Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 12/27/11
After the Baltimore Ravens dominated the Cleveland Browns in the first half, an anemic second-half offensive performance put the Ravens' win in jeopardy.  Granted, special teams and defensive let-downs left the door open for the Browns.  However, the inconsistency of Flacco and Co. is what analysts and fans see as the team's greatest vulnerability.  With number one receiver Anquan Boldin side-lined after knee surgery, the offense's ability to dominate is further called into question.

Why Boldin's absence is more significant against Cincinnati than other opponents

The void created by the physical wide receiver's injury will be particularly noticeable against the Bengals.  The Ravens offense has struggled all year when facing 4-3 defensive formations.  Three of the four Ravens' losses have been against teams that run a 4-3 defense (San Diego being the exception.)  Cincinnati's front four have successfully put pressure on quarterbacks all season.

Additionally, Flacco has historically become flustered when faced with a cover 2 defense.  Cincinnati has exploited this more than any other team.  In 2009 and 2010, Flacco was 1-3 against the Bengals.  The Ravens win at home this year came down to the wire, and the defense notched three interceptions.  For a Ravens team that has had its share of road struggles, this game in Cincinnati will be a big challenge for the offense- especially with Boldin on the sidelines.

Without Boldin, Flacco failed to find his wide receivers in week 16, completing only two passes to his wideouts (both to speedster Torrey Smith.)  Flacco targeted Lee Evans four times, without any completions, and targeted rookie Tandon Doss once, unsuccessfully. 

In the Ravens first meeting with the Bengals, Boldin had only one reception.  However, that reception was for 35 yards and a touchdown.  Additionally, Torrey Smith had six receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown.  The attention Boldin demanded from the Bengals defense allowed Smith to be a greater threat. 

Boldin's presence over the middle was an important factor in the Baltimore offense's ability to beat Cincinnati's cover 2.  Without Boldin, Torrey Smith will essentially be the number one wide receiver, with Lee Evans, who's thus far been ineffective, lining up opposite Smith.  Smith has big play ability, but is inconsistent.  Evans, who sustained an ankle injury in preseason, returned to the line-up in week 11.  He has not had the time to develop chemistry with Flacco.  Against the Browns, the wide receiving corps could get away with mediocrity.  With Flacco's issues against cover 2 defenses and the offensive line's struggles against the 4-3 scheme, two receptions by a wide receiver won't cut it.

How the Ravens can compensate for Boldin's absence

1. Give Tandon Doss a chance

Although untested, Doss could be a key contributer in this match-up.  Evans and Smith play similar roles as speedy threats,and  the similarity in their strengths does not allow them to complement each other.  Doss shares some of Boldin's most distinguishing attributes.  Boldin provides a strong physical presence, at 6'1” and 223 lb.  Doss is 6'2” and 201 lb.  Boldin is valued for his good hands, his ability to break tackles, and his strength coming across the middle.  Scouts noted these same qualities about Doss going into the 2011 draft. 

While both receivers lack elite speed, each has been praised for their concentration and instincts.  Doss is unproven, but getting him involved in the offense would add dimension to the receiving corps.  He won't replace Boldin, but he could be vital to opening up opportunities for Smith and Evans.

2. Get the tight ends involved- at the same time

One way to beat cover 2 is using two tight end sets.  Multiple tight end packages can confuse defenses and allow for blocking across the middle.  Lucky for the Ravens, they have two good tight ends.  Ed Dickson is big, fast, and improving in his blocking skills.  Dennis Pitta has hands of glue and a good chemistry with Flacco.  Using one, and sometimes both, on crossing routes and stop routes down the middle will give the Ravens a chance to beat man to man coverage by cornerbacks and zone defense by the safeties. 

Pitta has been a valuable target for Flacco on third down, but the tight end was not targeted once against the Cleveland Browns.  Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to get Pitta involved again.  Anything less is a waste of resources- resources that are now scarce with Boldin out.

3. Don't force the ball to Lee Evans, but find him when he's open.

Flacco has had little success hitting Evans on plays that are designed to go Evans' way.  Forcing the ball to Evans doesn't work; the quarterback and receiver just aren't connecting at this point.  At the same time, Flacco must go through his progressions and find Evans when Evans breaks coverage.  Flacco missed a wide open Evans several times in the Ravens-Browns game.  The fourth year quarterback is under heavy pressure much of the time, but he has to improve in his reads.

Boldin's absence hurts the Ravens' chances against the Bengals.  However, if the offense is able to make effective adjustments, it would bode well for them in the playoffs.  Boldin is expected to return for the post-season, and his presence combined with a more multifaceted passing offense would make for a formidable Ravens air attack.
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