AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

When breaking down how the Baltimore Ravens crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers by 20 points, it starts with how their offensive line bullied their division rivals up front.

The weakest position on the Ravens' last season, the offensive line paved the way for quarterback Joe Flacco and the running backs.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe offensive line allowed Joe Flacco and the Ravens to push ahead against the Steelers.
The improvement is based on upgrading the makeup of the line. The Ravens traded for center Jeremy Zuttah, promoted right tackle Rick Wagner to the starting lineup and welcomed back a healthy Kelechi Osemele at left guard.

The progress is also the result of hard work. When players are coming off the field at the end of practice, it's common to see the offensive linemen going through drills with assistant Juan Castillo.

The offensive line made Flacco's night easier against the Steelers. He didn't get hit or sacked in any of his 29 dropbacks.

How significant is that? It's the first time Flacco has played the Steelers and not been sacked. In his previous 13 meetings with Pittsburgh, Flacco was sacked 33 times.

"Anytime you go against the Pittsburgh Steelers and I can stand back there and be pretty much untouched, it’s a nice feeling," Flacco said.

Flacco wasn't the only beneficiary of the offensive line's strong performance. The Ravens' running backs averaged 2.6 yards before contact, according to Pro Football Focus. That shows how much push the Ravens had on the line.

"The offensive line did a great job making holes," said running back Bernard Pierce, who ran for 96 yards, "and we just wore them down in the second half."

Ravens report card vs. the Steelers

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
Grading the Baltimore Ravens in their 26-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night:

Quarterback: This was one of the most efficient games of Joe Flacco's career. He completed 72.4 percent of his throws (21 of 29). Not forcing the deep pass, Flacco showed patience and accuracy in hitting his targets on the short to intermediate passes. His improved play-action fakes led to both touchdown throws near the goal line. Flacco also extended two drives by converting on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 with sneaks. Grade: B-plus.

Running backs: It was slow going early on, but the Ravens' running game was the reason why the team finished off the Steelers so decisively. Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett combined for 95 yards in the fourth quarter. Pierce, who started after being benched Sunday, ran with determination. Forsett is dangerous when he gets to the edges. Has anyone seen Kyle Juszczyk this season? Grade: B.

Wide receivers/tight ends: It was a big night for the tight ends. Owen Daniels caught two touchdown passes on goal-line plays. Dennis Pitta kept both of those touchdown drives alive by converting a third down on each one. Even though Flacco talked about Torrey Smith being a 100-catch receiver, he was more focused on wide receiver Steve Smith for a second consecutive week. Steve Smith was targeted on over one-third of Flacco's passes, catching six of them for 71 yards. Grade: B-plus.

Offensive line: The reason why the Ravens beat the Steelers by 20 points starts with the domination up front. Flacco was barely touched. The Ravens didn't allow a sack or hit, and they pushed the Steelers back on run plays. Left tackle Eugene Monroe had one of his best games as a Raven. Center Jeremy Zuttah knocked the Steelers' interior back, which allowed Flacco to easily convert both of his quarterback sneaks. Grade: A.

Defensive line: Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata showed his athleticism in the fourth quarter when he batted a pass and intercepted it. Nose tackle Brandon Williams recorded two tackles and got some pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Backup DeAngelo Tyson recovered a fumble deep in Ravens territory. Grade: B-minus.

Linebackers: Inside linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley again struggled against a speedy back and had trouble chasing down Le'Veon Bell. Mosley had two missed tackles. But Smith and Mosley came up with big stops with each forcing a fumble. Terrell Suggs got caught crashing inside and the Steelers made him pay on reverses. Elvis Dumervil had two sacks. On one of them, he ran through tackle Marcus Gilbert before taking down Roethlisberger. Grade: C-plus.

Secondary: Jimmy Smith did a good job keeping wide receiver Antonio Brown in check. Safety Matt Elam was around the ball for a second straight week, leading the team with 10 tackles. Pass coverage, though, still isn't one of his strengths (he gave up five receptions). Chykie Brown was removed from the starting lineup but was forced back in after Asa Jackson suffered a concussion. But Brown only allowed one catch. Grade: B.

