The Cincinnati Bengals are calling Sunday’s game at Baltimore a potential “make or break” situation.
Coming off one of their worst losses in franchise history, the Bengals (5-4) are looking to turn things around before they fall out of AFC playoff contention. They currently remain in position to earn the sixth seed, while the Ravens (4-5) are trying to climb back into the picture.
Cincinnati has lost three of its last four, and head coach Marvin Lewis tried to shake things up this week when he fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and assumed responsibility for the defense, which has been the worst in the league in yards allowed (454.6) and second worst in points allowed (32.0).
Meanwhile, the Ravens have the opposite problem with one of the best defenses in the league but a flailing offense also dealing with a potential change at quarterback due to injury.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s matchup:
1. Lewis’ impact on the defense
Lewis said he made the coordinator change to “shock” his players, so Sunday is the first chance to see just how well he got their attention.
He appeared confident in press conferences and in practice this week, saying, “I’ve got this,” on a few occasions when asked about how he will manage overseeing the team and running the defense. It helps to have some extra eyes on the sideline, he said, with the hiring of Hue Jackson as his special assistant.
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Jackson hoped to provide some insight into how the Ravens’ offense might attack Sunday.
The Ravens don’t have as explosive of an offense as the Bengals have seen in recent weeks, but they still rank 15th in total yards (366.6 per game) and 17th in points (23.7) and Cincinnati is allowing much more than that.
“If you’ve got 11 guys doing their assignment, it doesn’t matter if they run zone read, a Hail Mary, a forced wrong pass to the back side — it doesn’t matter,” safety Shawn Williams said. “Rules and assignments take care of everything. .. I just think our focus is getting off the field on third downs, creating more turnovers and tackling more. So that’s what you can expect us to go out and do.”
2. Sparking the offense
The Bengals offense had one good drive last week before shutting down in the 51-14 loss to New Orleans, and A.J. Green remains unlikely to return this week. He was originally designated “out” but upgraded to “doubtful” on Friday, so there is still a chance he could play but he hasn’t practiced since before the bye when his toe swelled up.
Cincinnati also gave fans a bit of a scare Thursday when Joe Mixon landed on the injury report as a limited participant in practice because of a knee ailment, but he was back to full participation Friday and appears good to go. The Bengals only gave him 13 carries last week, and he’ll need to get more involved for the offense to get back on track against a top 2 defense.
The Ravens allow just 305.0 yards per game and 17.8 points, and they are especially strong against the pass, allowing just 205.2 yards through the air. They got away from their usual blitz-heavy packages the first meeting with the Bengals, a 34-23 win for Cincinnati, but quarterback Andy Dalton still expects heavy pressure.
“That’s what they are,” Dalton said. “They have so many different ways of doing it. It’s like everybody else, you get in the flow of the game and see what’s working. Last time, we were able to hit some big plays when they did blitz, which took them out of it for a little while. That’s still the personality of their defense and what they do.”
3. Key stat to watch
This game almost always seems to come down to the wire, as 12 of the team’s last 17 meetings were decided by eight points or less.
There is one stat that consistently jumps out as a difference-maker in this series — turnover margin.
In 23 meetings during Lewis’ tenure in which the turnover differential has not been even, the team who wins the turnover battle has posted a 21-2 record. The Bengals are 11-0 against the Ravens with a plus turnover differential and 2-10 with a minus. Earlier this season, the Bengals beat the Ravens while posting a plus-three margin.
The margin was even last year at Baltimore when Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd in the final seconds to give Cincinnati the win.
Baltimore typically has been a strong takeaway team, but is minus-4 in turnover margin (ranking 23rd). Cincinnati is plus-2 and ranks 13th.
4. Another injury on defense
Cincinnati is so banged up on defense that the team finally decided to move tight end Tyler Kroft to the Reserve/Injured list Friday to make room for linebacker Brandon Bell, signed off the practice squad.
The Bengals could be without all three of their starting linebackers Sunday. Preston Brown is the latest loss to the sidelines, as he injured his knee last week against the Saints and continued playing on it. He did not practice all week and is out, Nick Vigil is still out with his knee injury and Vontaze Burfict is questionable as he only practiced in limited fashion all week.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick began the week in concussion protocol and is listed as questionable, despite full participation Friday, but the good news is nickel corner Darqueze Dennard resumed practice this week and is probable to play.
5. Ravens quarterback situation
It’s unclear who will be starting at quarterback for Baltimore, and the three options are all very different types of players. Coach John Harbaugh insists that Joe Flacco could still play despite not practicing all week because of a hip injury in the Nov. 4 game against the Steelers, but he’s listed as doubtful and it seemed all week it would be more likely rookie Lamar Jackson gets his first NFL start.
However, on Thursday, Jackson was sent to the hospital with abdominal pains, which was supposedly precautionary but still alarming. That could leave the Ravens with Robert Griffin III getting his first action since 2016 when he played five games for the Browns.