1. Will the Ravens' revamped offense become more explosive?
In a prime-time season opener Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, the defending AFC North champions are eager to rejuvenate their usually moribund offense and stake their claim as the division frontrunners. After a playoff collapse against the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts last winter where quarterback Steve McNair struggled markedly, the Ravens are optimistic that he'll be significantly improved heading into his second season overseeing an offense that has morphed into more of a one-back attack with extra receivers on the field.
It's debatable whether the Ravens were concealing their intentions during the preseason, or if the changes to the offense have only been subtle ones with no true impact.
2. Will Carson Palmer continue his supremacy over the Ravens?
Palmer has won four of his past five starts against Baltimore, averaging 272 passing yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 108.2. The Bengals' lone loss to Baltimore occurred when he threw more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one). He has been sacked just nine times during that span. Plus, Palmer has completed a pass of at least 40 yards in five consecutive games.
3. Will Willis McGahee revive the running game?
The Ravens invested $40 million in the former Pro Bowl runner, dismissing Jamal Lewis and trading three draft picks to the Buffalo Bills to acquire McGahee to try to upgrade the NFL's 25th-ranked rushing attack. Against an inexperienced group of linebackers, McGahee has a prime opportunity to prove that last season's career-low 990-yard campaign and a lackluster preseason were aberrations, not the rule.
4. Will Jonathan Ogden line up at offensive tackle?
A lot -- including Ogden's 6-foot-9, 345-pound frame -- hinges on the status of his hyperextended left big toe. Ogden is expected to be a game-time decision. and the team is naturally reluctant to make any early declarations about his health. If he plays, he's obviously not expected to be 100 percent.
5. How will Samari Rolle fare against Chad Johnson?
Rolle is coming off a sprained ankle, and now he has to match wits and footwork with the colorful All-Pro wideout. Rolle is coming off a bad season, but has typically matched up well opposite Johnson, a longtime friend he grew up with in Miami Beach.
Three Downs with …
Ravens quarterback Steve McNair
1. On the Bengals' defense: "Well, they've got a solid defense. They're young at the linebacking corps, but they've got some playmakers. This offense is based around controlling the football and that's what we try to do. We're trying to take advantage of what they give us.
"If they give us some big plays, we'll take advantage of that. At the same time, we want to be efficient in both phases, the running game and the passing game, and try to balance the thing out."
2. On whether he feels apprehensive because of the preseason: "I don't think there is apprehension. We just have to minimize our mistakes as far as jumping offsides, false starts and things like that. The execution is there, once we settle down.
"I think going into Monday night the situation is different than preseason. Our mistakes will be cut down to the minimum. We just have to go out there and execute. The important thing is having a mindset that this is the real deal."
3. On the potential of the offense: "We can be very good. I think that ultimately we could be in the top five at the end of the year if we just go ahead and do the things we know we can do: minimize the mistakes, minimize the turnovers.
"For me, I just need to put the ball in the guys' hands: Todd Heap, Daniel Wilcox, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams and also get the running game going with Willis McGahee. You look at all these weapons and you can't help but have success. It's up to us to go out there and execute every play."
Three Downs with …
Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson
1. On matching up with the Ravens' defense: "I always look forward to playing the best defense in the NFL. I really look forward to going against Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle and Ed Reed and the rest of those guys. I really don't deal with interior linemen or linebackers as much, but this is one of the very few teams where you really have to account for everybody on the field at all times.
"Certain teams have certain superstars where you have to lock in on them and really concentrate and focus your game plan for. Playing a defense like the Ravens it's really hard to game plan for individuals when you have to game plan for the entire defense as a whole."
2. On trash-talking: "My trash talking is not about your mama, about your kids, it's not like that. Whether I get in his head or not, you're not going to win the battle. That's my thought process. You're not going to stop me, period.
"One person, two people, three, I don't care. You can contain 85 for a certain period of time, but at some point throughout these four quarters, I'm going to make a play. That's the way I think, but that's the way all attitudes should be. I just happen to be one of the ones who actually voices it publicly and I'm able to go out and back it up."
3. On whether Roger Goodell's hard-line stance on player behavior has reformed the Bengals: "It would have happened anyway. Enough is enough. Every year it's a different team. Last year, it was just us.
"We had our problems, we had our off-the-field issues that affects us during the year. That's over, it's a new year. We've all been clean, out of trouble. I think we'll be fine."
How the Ravens can win
1. Harass quarterback Carson Palmer into mistakes. The Ravens have only sacked him nine times in the past five encounters as he has racked up a 108.2 cumulative rating.
2. Keep the Bengals' offense off the field with a ball-control approach. It's critical that Baltimore establish the run with former Pro Bowl back Willis McGahee to keep the clock running.
3. Watch out for trick plays. The Bengals won last November on a crafty 40-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass from Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
How the Bengals can win
1. Attack cornerback Samari Rolle. Rolle is recovering from a sprained ankle, and will likely be shadowing All-Pro Chad Johnson. He allowed more yards per catch (11.0) than any starting cornerback in the league last year.
2. Bottle up Willis McGahee, and force Steve McMair to throw deep. The Ravens' running game is unproven, and McNair's arm strength on longer patterns remains a question mark.