Special teams: Justin Tucker converted four field goals: 30, 23, 22 and 20 yards. He also had six touchbacks on kickoffs. Sam Koch netted an impressive 48.5 yards on two punts. Jacoby Jones was a nonfactor until he returned a punt 33 yards in the fourth quarter. Grade: B-plus.

CB Webb out again for Ravens

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
BALTIMORE -- The Ravens will be without their top cornerback for the second consecutive game.

Lardarius Webb won’t play tonight against the Steelers because of a back injury. Chykie Brown will start at left cornerback in the 8:25 p.m. ET game at M&T Bank Stadium.

Webb is the only starter who won’t play in the first Steelers-Ravens game of the season.

The Steelers are without No. 3 wide receiver Lance Moore (groin) and rookie running back Dri Archer (ankle) because of injuries.

Joining them on the Steelers' inactives list are wide receiver Martavis Bryant, nose tackle Daniel McCullers, guard Chris Hubbard, offensive lineman Wesley Johnson and quarterback Landry Jones.

Joining Webb on the Ravens’ inactives list are linebacker Arthur Brown, guard Jah Reid, wide receivers Deonte Thompson and Michael Campanaro, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi and guard John Urschel.

By the numbers: Ravens Week 2

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
Here are some numbers to remember for Thursday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens (0-1) and Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0):

3: Teams that failed to record a sack in Week 1, which includes the Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons. The Ravens pressured the quarterback at the second-lowest rate in Week 1 (12.8 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

4: Wins by Joe Flacco in his past six games against the Steelers. He has completed 61 percent of his throws over that span, throwing seven touchdowns and one interception.

8: Number of seasons since the Ravens have started 0-2. That's the fourth-longest streak in the NFL. Only the Denver Broncos (14 seasons), New England Patriots (12) and Chicago Bears (10) have longer streaks.

11: Rushes by running back Justin Forsett in the season opener. That's five more attempts than he had all of last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Forsett received 54 snaps at running back while Bernard Pierce (eight snaps) and Lorenzo Taliaferro (three) combined for 11.

16.5: Number of times Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (in 23 meetings). It's the most sacks of Roethlisberger by any NFL defender. But Suggs has just one sack in his past four games against Pittsburgh.

18.1: Points per game allowed by the Ravens since the start of the 2008 season, which was John Harbaugh's first in Baltimore. Only the Steelers (17.7 points) have allowed fewer points than the Ravens.

23: Joe Flacco's interceptions since winning the Super Bowl. That's the second-most by an NFL quarterback since the start of the 2013 season. Only Eli Manning (29 interceptions) has thrown more.

30: Receptions by Dennis Pitta in his past five games. It's the second-most by a tight end in that span. Carolina's Greg Olsen has the most with 31 receptions.

44: Career 100-yard receiving games for wide receiver Steve Smith. That is 11th in NFL history. He needs one more 100-yard game to tie Isaac Bruce.

129: Consecutive games played by punter Sam Koch, tying him with linebacker Jarret Johnson for the longest streak in Ravens history. Koch will set a team record Thursday night.

Steelers vs. Ravens preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11

The AFC North's most heated rivalry will come down to focus as much as ferocious hits this time. The Baltimore Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday (8:25 p.m. ET), just three days after the Ravens released three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.

The Ravens have to contend with the emotions of the week, a strong-armed Ben Roethlisberger and a high-kicking Antonio Brown to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2005. Losing two home games against division opponents would be a devastating start for the Ravens. The Steelers are looking for their first 2-0 start since 2010, which is the latest time they won the AFC North.

This rivalry has been defined by physical play and close games. Incredibly, 10 of the past 12 games between the Ravens and Steelers have been decided by three points or fewer. Since 2008, Ravens coach John Harbaugh's first season, the teams have split the regular-season series at six wins apiece.

For this prime-time matchup, let's turn to Steelers reporter Scott Brown and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley for a game preview.

Hensley: This is Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's first game back in Baltimore since he nearly collided with Jacoby Jones. Who do you think makes a bigger impact on the game this time: Tomlin or Jones?

