The last time the Cincinnati Bengals played the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore triumphed 31-24, thanks in large part to Torrey Smith's 165 yards receiving. Meanwhile the Bengals played that game short-handed with Pro Bowl rookie AJ Green out with a knee injury. Green will play this week, giving Andy Dalton his most potent weapon to look for. Smith is healthy as well, but the key reason for his success in the last game isn't, and that will be the difference.
Cincinnati's defensive game plan on Nov. 20 was to shut down Anquan Boldin. Save for one crossing route on which his defender fell down and he scored, the Bengals did that. It was his only catch. That opened things up for Smith, however, who had his most productive game of his rookie season. With Boldin out, Mike Zimmer will turn his defense's attention to Smith.
It's not been positive development for opponents when Zimmer has turned his attention to shutting them down. He generally does. One dimensional teams haven't had a lot of success against Cincinnati when the focus has been on shutting down their weapon.
Whether it's been Peyton Hillis or Arian Foster running, or last week (at least for three quarters) against Larry Fitzgerald, the Bengals defense has been adept at taking away the opposition's top option. For the Ravens, that will mean that someone else will have to beat them in the passing game.
The early returns for the Ravens playing without Boldin haven't been promising. They struggled mightily last week at home against Cleveland with Smith catching the only two passes had by a wideout. Joe Flacco was forced to check down to Ray Rice or tight end Ed Dickson and had one of his worst games of the season, completing only 45 per cent of his passes.
When the Bengals had the ball last time against the Ravens, Andy Dalton was still fairly sharp, even without Green. Yes, he had three picks, but he also cut up the Ravens secondary for a season high 373 yards, 152 of them to Jerome Simpson. It's hard to imagine him being less productive with Green on the field. The key will be for the Bengals offensive line keeping a clean pocket for him and giving him time to find his weapons.
Another key player who will play in this game after missing the previous matchup is Ravens' LB Ray Lewis. That actually will work in the Bengals' favor. With Lewis out, the Ravens' defense had stifled everyone but the Bengals and went 4-0. Lewis returned against San Diego and the Chargers lit up Baltimore for 450 yards. Even Peyton Hillis had a huge day against them last week, rushing for 112 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. Had the Browns had Colt McCoy instead of Seneca Wallace, the outcome might have been different. The elephant in the Ravens' locker room is that the aged Lewis is more valuable inspiring on the sideline than on the field where he slows down the Baltimore attack.
The helmets will be the same, but the personnel will have some changes which markedly favor the Bengals on Sunday. If that holds true, the young Bengals will be celebrating what promises to be a number of playoff berths.
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