While the preseason is not usually an indication of how teams will fair during the regular season, some areas of play can provide insight and give indications of what teams need to improve upon. Figuring out keys to the first game of the season can be a difficult task. Last Season the Ravens opened at home vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers and many did not give Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis and company much of chance at victory. With a 28-point dominating win, Baltimore blew their hated rivals out of M & T Bank Stadium, setting the stage for a season in which they never lost at home, or within their own division.

The Ravens went on to finish 12-4 and fell one dropped or batted pass short of playing in the Super Bowl. Led by head coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore is the only team to reach the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. In fact, the Ravens have won at least one postseason game in each of those years.

Earning an opening Monday night win will be crucial for Harbaugh’s team on several fronts. First, it is a divisional game at home and losing it could set the opposite tone that last season’s week one victory vs. Pittsburgh helped generate. Secondly, the Ravens have a tough road to steer during the next few weeks. Monday’s game against Cincinnati is the first of four in 18 days for the Ravens. Baltimore is at Philadelphia on Sept. 16, hosts the Patriots in a Sunday night special on Sept. 23 and plays the Browns on Sept. 27 at M&T Bank Stadium. 

The Bengals and Ravens have met 32 times with Baltimore winning 18. However, this has been a series of streaks. Baltimore captured a series sweep last year, winning 31-24 at Baltimore and 24-16 in the Queen City, and has won three in a row dating back to Jan. 2, 2011. The Bengals last defeated the Ravens back on Sept. 19, 2010 with a 17-7 decision in Cincy and the Bengals have also won three in a row three separate times during the series, including a series sweep during the 2009 season.

The Ravens need to pay extra special attention to what happened around the league on Sunday, especially in New Orleans and Green Bay. The Saints, who like the Ravens won a home playoff game in January, joined the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore as the only teams to lose at home during the regular season in 2011. If Sunday’s games proved anything it is that, we can expect another unexpected season in the NFL in 2012. Nothing is guaranteed in this league and you can once again ask Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers. Following a season in which the Pack went 15-1 but lost at home to the 9-7 Giants in the playoffs, lost again at home on Sunday, as the San Francisco 49ers contained Rodgers and his MVP QB rating of 122 from last season to win in Green Bay. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III outdueled Drew Brees in his own house as the Skins defeated the Saints in an upset. Only the Ravens can protect a winning streak at home that extends further than last season with a win against the Bengals.

The Ravens have won 10-consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium and 18 of the past 19. Including the postseason, Baltimore owns the NFL’s longest home winning streak with 11 straight at M & T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is 8-8 all time in season openers, including 5-3 in games played at home. Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 4-0 on Kickoff Weekend. With former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis at the helm, the Bengals are 4-5 in season openers and 3-3 in season openers on the road. They are also 2-3 under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.

The Ravens have not had the best of luck on National television. Baltimore is 20-23 all-time under the bright lights, with a 7-9 record on MNF. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 9-6 in all nationally televised games with a 3-3 mark on Mondays. The Ravens lost 12-7 in Jacksonville in their only MNF appearance in 2011.

Monday night will not be easy for the Ravens. The Bengals were good in 2011; good enough to earn a post-season berth with a rookie quarterback. The mission statement in Cincinnati is the same as it is in Baltimore for the 2012 season; it is time to take the next step. For the Bengals, the next step is to win back-to-back playoff games for the first time in 30 years. For the Ravens, it is simply to make it to the Super Bowl. For both teams, the road starts tonight in Baltimore. Are you ready for some football?

Here are three keys to a Ravens victory on Monday night:

1) Ray Rice must get involved early and often, and not be abandoned unless it is necessary and even then, there is no reason to abandon Rice!

Let us hope that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco did not get too far ahead of themselves with the success of the no-huddle-sugar-huddle hurry up shotgun offense during the preseason. Flacco stated on many occasions how much he enjoys running it and the numbers do not lie when he is in it. The Ravens fifth year signal caller was 43-for-60 with 433 passing yards and three touchdowns. His 71.6 completion percentage made last year seem like an exception more than a rule for Flacco, who completed just 57.6 percent of his passes and is only a tad over 60-percent for his career. Flacco relied little on Ray Rice, who led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage in 2011. Rice's production during the preseason was sparse. He had 10 carries for 46 yards, with a long run of 28 yards, and three receptions for 24 yards, and Cameron says that is not a precursor to how he will be utilized during the regular season.