Brown: I am going with Tomlin because the Steelers should be able to kick the ball out of the end zone if they want to keep it away from Jones on kickoffs. Also, I'm not sure how much of an impact he will make in the passing game. There are a few mouths to feed ahead of Jones, and that might leave only a few scraps for him after Steve Smith, Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta have gotten their fill of passes. Tomlin, on the other hand, should have a major impact on the game, and probably his biggest challenge will be making sure his assistants get calls from the sideline to the players in a timely manner. The Steelers had a major issue with this -- as well as on-field communication between the players -- the past Sunday, when the Browns went into their hurry-up offense and erased a 24-point halftime deficit. The Steelers' defense has to play better than it did in the final two quarters against the Browns, and that all starts with communication flowing on all levels, something for which Tomlin is ultimately responsible.

I'm usually not big on distractions affecting a game's outcome, particularly when the Steelers and Ravens are involved. But will the fallout from Rice's release carry over to the field for the Ravens?

Hensley: When these teams kick off, the Ravens will be focused on the game. There's too much riding on this one for Baltimore. The players understand how much a loss would derail their season. The Ravens can't lose their first two home games, especially against two division opponents. That being said, the players were clearly affected by the news Monday. It's difficult to think the Ravens had a normal practice only four hours after the team cut the second-leading rusher in team history. Torrey Smith was noticeably stunned that day because Rice is a close friend. Defensive end Chris Canty was teary-eyed in the locker room because domestic violence is a personal issue for him. No one is going to say the Rice saga is a non-factor in this game. But the Ravens have more pressing priorities when they step on the field Thursday.

Running the ball is going to be one of the big keys, given that the Steelers struggled to stop the Browns' ground attack in the season opener. There are three new starters -- rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Cam Thomas and safety Mike Mitchell -- on the Steelers' defense. How different does the defense look since the latest time the Ravens played Pittsburgh?

Brown: The Steelers should be faster than what the Ravens saw the latest time the two AFC North rivals met. Shazier runs like a safety, if not a cornerback, and Mitchell adds some much-needed speed on the back end of the defense. The two, however, are still getting used to playing in a new defense -- as is Thomas -- and the Steelers are asking a lot from Shazier. This past Sunday, he became the first defensive rookie since Kendrell Bell to start a Steelers' season opener, and one of the biggest adjustments Shazier has to make is taking on bigger offensive lineman at this level and consistently shedding blocks. The first-round pick flashed a couple times in the opener, but he also got out of position a handful of times in the second half, when the Steelers couldn't stop the Browns. The Steelers need Shazier to grow up in a hurry and Mitchell to provide the big plays that were his signature the past season in Carolina.

The Steelers have struggled to defend the no-huddle attack, and it almost cost them dearly against the Browns. How much do you think the Ravens will try to use the no-huddle offense, especially given they will be at home, where crowd noise shouldn't be an issue?

Hensley: Based on the opener, the no-huddle doesn't look like it's going to be a big part of Gary Kubiak's offense in Baltimore. The Ravens ran the no-huddle on just 16 of 85 plays (19 percent), and 12 of them occurred after the Ravens fell behind 15-0. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was only moderately effective in going without a huddle. He was 8-of-13 for 79 yards passing. Maybe the Ravens should turn to the no-huddle to get some kind of rhythm early in games. Flacco and the Ravens are slow starters. The Ravens haven't scored in the first quarter of seven of their past 16 games, which dates back to the past season.

The Steelers handed the ball off 26 times and threw it 34 times. Is this the type of balance you'd expect from the Steelers' offense this season? Or will they have a different identity?

Brown: The Steelers would love nothing more than to have that type of balance, and they think they can do it with the talent they have at running back. Le'Veon Bell is poised for a breakout season after piling up 197 rushing and receiving yards in the season opener. What the Steelers really like about Bell is they can get him the ball in a lot of different ways, which makes 25 to 30 touches a game realistic without leaning too heavily on him at the expense of others. LeGarrette Blount gives the Steelers a starting-caliber back behind Bell, and the 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser can wear down opposing defenses. Rookie Dri Archer, who is unlikely to play because of a sprained ankle, is the fastest player on the team, and teams have to account for his world-class speed. Roethlisberger has long said the Steelers have to establish the run consistently to be successful, so he should be fine if the offense runs through Bell. If that is the case, it will only open things up more for Roethlisberger and Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown when the Steelers throw the ball and make the offense much more symbiotic than it has been in recent seasons.

