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Bengals Preview, Week One: Baltimore

RCN's Bryan Burke previews the Cincinnati Bengals' Week One game at Baltimore.

It is possible that this season is the first time in the history of the universe where the greater Cincinnati area felt rather complacent with the idea of their football team having a quality regular season and making the playoffs. Having arrived in the postseason only to be hurriedly ushered away three years in a row has made the specter of the postseason rather humdrum for the people that live in the Queen City and its neighboring communities in Kentucky and Indiana. As odd as it is, however, what has happened is a developed expectancy of lots of winning followed by a resounding thud in the wild-card round.

Sadly, this makes for an unsatisfying regular season for this kind of Bengal fan should they do well again and win their division again this year. The impatient supporter would rather fast forward through the whole thing to see how it ends rather than savor each win. You can already hear their reply after bragging about the team's triumphs of 2014, as they grin smugly and say, “Yes, but...”.

I have expertly avoided the Andy Dalton debate because it is as worn out as a beggar's pocket. If you blame everything that goes wrong on him, fine, but that doesn't make for good conversation or analytical thinking. The same goes for Marvin Lewis. For the record, I find them both as competent professionals who are as capable to win a Super Bowl as any other tandem in the league. Having said that, I could feel the harrumph emanating from skeptics everywhere, but these naysayers are under the assumption that only the truly gifted, perfected elite, touched-by-God quarterbacks can bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

Let's pull out film of the Bengals first opponent, and recent Super Bowl-winner, Joe Flacco. Here stands a prototypical quarterback: tall, broad, big-armed, intellectual, throws the ball deep and signed a contract for over $100 million after winning the whole enchilada. Has Joe Flacco been touched by God? Certainly not. He heated up and played well at the right stretch and rode the wave of the momentum to the title. Flacco deserves credit for winning a Super Bowl—to be the quarterback for the victorious team is one hell of a feat—and he is by no means a bum, but I don't think he's any better than Dalton.

When the Ravens offense was clicking, they had Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta as vital possession receivers. Once Boldin left for San Francisco and Pitta got hurt, they became the most predictable offense in the NFL and resorted almost exclusively to the vertical-passing game and the deep ball. There were a lot of questions about Ray Rice and his inability to get meaningful yards, then the offensive line quickly became suspicious and Flacco's leadership was called in to question.

Now they have the venerable Steve Smith to cut across the field and get the tough yards underneath. They also get a healthy Pitta back. Giving Flacco a trusted release valve when he's under pressure is the most dangerous element to the Ravens offense. We saw Rice pick up a 4th and 29 on a dump off pass in San Diego last year which led to an overtime win.

Of course, thanks to some poor decision making with his wife in a Las Vegas elevator, Rice will not play on Sunday. Instead we will see Bernard Pierce who in my mind was a more effective back last year for the Ravens and should not be slept on.

It won't matter who is running the ball, though, if the Bengals' pass rush do what is expected of them, and that is to terrorize quarterbacks all season long. Marvin Lewis and the brain trust around him, have showed a thorough dedication toward beefing up the pass rush in nearly every draft of late. While the absence of Michael Johnson may cause some anxiety to the average fan, Margus Hunt is developing into a quiet power himself. The man is a human office building, but only faster, and is seemingly learning the finer points of football at a rapid pace.

Not unlike Carson Palmer in many ways, Flacco's wherewithal quickly breaks down when he sees these large men baring down on him, and especially after he's been hit a few times. Despite a ridiculous touchdown scramble against the Bengals in his first game ever as a pro, he is rarely a threat to run. Every year I write that the Bengals must release the hounds and blitz Flacco to pieces, but this season, I am a little concerned about Smith, Pitta and Pierce gouging the Stripes with yards-after-catch on short check offs, especially on third down.

On offense, the Bengals have an ace up their sleeve. A season ago, they were by and large a passing attack that featured a wide variety of targets, and, outside of the playoff game, could only be considered a successful effort. Dalton broke records, home games became silly blowouts on a regular basis, and the division was won. This year, though, there is all kinds of talk about more running plays and an expanded and weird screen game which Hue Jackson may use to dazzle us all. What Hue did in Oakland before the Carson Palmer disaster, was extremely inventive, creative, fun and most of all productive play-calling. Darren McFadden teetered on the edge of super-stardom and the Raiders looked on the upswing.

Here, Hue has Gio Bernard, who has electrifying running talents and is too on the verge of establishing himself as a very special talent in the league. Joining him this season, is another second-round running back, Jeremy Hill, who has looked pretty good in preseason and has the body type to mix well with Bernard in the ground attack.

So with all of these options, Hue can go in a variety of philosophical directions. I am sure he will say something along the lines of how the game itself will dictate the sequence of play calls and that the team isn't married to a particular style of play. He would probably use the word versatile, and of course, that's true, but a team without a planned offensive identity is a like a lost babe in the woods: neither are probably going to find their way out. Having too many weapons is a good problem to have, but can be a problem nonetheless. Getting too cute with variety was one of the limited drawbacks to Jay Gruden's time in Cincinnati.

The Ravens defense is not the hallowed bunch of yesteryear, but they are not in the back end of the league's rankings. Terrell Suggs is still there, as is Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb. These men are not employed by reputation alone. Until they can't, one has to think they can still perform at Pro Bowl levels. Even with these guys in Baltimore, though, if the Bengals can limit their own mental setbacks like penalties, lack of communication on blocks and routes, unforced turnovers and good clock management, they should be able to move the ball and score points with the stockpile of weapons and unpredictability of their attack.

It's always difficult to win road games in the division, but if the team is as good as I think it is, only the Bengals can beat themselves.

Bengals 26, Ravens 21

Photo via Cincinnati Bengals Facebook

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