COMMENTARY| The Cincinnati Bengals face a Baltimore Ravens team on the road in Week 10 that is almost in do-or-die mode for their 2013 season. The Ravens' urgency will compound some of the injury issues the Bengals are facing, now that the team is without star defensive tackle Geno Atkins, as well as a slew of other starters and key players on the defensive side of the ball.
Here are the five key players to watch for the Bengals if they are to regain momentum and reclaim a commanding lead in the AFC North:
As the replacement for Atkins, Brandon Thompson has bigger cleats to fill than anyone can be expected to fill. The loss of Atkins makes the job of the entire defense harder, but Thompson has shown the ability to stand his ground and gain some push against blockers against the run.
Thompson's task will be even more demanding if fellow backup DT Devon Still remains sidelined or limited due to an elbow injury that has kept him out of action for the past two weeks. Either way, Thompson will have a huge role in whether or not the Ravens rushing attack can exploit the field up the middle, especially with second-level thumper Rey Maualuga expected to miss another week due to a knee injury.
The dual-threat running back was knocked out of last week's loss to the Miami Dolphins with a bruised rib. Bernard is expected to be ready to play against the Ravens, but his stamina will be tested whenever the Ravens can land a solid hit on him.
Any limitations for Bernard will significantly impact the versatility of the Bengals' offense, but one of the bright spots of the Bengals' Week 1 loss on Monday Night Football to the Ravens in 2012 was the running of back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who gained 91 on 18 carries in that game.
Regardless of Green-Ellis, the Bengals still need Bernard posing his unique threat all over the field every snap he is in the game.
With starting tight end Jermaine Gresham popping up on the injury report this week with a groin injury, rookie tight end Tyler Eifert will see more action than he has all season if Gresham can't play Sunday. Eifert continues to develop into not only an all-around tight end but also a highly skilled and versatile receiver capable of coming out of the backfield, splitting wide and lining up in the slot.
Depending upon how well the Ravens' secondary can contain Bengals' extraordinary receiver A.J. Green, Eifert could prove to be a difference maker if he is targeted in routes that cause mismatches for the Ravens.
The Bengals seemed to have created an opening for veteran outside linebacker James Harrison to play more as a 4-3 defensive end with the signing of DT Kheeston Randall because backup DEs Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry wil be asked to kick inside to DT more on passing downs.
The Bengals will still rely heavily on starting DEs Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, but springing Harrison off the edge on a rotation basis may catch the Ravens off guard enough to have an impact on the outcome of the game.
The Bengals have become thin at linebacker with the extended loss of Maualuga and the season-ending loss of nickel linebacker and slot safety Taylor Mays. Michael Boley may still be working on his game conditioning after missing last week with a hamstring injury, but the nickel LB spot beside Vontaz Burfict is his for the taking.
Boley may also be asked to play more in the 4-3 base on the weakside, which would allow Burfict to shift to the middle instead of using Vincent Rey as the 4-3 middle backer. Boley's level of play and health are going to become increasingly more important down the stretch, even after Maualuga returns.
Overall, the Bengals have responded well to the rash of injuries that have beset them. If their resiliency continues and players who have not been significant contributors before rise to the occasion, the Bengals could put themselves in a position to ice the AFC North. All they have to do is beat the Ravens on the road in Week 10 and handle the Browns at home the following week.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for more than five years. He posts his NFL draft predictions each year at footballnostradamus.com.
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- The Ravens
- Baltimore Ravens
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- Brandon Thompson
- Michael Boley
- Tyler Eifert