This doesn't have the feel of a typical Steelers-Ravens game, which is about defense, defense and more defense. Where are the Ravens vulnerable on defense, and how do you see the Steelers trying to attack them?

Hensley: The Ravens are most vulnerable in the secondary. Case in point: the game-winning 77-yard touchdown they allowed to A.J. Green in the opener. The Ravens are hoping Lardarius Webb is healthy enough to replace Chykie Brown, who was beaten by Green for the big-play score. Webb missed the opener as well as the entire preseason because of a back injury. If Webb is back, the Ravens have one of the best young cornerback tandems -- that is, if Webb doesn't have too much rust. What hurts the Ravens on deep throws is their safeties. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart are both at their best when they play close to the line. Their strength is not in coverage. In his past five games in Baltimore, Roethlisberger has thrown five touchdowns and six interceptions for a 70.6 passer rating.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh declined to name a starting running back after the team released Ray Rice on Monday.

 Asked who would start Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh said, "Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett -- they’ll both play a lot. Lorenzo Taliaferro will be a big part of it, too."

If you didn't pick up on it, Harbaugh named every tailback on the roster. As I wrote earlier, Forsett earned the right to start against the Steelers after gaining 70 yards on 11 carries in the season opener.

But, since no one in the backfield is an established starter, Harbaugh will likely go with the hot hand each game. The approach is probably a running-back-by-committee, so Harbaugh would be right in naming everyone a starter.

Forsett, though, deserves the first shot after showing more burst and elusiveness than the Ravens' other backs. The question mark with Forsett is how long he can hold up considering he's a small back at 5-foot-8 and 197 pounds.

He's only made seven starts in his seven-year career. The last came four years ago.

"I’m ready to seize the moment," said Forsett, who is comfortable with Gary Kubiak's offense after playing in Houston in 2012. "My job is to go out and perform when my number is called. I’m excited about [the] opportunity. Hopefully [there will] be some great things to come on Thursday night.”

 Pierce deserves another chance as well. He was benched in the second quarter Sunday after fumbling, but it was his first career fumble.

The Ravens don't have enough depth at running back to keep Pierce standing on the sideline. A third-round pick in 2012, Pierce showed flashes in his rookie season (averaged 4.9 yards per carry) before struggling last season (2.9-yard average).

On the depth chart in the team's weekly press release (which is unofficial), Pierce is listed as the starting running back.

Pierce said he doesn't know whether he'll play against the Steelers because he doesn't control that. But he does think he can turn his season around if he gets on the field.

"I’ve just got to make sure first things first, protect the ball," he said.

The Ravens' ground game is among the biggest keys of the game after the Steelers couldn't slow down the Cleveland Browns' running backs. The Steelers allowed 183 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 30 attempts (a 6.1-yard average).
BALTIMORE -- It's easy to say cornerback Chykie Brown was the reason the Baltimore Ravens fell to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Brown did get burned by Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green for a 77-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter for what became the deciding score. That's just not looking at the big picture.

Brown actually held up well in his second career start, and the Ravens would've been able to withstand one deep touchdown pass to Green if the offense had shown up before halftime. By my count, Brown gave up a handful of catches, which is a decent number considering the Ravens rarely got pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton and finished with no sacks.

You can only fault Brown for making his biggest mistake at the biggest point of the game. Two plays after the Ravens took the lead on an 80-yard touchdown to Steve Smith, Brown allowed the momentum-killing completion to Green.

“I blame it on me. I put that one me,” Brown said. “I was looking for the deep ball, but I have to play better technique. I have to stay on top of the man and that didn’t happen.”

Honestly, was anyone really surprised with the result? Brown, who struggled most of the offseason, was trying to cover one of the best wide receivers in the game.

Based on the Ravens' history with Green, it was only a matter of time before it happened. Green caught three passes that traveled at least 40 yards in the air last season against the Ravens.

