While the Ravens unsettled QB situation has been the talk of Baltimore Sports Talk Radio, they are not alone in the league for having a lot of unannswered questions as the season kicks off in just two days. Thankfully, their opponent this weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals, have what may be as long a laundry list of questions and issues as well.
The Bengals have been fighting the injury bug as well as the Ravens. Both starting wideouts, Chad Johnson and TJ Whosyourmama (hey, he's on my fantay team!) have nagging injuries, but both should be on the field Sunday. QB Carson Palmer has been beaten up this preseason and sports a broken nose, which he will protect with a clear shield for the game. The Bengals have had a lot of turnover, especially on their defense, most of it planned for improvement, which will remain to be seen.
Luckily for the Ravens, Cincinnati's defense was one of the more porous ones in the NFL last season. The Ravens have alwas enjoyed decent rushing days against them. The key will be how long the Ravens can rely on the ground game, without being forced to go to the air to play catch up with the Bengals. This Bengal offense is still potent, and as long as TJ and 85 are on the field, they are a threat to score from anywhere at anytime. If the Ravens fall behind on the scoreboard, there is no way they can win a shootout. Conversely, if the Ravens play good defense, which translated means, "good pass rush," and get a lead, then they can wear down the Bengals defensive front seven, opening huge holes for the Ravens running backs.
Notice I didn't mention which running back, because I don't know who will be out there and I'm not too sure the Ravens know as well. I am expecting to hear that Willis McGahee will miss the game, still not fully recovered from his off season knee "scoping." Plan on seeing large doses of rookie Ray Rice, who could have a nice Ravens pro debut, as well as carries by most of the other backs, including the fullbacks. At the same time, while the coaches will keep the playbook relatively simple for Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco, don't expect him to be babied in that he will utilize his arm strength and throw downfield. If the Bengals stack the box, which they expect to do, then Flacco will have to succeed in backing them off with strong throws to receivers that will have to get off the blocks and get open quickly.
The speed of the pro game will notch up a bit over the preseason and our offensive line is still suspect enough to remind Flacco to set and throw quickly, as he will get hit. How hard and often will be up to the o-line, which should be pretty close to full strength by gametime. They haven't played together a lot this preseason, but together have looked better than advertised. If they stay healthy and on the field, they will be a strong run blocking unit and begin to jell in pass protection to the point that they should no longer be looked at as a weak link on the offense. However, still expect them to have their problems with the better pass rushing teams this season, especially on the edges.
Fortunately for the Ravens, the Bengals might be just what the doctor ordered, as their defense will not strike fear into their opponents. The Ravens can and should be able to move the ball against Cincinnati. As long as the Ravens defense can contain Palmer, they will be in the game. The Bengals rushing attack is in a new phase, as veteran Rudi Johnson is now gone and Cris Perry and Kenny Watson should see the bulk of the carries. However, don't expect them to have success on the ground, as no team has had a 100 yard rusher in something like 19 straight games.
Therefore, it will all come down to Palmer and his wideouts against the Ravens secondary. A good pass rush levels the playing field in this respect. Pressure and hard hits on a defenseless and battered Palmer will lead to turnovers, short fields and points by the Ravens. On the other hand, if we don't get to Palmer on a consistent basis, he will pick us apart and it will be a long and painful day for us Ravens fans. Whether or not our starting corners are Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle won't matter without pass pressure forcing Palmer to release the ball early. Given time, he is one of the top five QB's in the league and if our corners are not healthy, it could be a bloodbath.
However, I'm hoping that the time off for McAlister has allowed him to get healthy enough to be out there at 1pm Sunday. Not having Ed Reed already puts us in a hole, so that is part of the reason that the Ravens are home underdogs to the lowly Bengals. To me it all comes down to this: if we take the field healthy and limit the turnovers on offense, along with putting big pressure on Carson Palmer, the Ravens will win this game. If not, it will not be a promising beginning to the 2008 season.
More to follow.