It’s week 8 and the Ravens are heading to Cincinnati for their season finale against the Bengals.  I don’t know about you, but I’m simply confused as to how good the defending AFC North Champs really are.  Coming into the year, I had Cincy pegged as one of the better teams in the league with major potential to, in the very least, repeat as division champs.

Through week 7, those rosy preseason predictions have not come to pass.  After starting the season 3-0, including a wild 23-16 win in Baltimore, the Bengals have hit a slide that has seen them go 0-2-1 in their last three games.  The team has faltered in just about all facets of the game these last three weeks with the defense allowing 107 points combined, the offense being outscored by a combined 53 points, and the special teams missing a field goal in the closing seconds of OT in week 6 that cemented a tie with Carolina.

That, my friends, is what you call an ugly stretch of football. Even if the Bengals are reverting to their old “Bungles” personas, this is still a team to take seriously.  Questions remain about whether star wideout AJ Green (toe) and middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict (neck) will play this week, but coach Marvin Lewis‘ squad is not devoid of talent.

With all of that said, here are a few thoughts heading into Sunday:

1. How do you hide a poor secondary?  Pressure the quarterback.

Along with the addition of veterans Dominique Franks (signed off the street) and Will Hill (activated from suspension), the secondary has looked a little better the last two weeks, mainly due to the significant pressure being put on opposing quarterbacks.  If the other team’s offense doesn’t have time to throw then you don’t have to worry as much about poor play in the back end of your defense.  It’s the perfect way to hide any problem areas.

With only five sacks in the first five games, the Ravens were struggling to get to the quarterback which was exposing the problem areas at both safety and cornerback.   The last two weeks have been a different story altogether, with defensive coordinator Dean Pees unleashing the hounds and his defenders racking up a total of ten sacks.  While you also have to take into account the level of competition being put out by both Tampa Bay and Atlanta, averaging 5 sacks a game is nothing to sneeze at.

Moving forward, we can expect opposing teams to continue to attack the Ravens’ suspect secondary, so Pees will have to continue to dial up the pressure from week to week.  Elvis Dumervil (7 sacks) is certainly doing his part and Pernell McPhee (4 sacks) seems back to the form he displayed as a promising rookie in ’11.  To really turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks, Terrell Suggs (2.5 sacks) needs to get in on the action and start living up to his lofty reputation.

2. Is the Ravens’ running game really this good?

I’m still having a hard time believing the Ravens have been able to run the ball as effectively as they have.  Aside from Ray Rice being taken out of the equation from the get-go, left tackle Eugene Monroe has only been active for 3 games due to a knee injury and left guard Kelechi Osemele has been hobbled recently with a knee problem of his own that has forced him to sit on the bench for the last two games. Despite those two significant losses on the offensive line, the Ravens have continued to run the ball effectively, averaging just over 131 yards a game and rushing for 7 touchdowns, good for a tie with Seattle for the third best rushing offense.

So what’s the deal?  First and foremost I think you have to give credit to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and his zone blocking offense.  Kubiak’s offenses, both in Denver and Houston, have excelled at the run game and even more so at being effective with unknowns starting at running back.  That brings me to Justin Forsett, who certainly qualified as an unknown coming into 2014.

After jumping between four teams in six seasons, Forsett has been the definition of a journeyman player in his career.  After quickly taking hold of the starting job from week 1 on, Forsett has finally found both playing time and some success.  The first year Raven leads the team in carries (87), yards (503), and touchdowns (3).

One more name that should not be overlooked is Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo.  The scapegoat for many after last season’s debacle of an offensive line, Castillo’s work has shined in ’14 with overall improvement throughout the position group and young linemen like Rick Wagner, John Urschel, and James Hurst each having positive performances of varying degrees through the first seven games.  The depth being created on the line is extremely important moving forward and Castillo’s coaching has certainly been a big part of that development.

Save Update:

After a loss to the Colts and the offense putting the game away early against the Bucs, last week’s win against the Falcons was the first in the last three games where I thought a “defensive save” was warranted.  While also a blowout, I can’t discount the constant pressure brought throughout the game by Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee.  Both excelled and were a big part of Matt Ryan getting knocked around for four quarters.  Dumervil and McPhee share the “save” for that game.

Save Tally So Far: C.J. Mosley (1 1/2), Elvis Dumervil (1), Asa Jackson (1), Pernell McPhee (1/2)

Image Credit: Keith Allison