COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Bengals head into the 2013 season with high hopes for success. However, they happen to play in the AFC North -- possibly the most difficult and vicious division in the NFL.
If the Bengals are to be successful in the coming season, the strengths of each of these opponents must be identified. This is why the coaching staff and players spend countless hours in the film room, constantly searching for ways to avoid the strengths of these teams and exploit their weaknesses.
Let's take a look at each rival's greatest strength.
Baltimore Ravens: Running Backs
The Ravens may have one of the best backfields in the NFL. Incumbent starter Ray Rice is coming off another stellar season in which he rushed for 1,143 yards with a 4.4 yard-per-carry average and nine rushing touchdowns. Rice also had 61 receptions for 478 yards and a score last season.
Rice is not the only threat in the Raven's backfield these days. The emergence of Bernard Pierce created a fierce two-headed monster in the running game last season.
Pierce rushed for 532 yards last season, but averaged a terrific 4.9 yards per carry along with a score. He was not a great threat in the receiving game, but that was generally due to his use almost solely as a rusher when spelling Rice last season.
When facing the Ravens, the key for the Bengals will be to stop this rushing attack and force quarterback Joe Flacco to win through the air. Flacco was on fire through the playoffs last season -- he still needs to show that he can perform on that high level during the regular season.
One of the best cornerbacks in the league, Haden will be glued to A.J. Green for the duration of both contests in 2013. Being that Green is such a valuable target for quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals need to find a clever way to work around him.
Pro Football Focus ranked Haden as one of the best cornerbacks in 2012, giving him a plus-8.3 rating. Haden did give up six touchdowns last season, but for the most part, quarterbacks have struggled when throwing in his direction.
It will be difficult for Cincinnati to get Green away from Haden -- they will generally be linked in man coverage throughout each game. The Bengals must be smart and create mismatches away from this dangerous corner.
Dalton must be cautious not to force anything in his direction, and only take a shot when it is readily available. Haden has superior ball skills and has just as much of a chance of coming away with a jump ball.
Roethlisberger has constantly been a superior quarterback (when healthy) and a thorn in the side of the other AFC North teams. He is so strong and contains great pocket awareness -- two qualities that make him one of the most difficult NFL quarterbacks to sack.
A collapsing pocket is not something that throws Ben off of his game. He is possibly the best quarterback in the league in terms of finding a crease to sneak away from the encroaching defenders while keeping his eyes downfield to find an open target.
A master of the broken play, Roethlisberger has made teams pay for a missed opportunity to bring him down by scrambling away and improvising with a receiver for a large gain.
The Bengals must not only collapse the pocket around Roethlisberger, but they must close in from the outside defensive end positions. This will take away larger alleys for the quarterback's escape and provide a greater possibility of a sack.
It is easier said than done, but applying the right kind of pressure on Ben is the most effective way to prevent him from putting up some gaudy numbers through the air.
These will be the main focal points for the Bengals in the coming season when facing each of their division rivals. Adequate game planning around these team's strengths will provide a much greater chance of success for Cincinnati.
However, if any of these strengths are not suppressed, the Bengals could be in for a long game against some very difficult opposition.
Sean O'Donnell is a contributor for Yahoo! Sports and a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the co-host of the Bengals Central podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network. You can follow him on Twitter: @SeanODonnellNFL
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