Brown is just the latest Ravens defender to feel the sting of trying to cover Green.

“The coverage was there,” coach John Harbaugh added. “It’s a matter of a great player that got a step behind us and made a great play. Chykie got a hand in the air; he was beat by a step, though. He should stay on top there and he knows that.”

Before the game, many Ravens fans grimaced when it was announced that Lardarius Webb was inactive with a back injury and Brown would replace the three-year starter. It was assumed that the Bengals would throw in Brown's direction every time Green lined up on right right side.

For the most part, Brown went unnoticed on the field, which is a compliment for cornerbacks. His solid play helped the Ravens stop the Bengals on 10 of 14 third downs and kept them out of the end zone until 4:58 left in the game.

"We picked a hell of a time to let them in the end zone, if you ask me," linebacker Terrell Suggs.

That's all you can blame Brown for -- bad timing.
BALTIMORE -- Watching the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco should come with an advisory: Prepare to experience the most frustrating quarterback in the NFL.

The Ravens' season-opening 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was four quarters of the best and worst of Flacco. He continually found ways to torment, enthrall and bewilder the sellout crowd of 70,925 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Flacco can make throws only few can think about attempting, such as throwing across his body and hitting wide receiver Steve Smith on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass that went 58 yards in the air. He also can make bone-headed mistakes you'd expect out of rookie quarterbacks -- not a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player -- such as the time he ran out the clock at the end of the first half to squash any field-goal attempt.

His nickname should be changed from Joe Cool to Joe Cruel.

The emotional roller coaster with Flacco went until the final minute of the game. After the Bengals took back the lead on a 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green, Flacco went 8-of-10 for 65 yards to move the Ravens to within 16 yards of tying the game. But in what summed up the day for Flacco and the Ravens, he was unable to throw a pass on the team's final two offensive plays and got sacked twice.

"It was a bad day," said Flacco, who was 35-of-62 passing for 345 yards. "We got ourselves obviously in position to win the game, but we didn't necessarily play well enough to win it."

There's no question Flacco has all the physical tools you want in a quarterback. He proved that during the Ravens' Super Bowl run 19 months ago. Where he struggles at times is making the quick decisions and adjustments.

That was evident on the final play of the game, when Flacco saw the Bengals overload the right side of the line. The defense was sending three players (including blitzing safety Reggie Nelson), and the Ravens only had two blockers to pick them up.

Right tackle Rick Wagner said he should have done a better job of slowing down Nelson, but Flacco had to assume he'd have to get rid of the ball quickly. On fourth-and-9, the worst option was getting sacked and not making a desperation throw downfield. Still, that's exactly what happened.

"I knew I had Reggie coming off the right corner there, and I thought we'd hold him up a little bit," Flacco said. "I knew I had to make a play to get the first down and just couldn't do it."

All of the blame for the Ravens' first home loss to the Bengals in five years shouldn't be placed on Flacco. His receivers dropped seven passes. Running back Bernard Pierce fumbled at the Ravens' 20-yard line.

Flacco, though, remains the Ravens' barometer of success, and it's difficult for the team to overcome his repeated slow starts. He misfired 13 of his first 23 passes and threw for 78 yards in the first half.

To make matters worse, Flacco scrambled when there were only a few seconds left before halftime and ran out the clock to take away an opportunity for a 32-yard field goal.

"That was probably the stupidest play I've ever made in football," Flacco said. "I kind of just got caught up in the play and forgot about the situation. There's no excuse for it. It can't happen."

Flacco drew the ire of fans in the third quarter when he was intercepted just two plays after the Ravens blocked a field goal, then he was cheered like a hero after he converted a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter by running the ball and taking a hard hit.

It's always up and down with Flacco in the regular season. The only consistent part of Flacco's game is his inconsistency.
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals "barring a surprise," according to the NFL Network.

Webb is listed as questionable with a back injury that sidelined him for the entire preseason, but he had full participation in every practice leading up to Sunday's game. A three-year starter, Webb declined through a spokesman to talk to reporters Friday.