3. Go after the Ravens' young blockers. Whether Jonathan Ogden plays or not, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis will try to exploit the youth movement upfront with three starters with four or less years of experience.
Keep a close eye on safety Ed Reed. In eight games against the Bengals, he has 40 tackles, five interceptions, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His 203 return yards are second only to his 243 against the Browns. Plus, he scored a touchdown last year on a lateral from Samari Rolle following an interception.
Who has the Edge?
Total (17) Rushing (25) Passing (11)
Steve McNair carries heightened expectations into his second season under center in Baltimore. While he's an accurate passer and a strong leader, his age and arm strength are growing concerns.
The Ravens are banking that their $40 million investment in running back Willis McGahee was a wise one, and that he can breathe life into a dormant running game despite a lackluster preseason.
This shapes up as the Ravens' most talented receiving corps since the days of Michael Jackson, Derrick Alexander and Eric Green, featuring Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, emerging young receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams and well-preserved veteran Derrick Mason, a former Pro Bowl selection moving into the slot this year.
By installing tackle Adam Terry and guard Chris Chester on the right side, this is a more athletic, younger line even with first-round guard Ben Grubbs in reserve. Center Mike Flynn remains entrenched in the middle, and left guard Jason Brown possesses blocking and leadership ability. All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden has been dogged by a lingering turf toe injury. This could be the final season of a Hall of Fame career.
Total (1) Rushing (2) Passing (6)
With underrated, gritty nose guard Kelly Gregg and defensive end Trevor Pryce coming off Pro Bowl worthy seasons, the veteran component of one of the best three-man lines is in heavy supply. Massive second-year defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has been a revelation, though, collapsing pockets with his 6-foot-4, 340-pound girth.
This is one of, if not the, top linebacking corps in the league, including perennial All-Pro Ray Lewis in the middle, intense Pro Bowl injury replacement Bart Scott and two-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Terrell Suggs. Team officials are confident that undecorated and unheralded Jarret Johnson will be an above-average replacement for departed All-Pro Adalius Thomas.
The NFL's top-ranked defense led the league with 28 interceptions and five returned for scores last season as safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry and cornerback Chris McAlister had banner seasons. However, veteran cornerback Samari Rolle got picked on regularly and has vowed to regain his confidence and form after a rough, injury-plagued campaign.
Matt Stover is an 18-year veteran and the second most accurate kicker in NFL history (83.8 percent), connecting on 28 of 30 tries last season. Punter Sam Koch has a strong leg, averaging 43 yards as a rookie. Incumbent return specialist B.J. Sams and rookie speedster Yamon Figurs are expected to divide punt and kickoff return duties. Special-teams ace Gary Stills should have made the Pro Bowl last year when he set a franchise record with 44 special-teams tackles.
Total (8) Rushing (26) Passing (6)
Carson Palmer is one of the top passers in the NFL, in rarified Peyton Manning, Tom Brady territory. He also tends to have the Ravens' number ever since an epic comeback victory he engineered in 2004 in Baltimore that sparked his genesis as a quarterback.
Rudi Johnson rarely gets his due credit, but he really should. Hard-nosed and rugged, Johnson has rushed for 1,309, 1,458 and 1,454 yards over the past three seasons, including exactly a dozen rushing touchdowns per season. He doesn't usually fare well against Baltimore, though, combining for just 124 yards in two games last year.
The Ravens always have to be wary against Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a potent tandem that has haunted them for years. Lately, Johnson has been contained with help over the top from Ed Reed, but Houshmandzadeh is coming off a 10-catch, 106-yard, one-touchdown outing at Pro Bowl corner Chris McAlister's expense. Chris Henry will be missed.
Offensive tackle Willie Anderson is dealing with a foot injury that sidelined him during the preseason, and Marvin Lewis has been mum on whether Levi Jones or Andrew Whitworth is starting at left tackle against Terrell Suggs. It will probably be Whitworth. Meanwhile, Cincinnati will miss Pro Bowl alternate guard Eric Steinbach, who signed with state and division rival Cleveland.
Total (15) Rushing (8) Passing (16)
Robert Geathers is the most explosive athlete among this undistinguished group, but end Justin Smith is the hardest worker. He plays with a non-stop motor. Defensive tackle Domata Peko is a player on the rise.
This is an athletic, albeit unaccomplished group. Middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks has vast potential, but needs seasoning. Redskins castoff LeMar Marshall is starting outside opposite Landon Johnson. Neither player is over 230 pounds. With Odell Thurman's season-long suspension and David Pollack breaking his neck last year, Brian Simmons hasn't been adequately replaced.
They're beginning to turn the corner here, literally, with first-round picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph representing new blood outside. Former Maryland star Madieu Williams is the ace, though, as a hitter who swarms to the football.
Shayne Graham is an elite kicker, but he's nursing a hip injury. Punter Kyle Larson is extremely solid. The return game sorely misses Antonio Chatman. Can Tab Perry and Skyler Green get the job done?
Edges: Quarterback: Cincinnati; Running back: Cincinnati; Receivers: Cincinnati; Offensive line: Even; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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