Four key matchups to watch for in Ravens v Bengals

The Baltimore Ravens will face off with the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Five for an AFC North divisional matchup at M&T Bank Stadium. While much has been made about the first head to head matchup between the two young quarterbacks, they won’t actually be on the field at the same time on Sunday.

Games are won and lost based on whichever team can win the most matchups between individual players or whole units on opposite sides of the ball. Here are four key matchups that could determine the outcome of this game:

Ravens cornerbacks v Bengals receivers

For most of the last decade, the Ravens’ secondary was terrorized by Bengals seven-time Pro Bowl receiver AJ Green. He performed so well and had so many big games against Baltimore that he was unofficially dubbed ‘The Raven killer’.

“We know A.J. Green,” Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. “He’s A.J. Green. He’s going to come running out of that tunnel ready play and we’ve got to be ready to play. He’s a force to be reckoned with.”

However, Green has missed the last three of Cincinnati’s matchups with Baltimore due to injury and in his absence, the Bengals have had some other wideouts step up and have been playing well.

In addition to Green who has had a slow start to the season from a production standpoint but is still very much a threat in the passing game, the Bengals have veteran receiver Tyler Boyd and rookie second-round pick Tee Higgins who are both dynamic playmakers and can work out of the slot as well as outside.

While first overall pick Joe Burrow’s group of pass catchers are an impressive and talented bunch, the Ravens secondary is just as loaded with premier talent at both cornerback and safety even without Earl Thomas who was let go in training came and despite losing star slot corner Tavon Young for the year with another season end injury.

Baltimore possesses the hands down the best cornerback tandem in the league bar none at this point with the way that the First-Team All-Pro duo of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters has performed so far this season. With Young out for the year, Humphrey is back to splitting his time in the slot at nickel, so he’ll be guarding all three of the Bengals top targets at some point in this matchup.

As for Peters, the last time he played a rookie quarterback from Cincinnati came last year in his third game as a Raven after getting trade to the team midseason where he intercepted Ryan Finely and returned it 89 yards for his sixth career touchdown. Burrow better be careful not to stare down any receiver for too long or tip his hand and show any reoccurring tendencies because Peters has the smarts, instincts, and ball skills to make him pay dearly.

C Matt Skura v DT Geno Atkins

The Bengals’ eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle just had to pick this week to make his season debut after missing the first four games of the year with a shoulder injury. While dealing with the disruptive force up the middle is a challenge that the entire interior of Baltimore’s offensive line will be tasked with, starting center Matt Skura might have the lion’s share of the responsibility in this game.

Skura has improved each week but is still not fully recovered from the major knee surgery he had late last season that ended his 2019 campaign. The Ravens have faced quite the gauntlet of the game’s top interior defensive linemen from JJ Watt to Chris Jones and Atkins whether he’s fully healthy himself or not will still present Skura and company with some difficulties.

In addition to possessing elite skills as a pass rusher, his ability to beat and shed blocks with his violent hands and sound technique make him a good run defender as well. Skura will need to bring his ‘A’ game this week because Atkins will provide yet another litmus test for him on his journey to regaining what was looking like Pro Bowl form before he suffered his injury setback.

“Geno is a premier defensive tackle,” Harbaugh said. “Has been in that system for many, many years. They play the same basic system that they’ve played for years and years in terms of their front. And he’s unique. So, it’s a big factor.”

ILB Patrick Queen v RB Joe Mixon

CINCINNATI, OH – SEPTEMBER 13: Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals carries the ball during the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium on September 13, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

One of the major keys to the Bengals being able to pull off an upset or to the Ravens being able to prevent Burrow and Cincinnati’s offense from getting going is predicated on how the dynamic running back performs in this game.

Mixon is the Bengals leading rusher with 315 yards in four games, is a threat in the passing game out of the backfield, and is coming off his best game of the year by far against the Jacksonville Jaguars where he rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 30 yards and a score as well in Cincinnati’s first win of the season.

While Burrow is the face of the team and the offense, Mixon is the engine that makes everything go. If he is able to get into a rhythm running the ball, it will help set up the play-action passing game and slow down the Ravens pass rush as a result if they have to spend a few extra moments reading run or pass.

It will take a collaborative effort to ensure that Mixon gets bottled up, but the Ravens’ first-round rookie linebacker will play a significant role in the effort to make it happen. He’s been a tackling machine at and around the line of scrimmage and a heat-seeking missile when it comes to defending the run through the first four games of the season.

Queen leads the team in tackles and was tied for second among all rookie defenders after Week Four with 33. He is coming off a tremendous bounce-back performance against the Washington Football Team where he recorded a career-high 12 total tackles including nine solos and three for a loss.

His best play from last week’s game in the Battle of the Beltway was when he denied a diving attempt to get across the goal line by running back Peyton Barber with a just one crushing blow from his right forearm.

“I live for goal line,” Queen said. “It’s back against the wall, mano-a-mano. We knew he was a jumper. I timed it perfectly, got the arm in there, and knocked him back.”

The Ravens are going to need that kind of physicality and continued improvement in pass coverage from their top rookie in order to limit Mixon and the rest of the Bengals’ offense.

“Mixon is a great back, arguably the top running back in the league right now,” Queen said. “We got to come in, be physical, wrap up, drive our feet on the tackles. He can run routes as well. He’s an all-around back. It’s going to be a fun game. It’s going to get gritty. I can’t wait.”

Ravens pass rush v Bengals offensive line

Last week Baltimore’s pass rush unit as a whole bounced back in a big way from a zero-sack outing against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week Three to a three-sack and relentless pressure performance against Dwayne Haskins and Washington in Week Four.

Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale called the pass rush a “work in progress” after the team’s Monday Night loss to the Chiefs, but they appear to be progressing well and are starting to rack the sacks to go along with the quarterback hits and pressures that they have been accumulating despite not being able to get home as often.

The Bengals offensive line has been one of the worst pass-protecting units in the entire league through the first four games. They’ve allowed the top overall pick to get sacked 15 times in four games including a whopping eight times in the team’s tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Burrow is the first rookie quarterback to ever throw for 300 plus yards in three straight games, but he has also consistently been bruised, battered, and relentlessly pressured behind his porous starting unit. After getting back on track against a leaky pass protecting unit in Washington on the road last week, the Ravens will be looking to feast upon another lackluster unit at home on Sunday.

Baltimore was able to get to and rattle Haskins without blitzing at their normal league-high rate last week but Burrow has shown an ability to read defenses, diagnose coverage and deliver the ball quicker than most rookies and other young signal-callers without extensive starting experience. That means that Martindale might want to dial up some of his patented creative blitzes and pressure packages in order to get to and discombobulate the top overall pick.

“He’s the first pick in the draft and he’s playing that way,” Martindale said. “He’s making all the right reads, you can tell he’s coached well. He’s doing a nice job of running that offense and he’s got a lot of talent to work with.”

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