If Webb is inactive, the Ravens would be down to three cornerbacks: Jimmy Smith, Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson. Smith (chest) and Jackson (ankle) each missed preseason games with injuries, but neither were listed on the injury report.

Losing Webb would be a major blow to the defense because either Brown or Jackson would have to start alongside Smith. In the preseason, the Ravens were more comfortable starting Brown because he has more size to match up on the outside. Jackson typically lined up against the slot receiver.

If Webb doesn't play, it would make Saturday's release of cornerback Derek Cox a peculiar move. Cox, who has 56 career starts, has more experience than Brown and Jackson, who have a combined one NFL start.

Ravens safeties Terrence Brooks and Anthony Levine can each play cornerback as well, which gives the team extra depth at that position.
The Baltimore Ravens promoted running back Fitz Toussaint from their practice squad after releasing cornerback Derek Cox.

Toussaint is the third undrafted rookie on the Ravens' season-opening 53-man roster, joining linebacker Zachary Orr and offensive tackle James Hurst.

Touissant flashed his explosiveness in the preseason finale with several big runs. Toussaint ran for 103 yards at New Orleans, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

The Ravens have four tailbacks on their roster with Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Justin Forsett and Toussaint. Pierce is expected to replace suspended Ray Rice as the the Ravens' starting running back for the first two games of the season.
The Baltimore Ravens released veteran cornerback Derek Cox a day before the season opener, which carries a couple of implications.

This is another sign that the Ravens are confident that cornerback Lardarius Webb (back), who is questionable on the injury report, will play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens are down to four cornerbacks without Cox.

The move is likely a procedural one as well. If Cox was on the season-opening roster, his $730,000 salary would have been guaranteed. Now, the Ravens can re-sign Cox as soon as Monday and only be on the hook to pay him for the weeks he is on the roster.

The Ravens didn't announce a corresponding move, but it's expected that a practice-squad player will take Cox's place on the roster. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes, who worked with the team all week as a member of the practice squad, could be a candidate to be promoted to the 53-man roster because of his value on special teams.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- There is a growing buzz that Kyle Juszczyk is going to be the Baltimore Ravens' breakout player this season. He is also going to be the team's most versatile one as well.

Asked how many places he can line up on the field, Juszczyk responded, "How many positions are there? That's the answer."

During one practice this week, he lined up at every skill position except quarterback. He took snaps as the fullback, tailback, wide receiver, slot receiver and tight end.

A year ago, Juszczyk rarely got snaps on offense as a rookie. This year, it's going to be hard to keep the guy nicknamed "Juice" off of it.

"Wherever they tell me to line up, I'm going to go there," he said.

Juszczyk is now strong enough to be a lead blocker. He's got good enough hands to catch the ball. He's athletic enough to run past a defender on a seam route and pull down a pass 15 yards downfield.

But in order to play so many positions, the former fourth-round pick also has to be smart. That's never been a question with Juszczyk, who was an economics major at Harvard.

"One of the things I focus on is not learning what my job is on the play but what the entire play entails," he said. "That way, when I'm called upon to do something else, I understand the scheme and not that one position."

Juszczyk has been among the most improved players during the offseason and training camp. He led the Ravens in catches this preseason with 10.

His role could expand even more if tight end Owen Daniels doesn't produce as expected.

"I’ve been very pleased with Juice’s progress, and it’s important for our team that he plays well and plays like a four-, five-year guy and not a first-year starter," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "He’s been working at it, and I know we have a lot of confidence in him.”

Bengals at Ravens preview

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
Andy Dalton and Steve SmithGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsBengals quarterback Andy Dalton has more confidence and a new contract, and receiver Steve Smith is ready for his regular-season debut as a member of the Ravens on Sunday.

The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals will find out early where they stand in the balance of power in the AFC North when the two teams who have won the past three division titles meet in Sunday's season opener.

The Ravens are looking to rebound after their five-year playoff streak ended, and the Bengals are seeking back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1981-82, which was five years before quarterback Andy Dalton was born.

