And most importantly, they get a chance at redemption. Missing the playoffs for the first time in five years stung last year, and the Ravens are looking to right the ship. The Ravens get a chance to make a statement over the next three weeks as they open against divisional foes Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns—a crucial stretch of games that will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The NFL offseaon and training camp rhetoric ends today at 1pm. Hallelujah. Who’s ready for the 2014 NFL season?
Here are today’s plotlines.
In my mind, this is the pivotal matchup of the game. The Ravens must do what they can to make the Bengals, and Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton, one dimensional. With Bengals’ new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calling the plays, the Bengals look to employ a more balanced offense which means a return to the run game. The Bengals have a multi-dimensional backfield in Gionvani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Cedric Pearson. The Ravens will need to control the line of scrimmage with Chris Canty and Courtney Upshaw setting the edges, and Brandon Williams clogging the middle. Terrell Suggs needs to stay disciplined and Haloti Ngata has to be disruptive. If the line can dictate play, it will allow linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith to make plays from sideline to sideline in helping corral the Bengals’ run game.
In addition, with the giant question marks surrounding the Ravens’ secondary, the defensive line—and entire front-seven—needs to get pressure on Dalton. If the Ravens can turn the screws on the Bengals’ offensive line without a heavy usage of blitzes, we could see “Bad Dalton” today. If not, Dalton will be able to disperse the ball to his wide array of offensive weapons—tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, the aforementioned running backs, and superstar receiver A.J. Green and underrated receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Revamped Offensive Line
This is a chance for the Ravens to show progress has been made in the running game. The new pieces on the offensive line, and the tweaked zone blocking scheme, get a chance in a real game, in a game that matters. This is not a make or break game for the offense, or the offensive line. If the line struggles, all is not lost. The Ravens face a very stout defense in the Bengals. However, you would like to see the Ravens keep the running game relevant. I am not looking for a necessarily dominant day for the offensive line, but I will be looking for Ravens to create opportunities for the running backs and help keep Joe Flacco clean in the pocket.
Wrinkles vs. Wrinkles
Both teams enter the contest with changes on the offensive side of the ball, scheme-wise. Offensive coordinator Jackson for the Bengals looks to bring a clearer vision to the Bengals with an emphasis to the run game, and Ravens’ offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak brings his version of the West Coast Offense. Whose offensive wrinkles will catch the other’s defense off guard? With these teams knowing each other so well, a little unpredictability could go a long way in deciding today’s outcome.
Who Wins the Big-play Battle?
The Ravens would love to bring the big plays back to their offense. Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Steve Smith have the speed to stretch defenses. Expect a few rollouts and misdirection bootlegs to get one of these players open deep down the field.
The Bengals want to get superstar receiver Green, a Raven killer, the ball deep. They also have budding star Bernard, who is dangerous in space.
Unsung Player of the Game
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been that year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
The Swiss Army knife, H-back Kyle Juszczyk will make his presence felt. The Waggle play was a staple in the preseason, but I look for “Juice” to get open down the seam. I see him having a much bigger impact than tight end Owen Daniels.