challenge for the interior of the Ravens offensive line. The Bengals have invested first-round picks on cornerbacks in two of the past three years, drafting Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. Neither player, however, is in line to start today.



RAVENS: There are few questions about this group. Justin Tucker made 38 of 41 field-goal attempts last season and connected on 14 of 15 tries in the preseason. Punter Sam Koch remains valued for his consistency. Jacoby Jones is considered one of the NFL's top returners, and the Ravens have options behind him. Several core special teams players, including Albert McClellan and Jeromy Miles, survived the final roster cuts. It would be surprising if this unit isn't a strength again this season.


BENGALS: Like the Ravens, the Bengals have enjoyed stability in the kicking game. Punter Kevin Huber is in his sixth season with Cincinnati and holds franchise records for gross and net punting average. Kicker Mike Nugent is in his fifth season with the team. He booted two winning field goals in the final two minutes of games last season, adding to his reputation as a clutch kicker. He's 17-for-20 all time on field-goal attempts against the Ravens. Brandon Tate is the Bengals' primary return man.

Edge: Ravens


RAVENS: Harbaugh's teams traditionally have gotten off to a fast start and been dominant at home. The Ravens are 14-6 in September under Harbaugh. They've won 14 consecutive September games at home, a streak dating to 2006. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 6-0 in home openers and have won five of their six Week 1 games. Preseason results don't mean a lot, but the Ravens showed plenty of good things in going 4-0. They have eyed this game for months.


BENGALS: Marvin Lewis' team has made the playoffs three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history and is the reigning AFC North champion. The only thing the Bengals have to prove is that they can win in the postseason. This is a big year for Dalton, who recently was awarded a lucrative contract extension despite having failed to win a playoff game in three years. The Bengals have lost four straight at M&T; Bank Stadium and are 4-7 in season openers under Lewis.



The Ravens and Bengals figure to jockey for position all season atop the AFC North. On paper, the Bengals appear to have a more complete team. They are young and talented on defense and have two young offensive game breakers in Bernard and Green. But they've never played particularly well at M&T; Bank Stadium, and Dalton, in particular, has struggled. At home and coming off an impressive preseason, the Ravens look primed for an early statement win. The new-look offense will lead the way. Ravens, 27-23

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