Both teams have experienced key changes since the Bengals eliminated the Ravens from the playoffs in last season's finale. The Ravens added clutch experience to the offense with wide receiver Steve Smith and a youthful centerpiece to the defense in first-round pick C.J. Mosley. The Bengals lost both of their coordinators to head-coaching positions, parted ways with their leading rusher and let a top pass rusher in Michael Johnson leave in free agency.

For this big AFC North matchup, let's turn to Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley for a preview of the game.

Hensley: Perhaps the Bengals' biggest move this offseason was signing Dalton to a six-year, $115 million extension last month. That's a huge vote of confidence for a quarterback entering his fourth year as the starter. What has been his biggest improvement this summer?

Harvey: Jamison, this is something I asked quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese about during training camp. It was clear during all the open practices earlier this summer that Dalton had positively tweaked some part of his game. It seemed he was delivering more accurate deep passes than he had previously and was standing much more confidently in the pocket. The trick, according to Zampese, was that Dalton got his arm elevated a little more on his throws. Instead of throwing from behind his ear and using more of his shoulder than anything else, Dalton is releasing passes from well above his head and he’s getting more of his body into his throws. It’s helped his accuracy downfield and velocity short. Time working in California with throwing coach and former major league pitcher Tom House also seems to be having an impact. The big emphasis with House was to work on keeping Dalton's body closed on his throws to prevent them from flying too wildly out of his hand. That was an issue he struggled with on most of his 20 interceptions last year. Finally, time in new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense seems to have put Dalton at ease, too.

The major news for the Ravens this offseason has been the suspension of running back Ray Rice. What will the Ravens do offensively to account for not having him in the backfield?

Hensley: This is the first time since 2008 that the Ravens will start a season without Rice being the featured back. Bernard Pierce will make his second career start for a Ravens' ground attack that looked strong in the preseason. Pierce's running style is the ideal fit for the one-cut scheme of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. He looked the most comfortable in this zone-blocking system. The biggest question is durability. He's carried the ball more than 15 times in only three games. In those games, he's never averaged more than 4 yards per carry. While the Ravens don't expect much of a drop-off in production without Rice, there is concern about Pierce's pass blocking. He doesn't pick up blitzes well, which could become a problem against a Bengals defense that ranked in the top 10 in sacks last year. The Ravens can bring a change of pace with the backups. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro is a bruising back between the tackles, and veteran Justin Forsett is a quick, explosive one in space.

The biggest change for the Bengals is the coordinators. How different will the offense and defense look under Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther?

Harvey: Piggybacking off my last point about Jackson, I’ll say this about Cincinnati’s offense: Where the Bengals silently worked their way up to a top-10 ranking last season because of Dalton’s prolific air attack -- he threw for more than 4,200 yards and had 33 touchdowns -- there won’t be anything silent about their 2014 offense. As Jackson has said often to me this offseason, “Some offenses take what the defense gives them. We want to be an offense that takes what we want.” You’re going to see a much more aggressive Bengals offense this year. You’re going to see a much more physical Bengals offense. Remember how Baltimore bullied the Bengals’ offense at M&T Bank Stadium last year? That probably won’t happen too often this season. There’s an edge to Cincinnati’s offense, one that the defense has long had. Even with Mike Zimmer now gone and coaching the Vikings, the unit has a holdover in Paul Guenther who is used to implementing his own version of an aggressive, take-what-we-want scheme. He drew up many of the blitzes that made Zimmer’s defense shine in recent seasons. Add that with a year of Pro Bowl experience under linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s belt and you get a defense that should certainly rival its top-five unit from last season.

Speaking of bringing an edge, the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency. How much of a jolt do they expect him to provide the offense?

Hensley: The Ravens brought in Smith for his play in pressure situations, not gaudy overall numbers. No one expects Smith to become the team's No. 1 receiver. If everything goes according to Kubiak's plan, quarterback Joe Flacco will spread the ball around to Steve Smith, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown, Owen Daniels and Kyle Juszczyk. Where Steve Smith is going to stand out is on third downs, in the red zone and in the final minutes of a game. The Ravens lost that leadership and attitude when they traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers before last season. Smith's unrelenting intensity fills that void and raises the play in practice. Yes, Smith is 35 and is no longer a Pro Bowl receiver. But his toughness can will the Ravens to victory this season.

