Despite the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are in the play-offs, the team still has a lot riding on their week 17 match-up with the visiting Cincinnati Bengals. First and foremost is the opportunity to avenge what, looking back, is the most head-scratching loss of the Ravens season. At the time it did not seem so bad to lose to the defending AFC North champs on the road, but the Bengals are easily the worst team the Ravens fell to this year and it is likely the Ravens will not want to be responsible for 2 of the Bengals 5 wins on the season. The Ravens also still have a shot at winning the AFC North and securing a first round bye in the play-offs. The odds are long that the Cleveland Browns will man up and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially with so much on the line. Even with those odds, the Ravens need to do their part and send the Baltimore faithful home happy for what could be the last game at M&T this season. Let’s look at t how the Ravens defense can slow down Cincy’s offensive attack.
Against the Run: Stopping the run game of the Bengals is where the Ravens have the biggest statistical advantage heading into Sunday. The Ravens rushing defense has risen all the way to 4th in the NFL and they have shown that when they are motivated to stop a teams running game, they are often successful. The Bengals, despite a talented RB in Cedric Benson and a good offensive line, have struggled to run the ball all season. They have run the ball better in recent weeks, but still rank 26th in the NFL and Benson is averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. I do not see this aspect of the game playing out much differently than the stats indicate it will. The Ravens limited Benson to 78 yards on 23 carries in week 2. While the Bengals run game has stayed about the same, the Ravens have gotten better performances out of lineman Kelly Gregg, Terrence Cody and Corey Redding and their three-headed monster at MLB opposite Ray Lewis has gradually improved. The goal is to again keep QB Carson Palmer in 3rd and long situations by smothering the Bengals up front. Then Bengals offensive line will certainly be motivated to beat a division opponent, but I cannot see them getting after it enough to outplay a Ravens defense with a possible division championship on the line.
Against the Pass: They are not Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens in talent or accomplishment, but in many ways Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley present more challenges for the Ravens secondary than their predecessors do. Clearly, the Bengals receivers are not as dynamic or talented, but they are also less predicable and familiar to a Ravens defense that has seen plenty of T-Ocho. Perhaps more importantly, the Bengals and Palmer no longer have to deal with 2 personalities that are more distracting than anything else. Without the airwaves being clogged with prima dona chatter, Palmer’s vocie takes greater control of the Bengals huddle and allows their offense to function as more of a unit. The Bengals are likely to try and spread the Ravens defense with their trio of young receivers. Along with rookie TE Jermaine Gresham the Bengals offense now forces the Ravens offense to decide who they want to focus on most. Before it was simple, limit T-Ocho and you would be successful, now it is harder to determine where Palmer wants to go with the ball. Palmer has also been very effective in the red zone this year. He has thrown 18 TD passes within the red zone. The Ravens effectively mixed coverages and got enough pressure on Palmer in week 2 to keep the Bengals out of the end zone despite several trips inside the Ravens 20. The Ravens pass rush has gotten progressively better throughout the season and they have gotten more unpredictable with their blitz packages. Palmer reads defenses well and is especially familiar with what the Ravens want to do. Again success against the Bengals offense comes down to beating their offensive line and keeping Palmer on the run.
The Ravens have much greater motivation than the Bengals to win this game. In a league where the talent gap is narrow, the motivation to out work your opponent goes a long way. The Ravens need to come out strong, smack the Bengals in the mouth and get them thinking about the off-season. If they do that the Ravens defense can take the life out of the Bengals and will their way to a dominating performance.