Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens’ opponent that weekend. On Monday night, the Cincinnati Bengals come to Baltimore, so I’m happy to start the season off by chatting with Joe Reedy, who has covered the Bengals as The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bengals beat reporter since 2009.
MV: Andy Dalton was a pleasant surprise last season, becoming the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw 20 or more touchdown passes while starting in eight or more wins. In what ways has Dalton grown since we have last seen him?
JR: Dalton has always had confidence but he has improved on the deep passes by adding upper-body strength while improving his footwork. He has also been more secure in going to his receivers or other players on the offense and telling them if they were off on a play or what improvements they need to make. One of the few bad games that Dalton had in the regular season last year was that first game in Baltimore, so it will be interesting to see how much he has learned from that and what adjustments he will make against the Ravens defense.
MV: Where do you think the pass rush stands with Carlos Dunlap sidelined and Jonathan Fanene not back this year?
JR: Dunlap has been running on the side and is slightly ahead in coming back, but he remains questionable at best going into the game. Michael Johnson has added 30 pounds without losing his quickness, but expect defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to use linebacker Manny Lawson more in rushing off the edge. The other thing they have not lost is tackle Geno Atkins, who tied NFL interior linemen for the lead in sacks last season. Second-round pick Devon Still has also played well in the preseason.
MV: How has running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis fit into the Bengals offense and how do you see the carries being split?
JR: Green-Ellis is the same type of runner as Benson -- he's not going to consistently give you the long gains but what he does do better than Benson is on short yardage, red zone and he doesn't fumble. Green-Ellis is also a better blocker in pass protection. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden would like to give Green-Ellis more passes out of the backfield while using Bernard Scott on series as more of a change of pace and quick threat to the outside. If I had to make a guess right now, I would say Green-Ellis gets 65 percent of the carries and Scott 35 percent with some third-down carries from Brian Leonard.
MV: Ray Rice rushed for 295 yards and four touchdowns in his two games against the Bengals last season. What do they need to do to bottle him up?
JR: The defensive line has to do a better job of getting penetration and the linebackers have to be more disciplined in sticking to their rushing lanes. Rey Maualuga did that twice last year in the second game against the Ravens.
MV: It has been 30 years since the Bengals had back-to-back winning seasons. Do you think with their recent success in the draft, the stability that Dalton brings to the offense, and their solid defense, they will buck that trend in 2012?
JR: It is their best opportunity since 2006 and the schedule is almost a repeat of last year where it is favorable early. After facing the Ravens, the Bengals get Cleveland twice, Washington, Jacksonville and Miami. They need to be at nine wins by December though because the final stretch is brutal with at San Diego, Dallas, at Philly on a Thursday, at Pittsburgh and then the finale against the Ravens here. The biggest questions though are consistency on offense and if the secondary can rebound.