There was a time, and it really wasn't that long ago, when there wasn't a running back in the league who could make the Ravens defense look mortal. For the better part of a decade, Baltimore went after ball carriers like a pack of hungry lions, surrounding them with vicious efficiency before planting them on the turf.
In the early 2000s, when the Ravens' defense was as good as any in NFL history, they went 50 consecutive games at one point without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Later in the decade, they put together a 39-game streak. It was a point of pride for members of the Ravens' defense. It didn't matter how much the personnel changed, or who the coordinator was, a running back just wasn't going to hit the century mark.
But then Cedric Benson slipped on a Bengals uniform, and the mystique kind of disappeared.
Benson has experienced more success against the Ravens than any running back in the league since John Harbaugh took over as coach. And you can certainly argue he helped shatter the idea that it was impossible to run the football against Baltimore.
In October 2009, he rumbled into M&T Bank Stadium and ran for 127 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, snapping the previously mentioned 39-game streak. Since that day, the Ravens have surrendered a 100-yard day to a running back seven different times. Benson got them again in 2009, running for 117 yards on 34 carries, and that performance earned him a unique distinction. He's the only player since 2004 to run for 100 yards against Baltimore twice.
"I think he's one of those running backs where they don't talk about him enough," said Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. "He's a patient back. He's going to make the cuts, he's going to get the ball down the field. He's going to get positive yardage, and that's what you want in a back."
There is a lot at stake when the Ravens and Bengals close out their regular seasons at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati Sunday. The Bengals (9-6) need a win to make the playoffs, and the Ravens (11-4) need a win to secure a home playoff game and a first-round bye for the first time since the 2006 season. But with the weather forecast predicting rain, 20 mph winds and temperatures in the 40s, running the ball might determine the outcome.
"He is an explosive back," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think the best part of his game is that he is patient. Backs that are more deliberate, they don't have that much success against us. But when you have a patient back – the Maurice Jones-Drews, the Arian Fosters, the Cedric Bensons – they tend to be very patient, and then they will crack one on you, and you leave your secondary to try to make a tackle on a big back. He definitely is something we have to address, first and foremost."
If the Ravens can shut down Benson and make the Bengals one dimensional, they'll have a much better shot of escaping Cincinnati with a victory, something they've done only once in the last six years. But if Benson bullies his way through an injury-plagued defense, Baltimore might end up going on the road for the fourth consecutive post-season. Both locker rooms grew tense this week as the game drew closer.
"It's basically a playoff game for us," Benson said. "They playoffs start this weekend. That's the type of atmosphere it's going to be."
And what would winning mean to the organization? Benson didn't hesitate when asked that question.
"You can only imagine what it would do to some egos around here," Benson said. "This is a team that has had a lot of adversity, wasn't expected to do much this year. It would just be kind of a good capper, a great building block to the future."
The Ravens have done a better job of containing Benson the last three time they've faced him, but he's still found ways to be effective. He rushed for two touchdowns earlier this year when the Ravens hung on for a 31-24 victory.
"What he does well is he's a very patient runner," Harbaugh said. "He runs those zone schemes as well as anybody in the league. He picks his spots, he doesn't get in a hurry, and he waits for you to make a mistake. You've got to be patient when you're playing gap control. You've got to control the man in front of you, stay square, tear off blocks and make plays. And, you've got to create some things, some free-hitters in the backfield, to try to get some negative-yard plays if you can."
Benson's seven-year NFL career has been quite an enigma. Even now, he Bengals coach Marvin Lewis views him as both an inspiration as well as a cautionary tale. Taken by the Chicago Bears with the fourth overall pick in 2005, he struggled for three seasons, rarely tapping into the promise he showed coming out of he University of Texas. He also had difficulty staying out of trouble, and was released by the Bears in 2008 after he was arrested twice in alcohol-related incidents over a span of five weeks.
That might have been the end of his football career if he hadn't caught on with the Bengals and experienced a gradual, but stunning, rebirth as a feature back. A lot of it had to do with Benson's new-found motivation, but some of it had to do with the creative blocking schemes the Bengals used to emphasize his strengths. In 2009, Cincinnati ran a lot of plays out a formation the Ravens refer to as "tackle over," a scheme where the offense put two tackles and a tight end on one side of the ball, leaving just a guard on the other side of the center. It caused the Ravens all kind of headaches.
"They got after us, and that tackle over stuff kind of got us messed up," said linebacker Jarret Johnson. "Some teams you can afford to get out of a gap, and you'll be OK. This team, if you get out of your gap, they're going to hurt you."
Benson ran for 1,251 yards in 13 games in 2009, and he's followed that up with two more 1,000-yard seasons. He's rushed for 1,016 this year, which according to ESPN, earned him a $500,000 bonus. He'll get $250,000 more if he rushes for 84 yards Sunday.
On the surface, it seems like an inspiring tale of a player who didn't give up when the team that drafted him essentially gave up on him. But he hasn't exactly been able to stay out of trouble since he joined the Bengals. He's twice been arrested for his role in physical altercations. He served five days in jail this off-season for a misdemeanor assault, and was suspended for the Bengals' Week 8 game against the Seahawks.
"I think he is a good story," Lewis said. "Now, I think he is still finding his way. He has paid some heavy prices, and hopefully he will keep himself totally on the right track and be able to walk away from any kind of disturbance. That's his biggest thing. The physical nature of his play, it's been hard for him to turn off at other times."
Even though he's been in some legal trouble off the field, Benson has remained popular within the NFL. His Bengals teammates named him as their representative for the Ed Block Courage Awards, and Benson emerged as the life of the party at the banquet in Baltimore when he climbed on stage and performed an enthusiastic version of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" late in the evening.
Benson joked this week that he decided to perform because people were "desperate for entertainment" but he also admitted the award did mean a great deal to him.
"That was tremendous," Benson said. "I mean, any award, I think, is an achievement — especially considering the road I've traveled and the hurdles I've had to overcome in my life and the life lessons I've had come my way."