Opponent notwithstanding, the Ravens’ task at hand is difficult enough. Then consider what they’re up against.
Baltimore heads to Cincinnati to face one of the NFL’s top home teams and one of the hotter teams in the league down the stretch, a squad that has won four of five and ranks in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.
The Bengals own the league’s fifth-ranked defense and 10th-ranked offense.
Let’s start with the defense. Cincinnati has been good at everything. The Bengals rank sixth against both the run (99.8 yards allowed per game) and the pass (211.3 yards permitted per game) to hold teams to just 311.1 total yards per contest.
The Bengals also don’t allow a lot of points, ranking sixth in the league by averaging 19.2 allowed. They’ve continued to perform at a high level even without star defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who tore his ACL.
“They are the AFC North champs, if I’m not mistaken,” tailback Ray Rice said. “They’re good. They’re pretty good.”
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict leads the team with 157 tackles while defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry are tied for the lead with 7.5 sacks. Cornerback Adam Jones leads Cincinnati with three interceptions.
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell had a lot to prepare for, but at least there was some familiarity from seeing the Bengals in Baltimore on Nov. 10, when the Ravens won 20-17 in overtime.
“The great thing is that we’ve played them before. We know how good they are, because they’re a very talented team,” Caldwell said. “The unique thing is the fact that they’ve continued to get better since the last time we played. They do as fine a job as anyone, in terms of breaking tendencies, so you have to be ready for literally anything. It’s a multiple defense with a lot of different schemes. They have a lot of different variety of looks that they give you. From four-down looks up front to three-down looks with a variety of different stunts where they blitz extremely well ... You could get a blitz from any of their guys.
“You really have to get prepared for everything that they’ve done previously and make certain you have good sound principles, because you can’t practice every stunt they give you - it’s absolutely impossible. What you can do is make certain your principles are sound, make certain you’re good at your fundamentals and techniques, and let your system take care of any issues that may arise.”
Offensively, the Ravens’ ninth-ranked defense will be looking to slow down the league’s 10th-ranked passing game. Quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown for 4,015 yards while ranking third in the league with 31 touchdown passes.
At 6-foot-4, wideout A.J. Green gives defensive backs all kinds of problems, ranking in the top NFL’s five with 94 receptions and 1,365 receiving yards.
“One of the top receivers in the league, by the stats and all that and also just by the type of player you see when you watch film,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “He’s the first to make a run, pass-run routes, he makes some great plays, changes the game all by himself. So he’s definitely one of the top receivers in the league. ...
“Every time you go up against a top receiver, you want to be at your best. It’s always a fun matchup to play against the best in the league.”
Even though the Bengals are just 21st in the league at running the ball, the Ravens can’t ignore it. Cincinnati is averaging 109.6 rushing yards per game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combining for 1,363 yards on the ground.
The unit comes into the game having posted at least 40 points in four straight home games. So the Ravens defense has plenty to deal with.
“I think they understand who they are. They know what they like to do. They understand their personnel very well,” defensive lineman Chris Canty said. “They have explosive players on the edge, but they also have the commitment to the running game. You see that they have two running backs that complement each other very well in Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So I think that they have a lot of pieces on offense, they have a lot of dynamic players and they utilize those skill-sets very well. ...
“I think defensively we have to stop teams from being able to be balanced, and I think New England was able to achieve offensive balance, being able to run the football and throw the football. So I think that’s something that we definitely have got to limit. We focus each and every week on stopping the run. That’s something that we didn’t do very well. And so going into this football game, we’re going to make it a priority to stop the run, making sure that we don’t have to fight the war on two fronts. We’re going to try to make Cincinnati one-dimensional.”