Sunday, September 26, 2004

Ravens-Bengals: The Edge



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Mark Curnutte
The Ravens and Bengals have emerged as the two best teams in the evenly matched AFC North.

Turnovers will be a deciding factor today. The Bengals were plus-3 in beating the Ravens at home last year. They were minus-2 in losing at Baltimore in the rematch.


QUARTERBACKS

Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller will meet today for the fourth time. The first three were in college. Palmer's Southern Cal teams defeated Boller's California squads twice.

THE ISOLATION BOOTH

TE MATT SCHOBEL VS. LB ADALIUS THOMAS

Baltimore likes occasionally to double-cover wide receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick with its cornerbacks and safeties.

The tactic can leave open the middle of the field for the tight end. Matt Schobel and the Bengals took advantage of the seam in two games against the Ravens in 2003. Schobel had four receptions for 84 yards. He also had a 45-yard touchdown reception from Jon Kitna in the first meeting, a 34-26 Bengals victory, down the middle.

Schobel could find himself one on one with Adalius Thomas, the Ravens' best cover linebacker. Thomas has broken up three passes so far and intercepted a pass in the victory over the Steelers last week.

Thomas, at 6 feet 2, 270 pounds, has good speed. He earned a Pro Bowl berth as a special teams player in 2003. He also can rush the passer; he hit Pittsburgh quarterbacks three times.

Schobel is the best receiver of the Bengals' tight ends; only hamstring injuries have kept him off the field. He produces when healthy, with 55 catches in 33 games.

Besides Schobel, quarterback Carson Palmer also might look for running back Chris Perry as a receiver. Perry could be effective coming out of the backfield or lining up outside as a receiver. He had 44 receptions as a senior at Michigan last season.

Palmer has shown the ability to spread the ball around, completing passes to 10 receivers in two games.

--Mark Curnutte

Palmer, who didn't get much help when receivers dropped some passes in the Miami game, got hot on the winning drive with 7-for-8 passing for 53 yards. Palmer will have to show poise again today against unrelenting pressure.

Boller played a perfect, custodial game in the victory over the Steelers: 10-for-18 passing for 98 yards, no interceptions. He will have a limited number of chances to throw today. He runs well.

Edge: Bengals

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RUNNING BACKS

After two games in 2003, Jamal Lewis had 364 rushing yards. This year, he has just 119 and a 2.7-yard average. There's a theory around Baltimore that he might be distracted by his upcoming federal drug trial in Atlanta.

They will run. The Ravens are 10-0 in franchise history when they rush 30 or more times as a team.

The Bengals have yet to hit their stride with their run offense, and Rudi Johnson's 3-yard average reflects it. They remain committed to the run and will not back down today in spite of Baltimore's stout defense.

Edge: Ravens

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RECEIVERS

Chad Johnson is learning that he'll face double coverage for a long time, and nobody does it better than the Ravens. He and Peter Warrick need to make a couple of big plays to take pressure off the run game. Tight end Matt Schobel might be an important player today.

Baltimore might not throw more than 15 times with tight end Todd Heap - its best receiver - and wide receiver Travis Taylor out because of injuries. The Bengals will, however, have to pay attention to Kevin Johnson, who hurt them when he was with the Browns.

Edge: Bengals

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OFFENSIVE LINES

Center Mike Flynn is out for the Ravens. Casey Rabach is a capable backup and weighs in as the smallest man on the line (301). The five starters average 339 pounds, and left tackle Jonathan Ogden is the best in the NFL.

The Bengals are beginning to stabilize after a series of injuries. Eric Steinbach is getting healthy at left guard. The Bengals can least afford anything to happen to tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones. Center Jerry Fontenot gets a second start in place of the injured Rich Braham.

Edge: Ravens

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DEFENSIVE LINES

The Bengals showed progress in shutting down the Dolphins for 25 rushing yards Sunday night. The Ravens and Lewis are another type of challenge. The Bengals will win if the defense can keep Lewis in check on the ground and force Boller to pass.

Baltimore's workman-like line doesn't get the attention its linebackers and defensive backs do. But Anthony Weaver and Marques Douglas are strong ends around nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu. They dominated the Steelers offensive line last week.

Edge: Ravens

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LINEBACKERS

Even with Pro Bowler Peter Boulware out with injury, the Ravens field the best linebacker corps in the league. Outside 'backers Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas will start as stand-up ends, giving the Ravens' 3-4 defense the look of a 5-2. Ed Hartwell could only play in the shadow of Ray Lewis, whose personality gives the entire team its swagger.

The undermanned Bengals might try something like a four-linebacker setup, inserting rookie Landon Johnson, to try to slow Jamal Lewis and the run game.

Edge: Ravens

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DEFENSIVE BACKS

The Bengals probably will start Kevin Kaesviharn and Madieu Williams at safeties for a second game in a row because of injuries to starters Kim Herring and Rogers Beckett. The replacements are solid.

But the Ravens secondary is filled with playmakers. Cornerback Gary Baxter has two sacks and might be sent to disrupt Palmer. Corner Chris McAlister and safety Ed Reed are all-stars who can score on defense and special teams (Reed). This group does not need Deion Sanders.

Edge: Ravens

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Reed has three blocked punts in his career and has returned them all for touchdowns. The Bengals are extremely well coached in the kicking game. Kyle Larson and Dave Zastudil might punt 10 times each.

Edge: Ravens

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COACHES

Marvin Lewis continues simultaneously to compete and rebuild. He is getting the most out of his young team, which is what Brian Billick has made a career of in Baltimore. The irony is Billick is an offensive mastermind winning with defense, and Lewis is a defensive genius whose offense is far ahead of his defense.

Edge: Even

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CURNUTTE'S PREDICTION: Ravens 13, Bengals 10




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Ravens-Bengals: The Edge
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