"No, absolutely not," Cameron said when asked if the no-huddle strategy will cut down on how often Rice will get his hands on the football. "That has nothing to do with touches for Ray. Ray, we know, is one of our best players. Touches for Ray, they may come up on different sides of the stat sheet, but the bottom line is he is always a huge part of what we are doing.

That is a scary quote considering that In 2011, Rice became just the second player in NFL history to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing/700-yard receiving seasons (also in 2009), joining Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, who did it an impressive four times (1998-2001). For Rice to be effective, just catching the ball out of the backfield cannot be the “different side of the stat sheet” Cameron refers to. Rice must get his rushes. Whatever happens, Flacco and Cameron will need to get Rice the ball at least 20 times. When they do, the Ravens are 21-1. In their four losses last season, Rice touched the ball fewer than 13 times per game.

Patience is the key to Rice’s success against the Bengals. The Ravens must get a body on MLB Rey Maualuga to have success north and south against the Bengals, while also keeping Pro-Bowl DT Geno Atkins contained. Atkins was the first front seven player from the Bengals defense to be elected to the Pro-Bowl since Tim Krumrie in 1988. Maualuga, who is a former USC standout is fast and is more than capable of running Rice down. Despite missing three games last season, Maualuga still led the Bengals in tackles with 115. The Ravens may not find success early vs. a Marvin Lewis led defense. The Bengals were ranked seventh in the NFL last season (10-rush, 9-pass) but Rice has found success against them. He has 33 career receptions vs. the Bengals for 275 yards. That is the most receptions Rice owns against any other team. In eight games against the Bengals, Rice has rushed for 681 yards on 139 carries and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Over a third of those yards came in the two games last year, when he had 295 yards and scored four touchdowns.

In the end, let’s not forget that despite winning his last three vs. the Bengals, Flacco has been hit or miss against this defense. In his last three games, he has completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 525 yards and three touchdowns (a 97.3 QB rating). However, he has thrown 10 interceptions to seven touchdowns throughout his career against the Bengals. It is no coincidence that Flacco’s troubles vs. the Bengals disappeared when Rice became the focal point of the offense last season.


Yes, the Ravens must also generate a pass rush via blitz packages and yes, they must force turnovers, but aren’t they pretty much keys every week. The Ravens do not always dominate the way they are capable up front but they have an excellent opportunity to do so on Monday. The Bengals enter Monday’s contest without two offensive linemen that were expected to be starters. OLG Travelle Wharton (knee) is out for the season and C Kyle Cook (ankle) is out until at least Week Nine after being placed on injured reserve. Replacing them will be 2011 fourth-round pick Clint Boling, who started three games in 2011 and they added 31-year-old center Jeff Faine, who has started in the middle for Cleveland, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

The Ravens had just six sacks and three interceptions during the preseason, which is not going to cut it without Terrell Suggs and an aging Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The guys up front must generate a push, allowing the secondary an opportunity to make some plays. By now you have heard that the Ravens defense is scheduled to play 13 games vs. 11 Pro-Bowl quarterbacks during the 2012 season and if this preseason is any indication of how that may go, the front three or four will be crucial to this team’s defense success. The New York Giants won a Super Bowl in part because they were able to drop seven into coverage while pressuring the QB with just four down lineman. There was nothing special about what the Giants did and while they have a bit more talent up front than do the Ravens, I like my chances with Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, Terrance Cody, Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Arthur Jones up front. However, they must establish dominance early and not allow the unproven line to generate any cohesiveness.

