- By Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
The Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to flip the script on last year’s dismal start when they host the Baltimore Ravens in their home opener Thursday night.
After opening the 2017 campaign with a 20-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens as part of an 0-2 start, the Bengals have a chance in Week 2 to take the first lead in the AFC North when they host the Ravens in their home opener Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals are coming off a 34-23 comeback win at Indianapolis, picking up where they left off last year when they beat the Ravens on a last-minute touchdown to push Buffalo ahead to the final playoff spot.
Baltimore, still tasting the sting of that turn of events, enters Thursday’s game with the momentum of a 47-3 win over Buffalo.
Here are five things to watch for in Thursday’s matchup:
1. O-line challenge
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was able to overcome a lack of protection from the right side of the line Sunday, but the Ravens are a team with potential to bring a lot more pressure. They sacked Buffalo’s quarterbacks six times and can come at a passer from multiple spots.
Right tackle Bobby Hart and right guard Alex Redmond are going to have to play much better this week after combining to allow 10 of the 13 pressures the Colts got on Dalton. Last week, backup tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Christian Westerman were inactive, but don’t be surprised if one or both are available this time.
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“We have to do better with our protection,” Lewis said.
Dalton can overcome offensive line woes by going with the first read on his passes, and it will be interesting to see if that’s good enough. The Bengals receivers were able to create enough separation last week to give him a lot of good options, and he did well choosing his targets, but might not be able to be so picky next time. Fortunately, Tyler Boyd and John Ross and company are capable receivers if Dalton can’t get to A.J. Green.
2. Turnover battle
The extra possession and field position gained from turnovers could be huge in this game.
In the 22 Bengals-Ravens games during Marvin Lewis’ tenure (2003-present) in which the turnover differential has not been even, the team who wins the turnover battle has posted a 20-2 record. Additionally, when the Bengals are even or plus in turnover margin they are 16-4 against the Ravens and just 2-10 when they are minus.
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“Usually you have really good defenses, so field position off the turnovers, the extra possession — turnovers and big plays determine the outcome,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a conference call Tuesday with media in Cincinnati. “The ones we haven’t won, they made big plays.”
The Bengals were even on turnovers against the Colts with Dalton throwing one interception and Green fumbling one away, but both came in the first quarter and forced Cincinnati into a hole early. The Bengals rallied from down 13 to win the game.
3. Potential for more sacks
The Bengals didn’t have much opportunity to get to the passer on Sunday against Andrew Luck because he was getting rid of the ball too quick on slants and underneath passes.
A healthy Joe Flacco likely will be looking down field more for some deep balls, and that could give Cincinnati’s defensive line more chances to attack.
“It looks like a typical Ravens team,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “They’re going to run the ball, they’re going to pound you, be physical, take shots down the field.”
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Look for Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to get a good rotation going up front to utilize the depth and perhaps a little more Sam Hubbard, who played just seven snaps.
“I think Sam deserves to play a little bit more, a little bit earlier,” Austin said.
4. More Joe or Gio?
Lewis said Monday that he can see Joe Mixon regularly getting as many touches as he did Sunday, if not more, but the Bengals had planned to use Giovani Bernard more than they did. Mixon carried the ball 17 times and had five catches, while Bernard had one of each.
“I think (Mixon) can carry it 22 times,” Lewis said. “The number of receptions he had was good, and they were well-used. He got to the right spots in the pass game, and that’s important. We didn’t get the opportunity to get the ball in Gio Bernard’s hands as much as we would have liked. But when the game’s rolling, it’s what happens.”
With the Ravens expected to blitz a little more, Bernard could be utilized more this time, though not necessarily carrying the ball, as he tends to be the better blocker in the pass game. He could be a good option when Dalton needs to make quick passes too.
5. Down to the wire
Since 2010, 12 of the teams’ 16 meetings have been one-score decisions by eight points or less, including last year’s 31-27 win for Cincinnati in the finale.
The first matchup was a blowout, with Baltimore winning 20-0, but after solid wins by both teams in the opener, it will be interesting to find just how good they really are with this matchup.
“It’s going to come to the last drive every time we play them,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “The beat between us, it’s the same when we play the Steelers, that conference game, you’ve got to win it. Whoever wins takes the lead in the conference. I think as long as we do a good job protecting the football, we should be good.”