The Ravens are set to take on the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET).
*BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's next opponent. *
2009 Rankings* *
Total Offense – 21st (318.5 ypg) Total Defense – 17th (345.3)
Rush Offense – 11th (122.8) Rush Defense – 14th (103.0)
Pass Offense – 22nd (195.8) Pass Defense – 26th (242.3)
Points Per Game – 16th (21.0) Points Per Game – 10th (19.0)
Sizing Them Up
The Bengals are led by former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. For years, this team was known for an explosive offense and a toothless defense. Not anymore.
Cincinnati's defense has come up big this year under coordinator Mike Zimmer. The unit features NFL sack leader Antwan Odom (eight sacks) and two young linebackers that are growing into their own.
2008 first-round draft pick Keith Rivers has emerged as a tackling machine, while 2009 second-rounder Rey Maualuga, a player the Ravens considered selecting in the first round, is making good on his reputation as a big hitter.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have two other first-round starters on defense, cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph (2006) and Leon Hall (2007). Joseph leads the team with two interceptions and 62 return yards.
Offensively, quarterback Carson Palmer seems to be healthy after rehabbing a nagging elbow injury that limited him to only four games last year. Palmer, who has drawn comparisons to Joe Flacco, can make all the throws in the book, and he has a corps of talented receivers to catch them.
That group is headed by the brash Chad Ochocinco, who has 17 receptions for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Andre Caldwell and Chris Henry are Cincinnati's two other main receiving threats, and the Bengals did add former Pro Bowler Laveraneus Coles in the offseason.
Running back Cedric Benson gets it done on the ground, having totaled 367 rushing yards, which is third-best in the AFC. Benson also boasts a robust 4.4-yard average per attempt.
What's Up?* *
My counterpart, Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, writes about the challenge Benson will face in the Ravens' run defense.
"How he ended up with 4.5 yards per carry last Sunday in Cleveland and how the Bengals ended up with 154 yards on the ground for 5.1 yards per carry had him amazed, too, because it certainly felt a lot tougher than that."
Pete Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer checks out the Bengals' upcoming schedule, and it doesn't look very friendly.
*"The Bengals begin a compelling five-game stretch Sunday in Baltimore. In the next six weeks (bye included), they play the Ravens twice, at Pittsburgh and at home against Houston and Chicago. Welcome to the minefield." *
The Bengals, with Palmer under center, have been lights-out in the fourth quarter, but it has been another story for the other three periods, writes the [*Enquirer's *Joe Reedy](http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20091007/SPT02/310020086/1066/Bengals seek consistent offense).
"In the much-discussed four late drives, Palmer is an astounding 21 of 33 for 221 yards with two touchdowns and a rating of 103.2. Throw out the two spikes to stop the clock in the Pittsburgh game, and the rating jumps to 109.8.
"The rest of the time? He's a pedestrian 58 of 104 for 624 yards with four TDs and five INTs, good for a rating of 66.4."*
Offensive – This offense is driven by Palmer. He was shaky last year when he was hindered by the elbow injury, but now that he is back to 100 percent, the Bengals are moving the football. Palmer's heroics can be seen in their come-from-behind wins this season against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
Defensive – Odom seems to be a major reason for Cincinnati's resurgence on defense. He is tied (Denver's Elvis Dumervil) for the league lead in sacks with eight, notching a franchise-record five in one game against the Green Bay Packers. After adding 30 pounds in the offseason to bulk up to 280, Odom added some power to his speed game.
LB Rey Maualuga
Even though he went in the second round of the draft, Maualuga was considered by many teams to be a first-round talent. Maualuga is a thumper, and earned a starting spot over established veteran Richard Jeanty and already is making plays. He leads the team with two forced fumbles and owns one sack and a deflected pass.
Ravens S Ed Reed vs. Bengals QB Carson Palmer
Reed hasn't had the breakout game that fans and media expect from the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he will have to be on point with the Bengals' talented receivers if Palmer is given any time to sit in the pocket.
Ravens OT Michael Oher vs. Bengals DE Antwan Odom
With Jared Gaither missing time this week because of a neck injury, it could be Oher starting at left tackle. The rookie stood up to a mid-game switch from right to left tackle last Sunday, and he has had a full complement of practices to get mentally prepared for his potential role. Odom is a beast, but Oher has shown that he is nasty and won't back down to anyone.
Lewis on if the offensive reputation of the AFC North is changing due to the quarterbacks:"The quarterbacks are big guys with very strong arms. They have some movement skills to them, and I think it's kind of the changing of the guard a little bit. Now the investment in these players is also huge, so you've got to put some guys around them to allow them to reap the benefits of their abilities. I think the teams are trying to do that."
Ochocinco on what he attributes the turnaround in Cincinnati to this year: "Man, you know what, we've been exciting man. We've been plugging and it's just a new attitude. Our mental state is superb right now. The way the defense is really saving our [butt], man… Excuse my language, I'm sorry. The defense is really saving us big time. Offensively, we've been really, really good in the clutch. We've been superb in the clutch. Now, for us, we just have to find that consistency where we can be good through all four quarters, and it would make these games a lot easier and not nail-biters toward the end."
Are you surprised that this Bengals team is only one flukey play (Denver's Brandon Stokley's touchdown in Week 1) away from being an undefeated 4-0?
The Ravens aren't.
While a lot of people have written off Cincinnati based on their history alone, the Ravens can't let those preconceived notions get in the way of their quest to take control of the AFC North early in the season.
Baltimore is obviously familiar with the Bengals, who have had recent success against the Ravens. Cincinnati has won six of the last nine meetings between these two division rivals, with the Ravens taking both 2008 matchups.
The way I see it, in order for the Ravens to take care of business, they are going to need three things to happen:
- The ground game should be up and running. If Ray Rice and Willis McGahee can churn out yardage, that will keep Palmer and the Bengals' explosive offense off the field. Last year, the Ravens totaled 376 rushing yards in two games, and Cincinnati's run defense is porous.
- Terrell Suggs and Co. must get after Palmer and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Palmer is precise and can pick apart a defense if he has time, whether that is a deep ball to Ochocinco or an underneath route to Coles.
- The Ravens must close. Palmer has a history of fourth-quarter heroics. He has led nine rallies from behind in his career, two of which have come at Baltimore's expense. Palmer also has led four scoring drives at the end of the fourth quarter or overtime this year.
It is still early, but after a Week 3 victory over the Cleveland Browns, taking a 1-0 lead over two division opponents would greatly help the Ravens' postseason chances.