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is going to have to get creative this season with his blitz packages. If you are facing 11 Pro-Bowl quarterbacks, chances are, there are a few Pro-Bowl receivers that helped their QB’s get to Hawaii that will have to be dealt with in the secondary. Man-on-man coverage is a recipe for disaster when it comes to names like Brady, Manning (squared), Romo, and now apparently RG3. Bengals QB Andy Dalton and WR AJ Green can create havoc for the Ravens. Green is among the NFL’s most talked-about young players as the 2012 season begins. A big-bodied, fast deep threat that typically gives the Ravens trouble, Green can also claim contested balls in traffic. He was the first rookie WR voted to the Pro Bowl since the Ravens Anquan Boldin did it in 2003 with Arizona. Green led all NFL rookies, and the Bengals, in receptions (65) and receiving yards (1057), and he led the Bengals in TDs (seven). Green missed the first Ravens game last season but had two receptions for 26 yards in the regular-season finale. Dalton, known as the “Red Riffle” for the color of his hair, engineered four comeback wins in the fourth quarter last season, leading Cincinnati to a playoff berth, and he became the first rookie QB in NFL history to start as many as eight wins and throw as many as 20 TD passes. Last season vs. the Ravens, Dalton was a combined 46-of-89 for 605 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in the two losses to the Ravens.

Like the Giants front four, the Ravens must have similar success this season without T-Sizzle. The Falcons Matt Ryan and the Lions Matthew Stafford ripped apart a Ravens secondary that could not contain wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. In fact, the Ravens even allowed Jaguars rookie Justin Blackmon to have moderate success during the pivotal third preseason game when the starters play well into the second half.

The Ravens may be hard pressed to match last year’s sack total of 48, which had them tied for second most in the in the NFL, but they must find a middle ground between the franchise low of 27 in 2010 and last season. That begins tonight by dominating the Bengals depleted offensive line up front. A little confidence can go a long way as the Ravens get set to play what appears to be one of the top five toughest schedules in the league.


[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="312" caption="The drop by Evans in the AFC Championship game"][/caption]

Not holding onto a perfectly thrown pass, or missing your first fourth quarter field goal attempt of the season during the AFC Championship game is a product of not finishing when it matters the most. The Ravens have had a knack of somehow not finishing games during their franchise history, big games too. Think about the numerous times the purple and black have had the Steelers down but failed to knock them out completely. How many times have we seen Big Ben or Kordell Stewart during the early years snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? If this is finally going to be the year for Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and John Harbaugh, then the Baltimore Ravens must start finishing. This includes long offensive drives with touchdowns, which they struggled to do to start the preseason. This includes at least getting in the face of the opposing QB’s, even though they gets the ball off, which they did not do during the preseason, and getting off the field on third down, which they were the best at in the NFL last season.

It includes finishing teams completely and breaking their will, going for the jugular, so to speak. There is nothing wrong with throwing a long bomb to Torrey Smith to extend the lead to 21. There is nothing wrong with letting Andy Dalton know tonight, that the AFC North must come through Baltimore, and if they have the Bengals down by 14 or 21, continue to blitz. That is what dominating teams do, and that is what the Ravens need to do, finish it.

Despite having such a dominating and intimidating defense for the past dozen seasons, the Ravens have not been considered a dominating team. While most of it is the fact that the offense lagged behind in terms of matching the production of the defense, there were plenty of times the defense allowed opposing teams back into games. Like this season, the 2010 Ravens entered the year with pass rush concerns, and recorded a franchise low 27 sacks. They also blew an NFL high eight fourth quarter leads, but still managed to win 12 games.

The Ravens enter the 2012 season with only minor tweaking needed, and as you saw yesterday, even the best can be beaten at home. Every team has concerns as the 2012 season begins. The two teams that manage to hide or play above their concerns the best will be the teams that finish the season in New Orleans the first Sunday in February. Last season with historically bad defenses, those teams were the Giants and Patriots. If it is to be the Ravens in 2012, then they must start finishing every aspect of their game and finish tonight with a victory over the Bengals, which they will.

Prediction: Playing for their former owner and NFL icon Art Modell,  who passed away last week, The Ravens will be filled with emotion and charged from the start of this contest. The energy at M & T may be too much for young "Opey" Dalton, his fellow sophomore, stud receiver AJ Green and the rest of the Cincinnati Bengals to overcome. With the help of Ray Rice, who will rush for another 100  yards vs. the Bengals, the Ravens new hurry up offense will score quickly. Joe Cool throws for 300 and three scores. The defense steps up and at least for this week, does not miss T-Sizzle. The Ravens will head to the City of Brotherly Love next week as the only undefeated team in the AFC North.

Ravens 31 Bengals 20


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