Ben­gals reel­ing from heavy at­tri­tion, but Ravens would be fool­ish to re­lax Tough­ness, ver­sa­til­ity, in­ge­nu­ity let Yanda dom­i­nate de­spite in­jury

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - Mike Pre­ston By Childs Walker

Af­ter more than a decade of turn­ing around one of the NFL’s worst fran­chises, Cincin­nati Ben­gals coach Marvin Lewis’ success might fi­nally be catch­ing up with him.

In re­cent years, he has lost co­or­di­na­tors Jay Gru­den, Hue Jack­son and Mike Zim­mer, who went on to be­come NFL head coaches, and dur­ing this off­sea­son he lost two top wide re­ceivers in Marvin Jones and Mo­hamed Sanu in free agency.

The Ben­gals are 3-6-1 and could have their worst sea­son since they went 4-12 in 2010. Qual­ity teams al­ways get raided by the op­po­si­tion, and they don’t al­ways over­come it.

Maybe that’s what is go­ing on with the Ben­gals, but Lewis won’t get any sym­pa­thy around the league. And he won’t have a per­sonal pity party, ei­ther. Mar­shal Yanda de­vised the solution him­self. If there was no way to get his in­jured left shoul­der up to snuff for the re­main­ing seven games of the sea­son, the Ravens guard would rely more heav­ily on his right shoul­der. Per­haps if he fired from the left side of the line in­stead of the right, he’d be able to use his health­ier wing to smash in­te­rior de­fend­ers.

Yanda, a five-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion at right guard, sug­gested the shift to Ravens coach John Har­baugh at the be­gin­ning of last week. By Sun­day, he looked ready to start the Pro Bowl at his new spot.

So what if he hadn’t played a snap at left guard in 10 pro sea­sons? So what if his bad shoul­der would tor­ment him through two more months of NFL games? The move pro­vided a per­fect mini-synop­sis of Yanda’s un­der­stat­edly bril­liant ca­reer — a blend of will, re­source­ful­ness and rare ath­letic abil­ity.

“If guys wouldn’t look up to Mar­shal, I don’t know who they

“We’ve had an in­flux of new play­ers year af­ter year af­ter year,” said Lewis, in his 14th sea­son as the Ben­gals coach. “It’s been im­por­tant that we con­tinue to draft and de­velop play­ers, and that’s part of it. That’s the chal­lenge, year in and year out, is fit­ting the guys in, keep­ing the guys go­ing and mov­ing for­ward.

“We went from Carson Palmer, who is a tremen­dous player, to Andy Dal­ton, and we’ve been for­tu­nate enough to make the tran­si­tion through that. Andy has been able to carry this foot­ball team again. We con­tinue to try to put guys around Andy that help him af­fect the game.”

Find­ing those play­ers will be the key if the Ben­gals are to beat the Ravens (5-5) on Sun­day at M&T Bank Stadium. Star wide re­ceiver A.J. Green, who has al­most sin­gle­hand­edly crushed the Ravens in re­cent games, is out with a ham­string in­jury, and backup run­ning back Gio­vani Bernard (337 rush­ing yards, 336 re­ceiv­ing yards) is out for the sea­son with a torn ACL. Both in­juries oc­curred last week against the Buffalo Bills.

Bernard was placed on in­jured re­serve this week. Rook­ies Alex Erick­son and Tyler Boyd will round out the re­ceiv­ing corps with James Wright, Bran­don LaFell and tight end Tyler Eifert.

Ac­cord­ing to Lewis, the Ben­gals have re­ceivers faster than Green. Re­gard­less, Ravens safety Eric Wed­dle has put his team­mates on high alert. The Ravens only have to look back to last sea­son, when they played the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers for the sec­ond time. Be­cause of in­juries, the Ravens were ba­si­cally a bunch of no-names at that point. Fi­nal score: Ravens 20, Steel­ers 17. “When that hap­pens, teams rally,” Wed­dle said of in­juries. “The per­son who is get­ting a chance to play feels it is his time and they will step up and show out. It’s the NFL. We’ve got to be ready.”

The Ravens cer­tainly can’t af­ford to over­look any­body, espe­cially with a .500 record. The sta­tis­tics for the two teams are sim­i­lar, ex­cept the Ben­gals have a strong of­fense and a weak de­fense, while the Ravens have a good de­fense and an in­con­sis­tent of­fense.

The Ben­gals are ranked No. 24 in to­tal de­fense, al­low­ing 372.1 yards per game, which is sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing they have two of the game’s most dom­i­nant play­ers in de­fen­sive tackle Geno Atkins and line­backer Von­taze Bur­fict.

But ac­cord­ing to Lewis, the Ben­gals can’t fin­ish off op­po­nents.

“We haven’t won close games. We’ve had op­por­tu­ni­ties in the fourth quar­ter of foot­ball games,” Lewis said. “We’ve had leads. We’ve had op­por­tu­ni­ties, and we haven’t closed the games out.”

The Ben­gals also can’t fin­ish games be­cause they don’t have closers like Jones, who had 65 catches for 816 yards and four touch­downs last sea­son, or Sanu, who had 33 catches for 394 yards. They also don’t have Jack­son, who had been di­al­ing up the of­fen­sive plays in the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons.

Lewis, though, won’t use those losses as an ex­cuse. But he isn’t used to los­ing, and it showed ear­lier this week in a con­fer­ence call with re­porters.

He wasn’t com­bat­ive, but his an­swers were short at times. The Ben­gals’ chances of win­ning the AFC North are al­ready slim, and los­ing to the Ravens on Sun­day would make their chances of win­ning the di­vi­sion about as good as Cleve­land’s. The Ben­gals still have some fight left. “A.J. is ob­vi­ously a tremen­dous, tremen­dous player,” Lewis said. “He has been a big fo­cus for us. He’s a big fo­cus for the op­po­nent. Now we’ll have some other guys in there that can, in some cases, they ac­tu­ally run faster, but they’re ob­vi­ously not A.J. Green. It was un­for­tu­nate that we lost Gio. He’s been a big part of what we do.

“That’s where we are right now. We have a lot of foot­ball ahead, and we have a big foot­ball game for us come Sun­day in Bal­ti­more. We have to take care of our busi­ness.”


Mar­shal Yanda, block­ing the Steel­ers’ Stephon Tuitt, switched from right to left guard af­ter hurt­ing his left shoul­der.

* Times for these games could change

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