Cincinnati Bengals (0-0) at Baltimore Ravens (0-0)
Anyone who followed me during the offseason knows I picked 5 underrated and overrated teams with the intention of trying to get ahead of the odds makers. I will and have been basically just been betting on the underrated teams and against the overrated teams blindly until I’m proven wrong or the odds makers catch up. Unfortunately, I kind of got screwed over this week because two of my underrated teams and two of my overrated teams are playing each other. This game is the latter.
The Bengals made a 5 game improvement last season to go from 4 wins to 9 wins. If history holds, they’ll regress this year as teams that make that kind of improvement regress an average of 2.4 wins per season since the beginning of the 16 game NFL season. Andy Dalton had a rough preseason and really struggled in games against playoff teams last season, during which he went 0-8. He should regress this season now that teams know how to scheme against the Bengals’ system. Andy Dalton had a decent rookie year because of the great job Jay Gruden did as offensive coordinator, but there’s only so long a system can keep a player looking better than he is because you can figure out how to scheme against systems. There’s a reason he struggled so much down the stretch and against better teams. I compare it to Colt McCoy, who looked alright as a rookie, but not only didn’t take that next step in his 2nd year, but also regressed noticeably. Dalton, like McCoy, definitely does not have history on his side as he tries to make the leap to “franchise quarterback.” Only 9 of 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL today weren’t 1st round picks. In each of the last 2 years, only 4 of 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs weren’t 1st round picks.
The Bengals were also hit hard by injuries this preseason as offensive lineman Kyle Cook and Travelle Wharton are both expected to miss the season, with Wharton already on IR. The Bengals injury list is even longer this week as Dre Kirkpatrick and Jason Allen won’t play, Bernard Scott won’t play and Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers might not play. Kirkpatrick’s and Allen’s absence will force Nate Clements, in his age 33 season, to start opposite Leon Hall. Hall, meanwhile, probably won’t be 100% just 10 months after tearing his Achilles. Including playoffs, they allowed 23.8 points per game in their final 9 games without Hall, as opposed to 17.5 points per game in their first 8 games with Hall last season. Obviously having him 100% would be a huge boost for them, but I can’t see him being 100%, at least not this week.
Meanwhile, Bernard Scott’s absence means that BenJarvus Green-Ellis will have the carry the load against Baltimore’s stout run defense. BJGE is good at running through holes and not fumbling, but he averaged just 3.7 YPC last year and ranked just 61st out of 67 eligible backs in yards after contact per carry with 2.0. That was in New England, with Tom Brady making life easy for the running backs. Andy Dalton is not Tom Brady, so BJGE will find very little running room, especially with the Bengals missing two starting interior offensive lineman against a great run defense like the Bengals’. The Bengals won’t be able to run the ball this week.
Geathers’ and Dunlap’s potential absences hurt because the Bengals already lost Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene as free agents this offseason. They love rotation on the defensive line and those two were key parts of that rotation. They’ll be replaced by the mediocre Jamaal Anderson and Devon Still, a 2nd round rookie playing out of position. If Geathers and Dunlap miss this game, that means that Anderson will have to start next to Michael Johnson, the least effective member of their pass rush rotation last year with 7 sacks, but just 6 quarterback hits and 15 quarterback pressures, good for a 6.5% rate on 433 pass rush snaps. Those two would probably also have to play most of the game, something they’re just not used to.
Dunlap, the more likely of the two to miss, was one of the best pass rushers in the league last year. Dunlap managed 5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures, on 302 pass rush snaps, a pass rush rate of 15.6%. He’d obviously be a huge loss and right not it sounds like he’ll be out. Given their troubles in the secondary, the Bengals have to get pass rush to have any chance of stopping the Ravens’ passing attack, but I don’t think that will happen.
The Ravens are banged up too as they’re missing Terrell Suggs likely for the season on defense. They also lost two other defensive starters, Cory Redding and Jarrett Johnson, key members of their run defense. The Ravens have depth in the front 7, but guys like Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, and Albert McClellan will have to play more than they did last year and it’s always a projection to expect them to keep up their levels of play as they get more playing time. Meanwhile, Courtney Upshaw, their 2nd round rookie, will have to play more than they would have liked. On top of all that, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are aging.
Inferior defensive play will put more pressure on the Ravens’ offense, especially Joe Flacco and company. Joe Flacco looked great in the preseason, with Torrey Smith appearing to be the #1 receiver that Flacco has really lacked his whole career. I almost changed the Ravens’ projection after seeing them in the preseason, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to put too much stock in the preseason. They are, however, really one of those teams that fell out of the playoffs in my preseason predictions out of circumstance. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they played well and made the playoffs, despite their losses on defense, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if they missed the playoffs.
Because they fell out of circumstance, I feel more comfortable going with the Ravens than the Bengals in this one. I don’t trust the overrated Andy Dalton to beat the Ravens, considering he’s never beaten a playoff team and the Ravens were undefeated at home last year (9-0), as inconsistent as they were on the road. It’s not a very big bet though.
Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 13
Pick against spread: Baltimore -6 (-110) 2 units