The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals will find out early where they stand in the balance of power in the AFC North when the two teams who have won the past three division titles meet in Sunday's season opener.
The Ravens are looking to rebound after their five-year playoff streak ended, and the Bengals are seeking back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1981-82, which was five years before quarterback Andy Dalton was born.
Both teams have experienced key changes since the Bengals eliminated the Ravens from the playoffs in last season's finale. The Ravens added clutch experience to the offense with wide receiver Steve Smith and a youthful centerpiece to the defense in first-round pick C.J. Mosley. The Bengals lost both of their coordinators to head-coaching positions, parted ways with their leading rusher and let a top pass rusher in Michael Johnson leave in free agency.
For this big AFC North matchup, let's turn to Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley for a preview of the game.
Hensley: Perhaps the Bengals' biggest move this offseason was signing Dalton to a six-year, $115 million extension last month. That's a huge vote of confidence for a quarterback entering his fourth year as the starter. What has been his biggest improvement this summer?
Harvey: Jamison, this is something I asked quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese about during training camp. It was clear during all the open practices earlier this summer that Dalton had positively tweaked some part of his game. It seemed he was delivering more accurate deep passes than he had previously and was standing much more confidently in the pocket. The trick, according to Zampese, was that Dalton got his arm elevated a little more on his throws. Instead of throwing from behind his ear and using more of his shoulder than anything else, Dalton is releasing passes from well above his head and he’s getting more of his body into his throws. It’s helped his accuracy downfield and velocity short. Time working in California with throwing coach and former major league pitcher Tom House also seems to be having an impact. The big emphasis with House was to work on keeping Dalton's body closed on his throws to prevent them from flying too wildly out of his hand. That was an issue he struggled with on most of his 20 interceptions last year. Finally, time in new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense seems to have put Dalton at ease, too.
The major news for the Ravens this offseason has been the suspension of running back Ray Rice. What will the Ravens do offensively to account for not having him in the backfield?
Hensley: This is the first time since 2008 that the Ravens will start a season without Rice being the featured back. Bernard Pierce will make his second career start for a Ravens' ground attack that looked strong in the preseason. Pierce's running style is the ideal fit for the one-cut scheme of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. He looked the most comfortable in this zone-blocking system. The biggest question is durability. He's carried the ball more than 15 times in only three games. In those games, he's never averaged more than 4 yards per carry. While the Ravens don't expect much of a drop-off in production without Rice, there is concern about Pierce's pass blocking. He doesn't pick up blitzes well, which could become a problem against a Bengals defense that ranked in the top 10 in sacks last year. The Ravens can bring a change of pace with the backups. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro is a bruising back between the tackles, and veteran Justin Forsett is a quick, explosive one in space.
The biggest change for the Bengals is the coordinators. How different will the offense and defense look under Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther?
Harvey: Piggybacking off my last point about Jackson, I’ll say this about Cincinnati’s offense: Where the Bengals silently worked their way up to a top-10 ranking last season because of Dalton’s prolific air attack -- he threw for more than 4,200 yards and had 33 touchdowns -- there won’t be anything silent about their 2014 offense. As Jackson has said often to me this offseason, “Some offenses take what the defense gives them. We want to be an offense that takes what we want.” You’re going to see a much more aggressive Bengals offense this year. You’re going to see a much more physical Bengals offense. Remember how Baltimore bullied the Bengals’ offense at M&T Bank Stadium last year? That probably won’t happen too often this season. There’s an edge to Cincinnati’s offense, one that the defense has long had. Even with Mike Zimmer now gone and coaching the Vikings, the unit has a holdover in Paul Guenther who is used to implementing his own version of an aggressive, take-what-we-want scheme. He drew up many of the blitzes that made Zimmer’s defense shine in recent seasons. Add that with a year of Pro Bowl experience under linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s belt and you get a defense that should certainly rival its top-five unit from last season.
Speaking of bringing an edge, the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency. How much of a jolt do they expect him to provide the offense?
Hensley: The Ravens brought in Smith for his play in pressure situations, not gaudy overall numbers. No one expects Smith to become the team's No. 1 receiver. If everything goes according to Kubiak's plan, quarterback Joe Flacco will spread the ball around to Steve Smith, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown, Owen Daniels and Kyle Juszczyk. Where Steve Smith is going to stand out is on third downs, in the red zone and in the final minutes of a game. The Ravens lost that leadership and attitude when they traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers before last season. Smith's unrelenting intensity fills that void and raises the play in practice. Yes, Smith is 35 and is no longer a Pro Bowl receiver. But his toughness can will the Ravens to victory this season.
While defensive tackle Geno Atkins is not a newcomer to the Bengals, his return from a season-ending knee injury is huge for the defense this year. Does he remain on track for the opener, and will he be the same disruptive player early on?
Harvey: We will see Atkins for the opener, Jamison. The defensive tackle missed all of training camp and parts of the preseason as he continued to rehab from the injury, but it appears he’s all set to go. His last hurdle was playing in a live game, and he did that nearly two weeks ago at Arizona in a Sunday night preseason game. He didn’t hit the field in last Thursday’s preseason finale, though, as he was shelved with the rest of the defensive starters. His conditioning will be something to watch, but otherwise, Atkins ought to give the Bengals the same meaningful Week 1 minutes he has been expected to provide.
In terms of the Ravens' interior defensive line, the Bengals are starting a rookie at center in Russell Bodine. What should he expect as far as matchups with the Ravens?
Hensley: The Ravens are younger and better on the interior of the defensive line this year. Bodine will have to block nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Timmy Jernigan at some point during the game. Williams, a third-round pick from a year ago, is a first-year starter who is more than a space-eater. He's athletic and can get off blocks. Jernigan, a rookie second-round pick, is extremely disruptive with his ability to get into the backfield. There is also Ngata, who is still a difference-maker in his ninth season. With the talent inside, it will be difficult for the Bengals to run up the middle on the Ravens.