8:14 PM EDT, September 9, 2012
PASSING GAME: The Ravens will unveil their new-look, up-tempo with quarterback Joe Flacco who had his best preseason as a pro. The Ravens finished 19th in the league in passing yards last year, but the addition of Jacoby Jones and maturation of Torrey Smith have them believing bigger things are ahead. (EDGE: EVEN)
RUNNING GAME: Ray Rice had two of his best games last season against the Bengals, totaling 295 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He should be extra fresh having carried the ball just 10 times in the preseason. Rookie Bernard Pierce will get an opportunity as well. (EDGE: RAVENS )
RUSH DEFENSE: The Ravens continued their strong tradition of run stopping last year by finishing second in the league in rush defense. For that to continue, outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan are going to have to set the edge and grow into their roles quickly. (EDGE: RAVENS)
PASS DEFENSE: What looked to be a strength became a concern in the preseason as cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith struggled. Lardarius Webb is the Ravens' top corner, which should earn him plenty of time opposite A.J. Green. The Ravens were third in the league in sacks last year, but they don't have the same personnel. (EDGE: EVEN)
SPECIAL TEAMS: All eyes will be on undrafted rookie kicker Justin Tucker who beat out incumbent Billy Cundiff in training camp. Sam Koch remains one of the most solid punters in the league but where the Ravens really want to see improvement is with their return game. (EDGE: BENGALS )
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have won four straight season openers under John Harbaugh. They have beaten Cincinnati three straight times though all were relatively close. They've also won eight straight games against AFC North foes and 11 straight at M&T Bank Stadium, including the postseason. (EDGE: RAVENS)
PASSING GAME: Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green made the Pro Bowl as rookies last year, but both had uneven games against the Ravens with Dalton throwing one touchdown in two games. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a big-time threat but behind Green, the Bengals' receiving core is relatively unproven.
RUNNING GAME: Cedric Benson historically gave the Ravens problems, but the Bengals' running game is now in the reliable hands of former New England Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis who has never lost a fumble in his career. His top backup, Bernard Scott, may not play because of a hand injury.
RUSH DEFENSE: Though they couldn't stop Rice last year, the Bengals' run defense ranked 10th in the NFL, allowing a respectable 104.7 yards per game. Cincinnati's defensive front, headed by third-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins, is big and talented. Linebackers Thomas Howard and Rey Maualuga are their top tacklers.
PASS DEFENSE: After missing most of last season with an Achilles injury, Leon Hall returns to his role as the Bengals' top corner. Mostly without him, Cincinnati's pass defense was the ninth best in the NFL last year. Atkins had 7.5 sacks in 2011, tying for the most among interior linemen. A steady pass rush on Flacco would certainly aid a veteran secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brandon Tate is a dangerous return man, finishing second in the NFL in punt return yards and fifth in kick return yards. Mike Nugent set team records last season for field goals (33) and points (132), and Kevin Huber ranks second in team history in punting average. Both coverage teams for the Bengals were strong last year.
INTANGIBLES: The Bengals were one of the most surprising teams in the NFL last year and they have a great mix of young talent with Dalton, Green, Atkins and Maualuga and unheralded veterans like tackle Andrew Whitworth and nose tackle Domata Peko. However, the Bengals have never done well with big expectations. Cincinnati hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since the late 1970s.
PREDICTION: If the preseason is any indication, there are reasons for concern about these Ravens. They didn't get after the quarterback at all, their secondary struggled to keep up with quality wide receivers and their offensive line was in flux. But they move to a different — and far bigger — stage Monday night, one they haven't been on in a while at home. The bet here is they respond and finish an emotional week that included the death of their beloved former owner Art Modell with a tight victory.
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