1. How will rookie quarterback Joe Flacco fare in his NFL starting debut?
As the Baltimore Ravens take on the Cincinnati Bengals today to launch the season, this game marks the beginning of the Flacco era. Traditionally, rookie quarterbacks make a ton of mistakes. Even Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman did. The first-round draft pick has maintained his composure so far, but must avoid interceptions and fumbles against a defense built to confuse and bruise him. Flacco has unusual arm strength, but must be careful with his velocity, accuracy and reads. Veteran offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is crafty enough to do what he can scheme-wise to limit Flacco's negative exposure as he learns on the job.
2. Will the Ravens' secondary be able to hold up?
An injury and suspension-riddled unit could be in trouble against explosive wide receivers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and underrated tight end Ben Utech with strong-armed quarterback Carson Palmer delivering spirals with his trademark quick release. With Fabian Washington and Derrick Martin suspended for violating NFL rules and Corey Ivy and Frank Walker shaky during the preseason, it's up to starters Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle to play tight man-to-man coverage while dealing with the potential absence of star free safety Ed Reed due to a nerve impingement. McAlister has a gimpy right knee.
3. Will rookie running back Ray Rice be ready to shoulder the workload?
Rice has been impressive in relief of injured starter Willis McGahee, who reprised some bad habits by skipping the offseason program and most of the minicamps before hurting his left knee and undergoing arthroscopic surgery last month. The Ravens had envisioned McGahee emerging as a three-down back, but Rice has taken his snaps lately. McGahee is trying to return in the nick of time, but it's questionable whether he'll play much or make an impact, considering his conditioning and knowledge of the playbook.
4. Will the offensive tackles be able to protect Flacco?
Jared Gaither and Adam Terry are unproven commodities and were sidelined for most of the preseason with sprained ankles. While both have a lot of potential, the Ravens felt uneasy enough that they signed veteran Willie Anderson on Friday and he figures to eventually become a starter at right tackle. Terry and Gaither will need to be impressive to hold onto their jobs, and Terry could eventually shift back to left tackle.
5. Can the front seven carry the team?
For the Ravens to win many games under first-year head coach John Harbaugh, they'll need the defense to intimidate the opposition. The strength of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's unit is comprised of linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson and defensive linemen Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. They'll need to be on top of their game as the Ravens try to avoid a rough start while opening the season against the only team that had a losing record last year among their first six opponents.
It will be interesting to see how new coach John Harbaugh's demanding training camp regimen translates into the regular season. After breaking in players accustomed to former coach Brian Billick's laid-back atmosphere and getting them acclimated to a new system, the Ravens are starting to get healthier at several positions after several players were sidelined for most or all of the preseason. Harbaugh has also been trying to instill more discipline in a team that unraveled last season with penalties and disrespectful behavior toward officials. The majority of the veterans have bought into his hard-nosed approach, but there are still some players who privately grumble about some of the rule changes. It has been a major culture shock for many older players. For the rookies, it feels like college football all over again.
THREE DOWNS WITH ...
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco
1. On the impact of free safety Ed Reed potentially being out: "It changes it a lot. Ed is the best free safety in the game, period, hands down. With him being able to do everything, being able to play in the box, being able to cover, being able to disguise everything, Ed really plays the game in his own way and that's what makes it so difficult. It's really a bore when Ed's not playing."
2. On targeting linebacker Bart Scott and safety Dawan Landry: "The last time we played against Bart he cussed me out and told me to stay out of the huddle, and I took offense to that. This Sunday, I'm going to hit him in the mouth. I've got a problem with Dawan Landry, too.
"He's always trying to be like He-Man every time it's a running p lay. I'm just going to have them going all day and I'm going to keep on talking. I'm going to hit them late.I'm going to do everything I can just to piss them off."
3. On his relationship with middle linebacker Ray Lewis: "He's similar to a father figure, he's my spiritual father when I'm having problems. Ray is really the only reason I've somewhat shut up and calmed down and came back and refocused my energy on helping my team get to the playoffs and all my energy being positive. He put it more in perspective of it's a business and that there are millions of people that wish they were in my shoes, doing what I do."
THREE DOWNS WITH ...
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs
1. On being labeled as a rebuilding team:&nb sp;"It is rebuilding. I'm just kidding. I guess if the shoe fits, wear it. We're just going to have to prove that we're not a rebuilding team. We are a young team, but, as in years past, some young teams have had some success. We can't let anything that doesn't pertain to football affect us. If we go out there and execute our assignments and play to the best of our ability, I think we'll be all right."
2. On whether he feels ready after missing training camp: "That's why I work hard in the offseason. That's why I train so hard the way I do because I just don't prepare for 50 minutes. I prepare for a season. I'm definitely ready to go. I think I'm a lot fresher than all the other guys. Hopefully, that will work to my advantage. I feel marvelous."
3. On Chad Johnson changing his name to Chad Ocho Cinco: "I love it. I think it's good for the game. What would this game be like without Chad doing his antics? We love it, and it's firing us up. He just better perform like Ocho Cinco, or they're going to be in a lot of trouble."
How the Ravens can win
1. Establish the run with rookie Ray Rice to control the clock and create mismatches in the open field against the Bengals' linebackers.
2. Harass Carson Palmer with a strong pass rush to prevent him from picking apart an injury-riddled secondary.
3. Protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco with an extra blocking back and provide him with enough time to figure out the speed of the game and complete some passes.
How the Bengals can win
1. Force Joe Flacco into mistakes with umbrella defenses and heavy blitz and stunt packages.
2. Isolate Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in single-coverage against cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, especially on post corner routes against McAlister who has a tendency to bite on pump fakes.
3. Make the Ravens respect the run with Chris Perry enough that they don't completely tee off on relative immobile quarterback Carson Palmer with Terrell Suggs, Trevor Pryce and Antwan Barnes.
Bengals WRs Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. Ravens CBs Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle
This marks a pivotal encounter for a shorthanded Baltimore secondary that has to deal with the medical uncertainty of McAlister's suspect right knee, and probably not having free safety Ed Reed to assist in double-coverage against this dangerous tandem. Houshmandzadeh has caught 70 passes for 879 yards and six touchdowns in 11 career games against Baltimore.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Bengals CB Johnathan Joseph
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will try to confuse and pressure the rookie first-round pick during his first NFL start, and Joseph is the Bengals' best pure cover corner. Cincinnati may employ Joseph and cornerback Leon Hall in disguised coverage schemes to try to bait Flacco into interceptions.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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