Sunday, September 9, 2007
Updated: September 10, 10:04 AM ET
With Cincy O-line in disarray, Palmer faces huge test
By Len Pasquarelli
CINCINNATI -- In his three seasons as starter, Cincinnati Bengals standout Carson Palmer has a 4-2 record versus the Baltimore Ravens, the lone quarterback in the AFC North to have a winning mark in that stretch against what arguably has been the league's most aggressive and sack-conscious defense.
And for Palmer, who owns an impressive 91.5 efficiency rating and 10 touchdown passes in his six outings against the Ravens, there is no mystery to his success.
"Our offensive line has played consistently well against them, especially in the pass game," said Palmer, the triggerman for a Cincinnati aerial attack that statistically ranked No. 6 in the league last season. "I can't think of too many times they have sacked me."
In fact, Palmer has been sacked just 13 times in six appearances against a Ravens defense that features seven Pro Bowl performers. By comparison, the voracious Baltimore pass rush -- in which coordinator Rex Ryan creates mismatches with well-disguised overloads, and which always is in attack mode -- has 27 sacks against Cleveland and 26 against Pittsburgh in the same three-year span.
The unit statistically ranked first in the NFL in 2006 in fewest yards surrendered and was second in sacks, and the Ravens have a league-best 141 sacks over the past three seasons.
Figure out a way to block the Baltimore blitz and keep your quarterback upright, and there typically are big plays to be had in the passing game, even against a talented secondary that includes three Pro Bowl defenders. But to make plays against Baltimore, a line must make adjustments.
Figuring out exactly who is going to decipher the Ravens' exotic blitzes in the Monday night regular-season opener at Paul Brown Stadium could be almost as challenging for the Bengals as keeping defenders such as Trevor Pryce, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott out of Palmer's face.
One of the NFL's most stable groups the past several seasons, the Cincinnati line is in transition.
And, going into the opener, it's in a bit of disarray, too.
There are new starters at center and left guard. Venerable right tackle Willie Anderson (foot), a three-time Pro Bowl blocker, did not play a snap in the preseason. Left tackle Levi Jones (knee) spent much of camp rehabilitating, and there is some question as to whether he has done enough to reclaim his starting job from second-year veteran Andrew Whitworth. Center Eric Ghiaciuc is operating at less than 100 percent physically. And left guard Stacy Andrews owns just three career starts in three seasons.
The projected starters played zero snaps together in the four preseason games. The lack of prime playing time together could make for a prime-time disaster in a game that is the first half of the NFL's unusual Monday night doubleheader.
It is bad enough, Whitworth acknowledged, that the Cincinnati line didn't log any physical work as a unit. Confronting a Ryan-designed pass rush that requires a line to be sharp in its assignments could be another problem altogether.
Ryan is the son of longtime NFL defensive coordinator and head coach Buddy Ryan, who created the vaunted "46" defense that helped Chicago to the Super Bowl XX title in 1985. Like his father, the Ravens coordinator seeks to force a matchup -- sometimes by confounding the offensive line, but also by divining ways to single up a standout rusher on a blocker with no help -- that he can exploit.
There is a lot on the line in this game, because a victory would provide the Bengals, who have qualified for the playoffs just once in coach Marvin Lewis' four years, an early jump on a bitter division rival. And there is a lot of pressure, for sure, on the Cincinnati offensive line to get things right.
"You have to stay focused and realize the whole goal of their defense is to intimidate you," said Whitworth, who started a dozen games as a rookie and played well against Suggs, a speed-rushing weakside end with 40 sacks in four seasons. "You have to stay calm, relax and point to your guys. Be on the same page. The key is to realize that they're going to line up in some kind of defense eventually, even with all the walking around they do. You've got to stay focused."
In the past four meetings between the teams, the Bengals have surrendered only six sacks. Not surprisingly, the Bengals won three of those games.
Palmer owns three 300-yard games against the Ravens. Collecting a fourth, and, more importantly, a season-opening victory, is likely to depend on how long his protection allows him to remain perpendicular Monday night.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.