While defensive tackle Geno Atkins is not a newcomer to the Bengals, his return from a season-ending knee injury is huge for the defense this year. Does he remain on track for the opener, and will he be the same disruptive player early on?

Harvey: We will see Atkins for the opener, Jamison. The defensive tackle missed all of training camp and parts of the preseason as he continued to rehab from the injury, but it appears he’s all set to go. His last hurdle was playing in a live game, and he did that nearly two weeks ago at Arizona in a Sunday night preseason game. He didn’t hit the field in last Thursday’s preseason finale, though, as he was shelved with the rest of the defensive starters. His conditioning will be something to watch, but otherwise, Atkins ought to give the Bengals the same meaningful Week 1 minutes he has been expected to provide.

In terms of the Ravens' interior defensive line, the Bengals are starting a rookie at center in Russell Bodine. What should he expect as far as matchups with the Ravens?

Hensley: The Ravens are younger and better on the interior of the defensive line this year. Bodine will have to block nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Timmy Jernigan at some point during the game. Williams, a third-round pick from a year ago, is a first-year starter who is more than a space-eater. He's athletic and can get off blocks. Jernigan, a rookie second-round pick, is extremely disruptive with his ability to get into the backfield. There is also Ngata, who is still a difference-maker in his ninth season. With the talent inside, it will be difficult for the Bengals to run up the middle on the Ravens.
CINCINNATI -- A wry smile formed in the corner of Vontaze Burfict's mouth when he was asked Wednesday about the conditions he'll be expecting this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

He's bracing for hostility.

"It's awesome," the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker said, still smiling. "They hate us there when we walk into the building. It just feels like us against the world."

For an outside linebacker who likes to play the role of road-stadium villain, the hatred is something Burfict doesn't fear. He doesn't try to run from it, either.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, a former Baltimore Ravens assistant who coached in Baltimore when the organization first formed in 1996, understood what Burfict was alluding to. It seems to him that Ravens fans in recent seasons have had a feeling of invincibility, regardless of who their team is playing and regardless how well their season is going.

When you win two Super Bowls in less than 20 years of existence, you probably can feel good talking whatever talk there is. In the last 15 seasons, it's safe to say the Ravens have certainly walked a successful walk.

"Obviously I've been there from the ashes," Lewis said, referencing his six seasons as an assistant during Baltimore's establishment. "They've forgotten the ashes. They've let it go. The people that come to that game on Sunday think their team is invincible, and that's a great attitude to have and carry into that stadium."

Those attitudes can sometimes make the 71,008-seat stadium appear to house even more. That's especially the case on an opening weekend against a foe that has struggled recently in Week 1, and who hasn't played well historically when it has visited the Ravens' home.

All-time, the Bengals are 5-13 at Baltimore with losses in the last four games. They haven't won at the venue since 2009 and have only one opening-weekend win in the last six seasons. To begin the year 1-0 Sunday won't be easy.

"It's a tough task," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said, "especially when they've got a good atmosphere there, and it's tough when you're playing a good team, as well. So you've got to be sharp."

So sharp that you keep the mistakes to a minimum.

"Turnovers have been key in those games," he said. "We've played a lot of close games there. We just haven't been able to come out on top. So it's all the little things that get you to win on the road. That's our focus."

In three career games at M&T Bank Stadium, Dalton has thrown seven interceptions and three touchdowns. He's also been sacked 11 times, including five times in last November's 20-17 overtime loss.

Against those same Ravens teams in three games at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, he has completed three touchdown passes and thrown four interceptions. He's also been sacked three times in those contests and has a QBR of 42.2. His career QBR at Baltimore is 26.5.

Does the crowd there have anything to do with that?

You won't find the Bengals answering that question in the affirmative, but they do know that the stadium's atmosphere will make the challenge that much greater. That's why the goal this weekend is to get out to such a big late-game lead that the stadium, with time still on the clock, will be filled with Adam Jones' favorite road sound: silence.

"I like it when it's quiet during the fourth quarter when everybody's leaving," Jones said. "It means they're losing."