Even though the Ravens have been a perennial playoff team, Lewis, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator from 1996-2001, builds his Bengals roster to counter his division rival. Because he helped hand-pick several of the top defensive players who have helped make the Ravens one of the best defenses in the league, the Bengals usually know they can give the Ravens a game.
Since 2006, this competitive series has had only two games in which the margin of difference was bigger than 10 points. In fact, Lewis has a 10-8 lifetime record against the Ravens. Since John Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, he’s won five out of eight against the Bengals.
Here’s what to watch for in this competitive Monday night game:
1. Will the Ravens have a pass-rush? The loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs was huge for the Ravens. His Achilles tendon injury has created an Achilles’ heel for their defense. They need a pass-rush. This goes beyond replacing Suggs’ 14 sacks. During the preseason, the Ravens didn’t show they were consistently getting to the quarterback. Second-round linebacker Courtney Upshaw is still getting his feel for the NFL and might offer some hope. The pressure will fall on Paul Kruger, who takes over Suggs’ spot. The Ravens are blessed with good coverage cornerbacks, which might allow them to try some blitzes.
2. More will fall on the arm of Joe Flacco: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plans to let Flacco take more leadership on the field and let him use more no-huddle. Though the Ravens don’t plan to abandon the run, they will be running an offense with a quicker tempo. Normally, the Bengals play the Ravens to low-scoring games in which both teams often end up scoring in the teens. Last season, offense became more of a factor. The Ravens won, 31-24, and 24-16. Flacco would love to get three or four touchdown drives against the Bengals.
3. More speed at wide receiver: One of the reasons the Bengals and Lewis keep the scores low against the Ravens is because the Bengals use plenty of man-to-man schemes. In the past, the Ravens didn’t have a lot of speed at wide receiver. This year they have speed. Torrey Smith, in his second season, is now a complete receiver with speed instead of only being a deep threat in his rookie year. Jacoby Jones adds a sub-4.4 threat. LaQuan Williams is fast. Watch to see if the Ravens receivers can win the battle against the Bengals cornerbacks.
4. Are the Ravens solid up front? The Ravens are fielding one of the oldest offensive lines in football. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is 32. Guard Bobbie Williams is 35. Center Matt Birk is 36. One of the keys to the running game is how Williams and Birk do against defensive tackle Geno Atkins. If Atkins’ quickness beats the aging legs of Birk and Williams, the Ravens might have trouble running the football up the middle. They might also be vulnerable to inside blitzes.
5. Will Ray Rice’s role change? Rice has carried the Ravens offense for years, but the subtle changes in this year’s offense could adjust his role. First, will the no-huddle limit some of the runs Rice could make? Second, if the Ravens have problems in the middle of the line, will he have to bounce more plays to the outside? Rice is a threat running and receiving, but the new emphasis on throwing the ball could make him more of a threat through the air.
1. Problems in the middle of the Bengals offensive line: The Bengals lost guard Travelle Wharton and center Kyle Cook for the season, and they have to make do with Clint Boling at left guard and Jeff Faine at center. Faine is an established NFL veteran, but he sometimes has trouble against big 3-4 defensive tackles. How he handles Terrence Cody, Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kemoeatu could be the key to the game for the Bengals. If the pocket collapses in the middle of the field, it could be a tough day for quarterback Andy Dalton.
2. Establishing the man-to-man matchups: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a master of matching up his cornerbacks against receivers. He has plenty of options. Nate Clements and Leon Hall are the starters, but at his disposal is longtime Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Adam “PacMan” Jones, and Jason Allen.
3. Making sure Taylor Mays has a good game: Taylor Mays won the strong safety job, so this will be his most extensive playing time as he enters his third year in the league. Mays has cornerback speed and is a big hitter, but he is still raw at the position. The Ravens will try to challenge him by sending tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in his direction. Flacco will also try to get him out of position with play-action fakes that could free up Torrey Smith for some deep completions.
4. Establishing a running game: The Bengals had a solid running back with Cedric Benson. Now, the BenJarvus Green-Ellis era begins. Green-Ellis is a smart player who doesn’t fumble, but he has yet to prove he can be an every-down back week in, week out. The Bengals still have a young quarterback in Dalton, so it would be nice if he could count on Green-Ellis getting 16 to 18 carries a week.
5. Sorting out the receiving corps: Everyone knows A.J. Green has established himself as one of the best young receivers in football. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a big-play tight end. But the Bengals have revamped everything behind him. Andrew Hawkins takes over as the slot receiver. Brandon Tate is the starter at wide receiver for now, but third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is an intriguing prospect. With defenses figuring to double Green, Dalton has to see who can establish themselves as dependable pass-catching options.