Gary: For such a big game, how could the Ravens come out flat?
Mike Preston: Gary, I only cover the team. I don't coach them. The Ravens have been slow starters all season, particularly quarterback Joe Flacco. The real problem is starting slow on the road. Ideally, you want to start fast and try to take the crowd out of the game. The Ravens always seem to be on the opposite end. Maybe they need some great pre-game speech from John Harbaugh. The coach, though, is well aware of the problem. Now, what is he going to do about it?
There is no excuse for being so flat when you're playing for the lead in your division. Anything less than 100 percent is unacceptable. For a team with mighty, mighty men, they never get off to a mighty, mighty start.
Paul: The Ravens have put up over 20 points against every team except the Bengals. Do the Bengals just know how to stop our offense or do the Ravens not know how to scheme their defense? It seems like Derrick Mason really struggles against them.
Mike Preston: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis doubles Mason, or shifts his coverage toward him. He takes away those slant patterns and comeback routes, which are the Ravens' bread and butter. The Bengals have linebackers who can run with the Ravens' tight ends and running backs, so they can smother the short passing game. Also, the Bengals have two really good cornerbacks, and the Ravens don't have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, someone who can stretch the field vertically.
It's not a good matchup for the Ravens. If they had equal talent, I'd still take Marvin Lewis over Harbaugh and Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But it would help if Cameron had a few more bullets in his gun.
Ben: It seemed like the defense settled down considerably once Lardarius Webb took over for Fabian Washington. What did you think of Webb's performance?
Mike Preston: Webb's performance was outstanding. He is physical, can play press coverage and is not intimidated by any player. He also came up fast and strong in run support.
But that's not why the Ravens were able to shut Cincinnati down in the second half. The Bengals had poor field position most of the third quarter, and they just ran the ball. Whenever the Ravens play a talented quarterback, I never get the impression they shut him down. I think whenever Carson Palmer, Brett Favre or Tom Brady wants to move the ball and go downfield, they do it at will. I have zero confidence in the Ravens' secondary, and that's being generous.
Bacon: How do you sum up the Ravens' identity with half of the season left to play?
Mike Preston: They are just an average team. They can still beat a lot of teams in the NFL. But if a team has a strong quarterback and a good offense, you can stick a fork in the Ravens.
They don't have a secondary that can stop a quality quarterback, and Flacco isn't yet ready to carry an offense. He also doesn't have the weapons at wide receiver to win a shootout.
Again, the Ravens have the identity of being just an average Joe.
Jeff: How much of a factor did not having Haloti Ngata have on the Ravens' defense, specifically the pass rush on Palmer?
Mike Preston: Ngata's absence hurts the Ravens as far as run defense. With fellow defensive tackle Kelly Gregg slowed by a knee injury from a year ago, the Ravens have only Justin Bannan to plug up the middle. Ngata should be ready for the Browns game Monday.
As far as pass rushing, Ngata has no presence, and that's a big problem for the Ravens. The don't have any good pass rushers inside. In fact, the Ravens can't get off blocks at the line of scrimmage. At times, it looks like a lot of ball-room dancing going on, and when that happens, the offensive line wins. Let's hope the Ravens go draft some good, all-around defensive linemen soon, someone who can get after the quarterback.
Bill: Do you foresee a lot of changes in our defense in the offseason like we had a few years back after the Super Bowl?
Mike Preston: I can't answer that right now. We'll see some on the defensive line, and hopefully in the secondary. But let the season play out, and then we'll go from there. There are a lot of fans pointing fingers at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison right now, but it's not solely about the scheme. Mattison needs better players, and after watching the Bengals, some Ravens have gotten old quickly from a year ago.
Why do you think the Ravens' offense and Flacco specifically have struggled with slow starts?
Mike Preston: Go back and look at the tapes: Flacco has been a notoriously slow starter during his two seasons in Baltimore. He has to get in a rhythm, and he appears to do that in the no-huddle offense. Maybe he's at his best if he only has to make quick reads, and has to process in a hurry. Somebody, though, has to wake Joe and this team up in pre-game. Against the Bengals, the Ravens dug a hole early and never could climb back out.