Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun">

Flacco's had trouble beating Bengals' cover-2 defense

Prior to this season, the prevailing thought was that the

Pittsburgh Steelers

were the mountain that

Joe Flacco

had yet to conquer.

That has obviously changed after the quarterback led the


to their first regular-season sweep of the Steelers since 2006. But maybe the focus should have been on a different

AFC North


In six career meetings against the

Cincinnati Bengals

— the Ravens' opponent this Sunday — Flacco has endured some of the poorest outings in his career. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Ravens are 1-3 in their last four contests with the Bengals.

"They are a physical football team," Flacco acknowledged. "Like I said, they have played well. Their offensive line, their defensive line, they are two pretty good groups. They'll fight 60 minutes, and they fight to the whistle hard on each play."

One factor in Flacco's struggles against Cincinnati has been the defense's use of the cover-2.

In this scheme, the cornerbacks run with the receivers, but hand them off to two safeties, who split the field and have deep coverage responsibilities. In a 4-3 defensive front like the one the Bengals play, the middle linebacker drops back into coverage to shadow a tight end or a receiver running an underneath route.

The alignment is designed to eliminate big plays and places an emphasis on speed and pursuit. And statistically, the scheme has flustered Flacco.

Against Cincinnati, Flacco is averaging 178.2 passing yards and has tossed nine interceptions against just four touchdowns. The average yards and total interceptions are the worst Flacco has registered against an AFC North opponent in his career.

Flacco has thrown for more than 200 yards in just one meeting with the Bengals, but

NFL Network

analyst Joe Theismann said the past should not be held against Flacco with regard to Sunday's game.

"If we take a look at some of the struggles that Joe has had against Cincinnati, I think a lot of it is, he's had a limited place to go with the football," the former

Washington Redskins

quarterback said. "If you just take a look at the pieces that have been added in the last two years — two new tight ends, speed on the outside — you've basically changed four of the five receiving positions outside of the running back in a year-and-a-half. Now is when you have to look and see the progress that Joe can make because there are no excuses.

"It isn't that you don't have speed to stretch the field," Theismann continued. "It isn't that you don't have athletic, young tight ends to go make plays for you. It isn't that you don't have a beastly slot receiver.

Anquan Boldin

is to the Baltimore Ravens what

Wes Welker

is to the

New England Patriots

. He's an unstoppable slot receiver. You're absolutely right in asking what was Joe doing before. Cincinnati has always played pretty darn good defense, and they're really good this year again."

The mastermind

Cincinnati's strategy has been headed by

Marvin Lewis

, the defensive architect of one of the best units in


history that captured the franchise's first

Super Bowl

title in 2000.

Lewis chuckled at a question probing his defense's success against Flacco and declined to reveal any secrets.

"I don't know," he said. "I think you defend a team's offense each and every week. That's part of what your charge is on the other side. I don't know if we've done anything that special. I think we're 3-3 against Joe. So that, I wouldn't say, is as special as you want it to be."

The Bengals have surrendered just one 300-yard passing game this season (323 yards to the

Seattle Seahawks


Tarvaris Jackson

in a 34-12 loss on Oct. 30) courtesy of a pass rush generated by the defensive line. That unit has accounted for 20 of the team's 25 sacks and takes some of the pressure off of the defensive backfield, according to former Ravens coach

Brian Billick


"[T]o be able to do that with a four or five man rush gives you a lot of latitude," the analyst for

Fox Sports

and the NFL Network said. "It leaves you less vulnerable in the secondary. That's the combination I see in Cincinnati right now. It's not a lot different frankly than what we did when we made our Super Bowl run. We got to be known as a team that brought pressure. Well, we did. But we did it with four or five-man fronts. Like I said, I don't think it's just Joe Flacco. I think Cincinnati has shown that they can give a lot of quarterbacks issues, and it's mainly because they can put some pressure on you with just a four or five-man front and play some zone packages behind you."

The challenge for the Bengals this Sunday is playing without cornerback

Leon Hall

, a solid defender in the cover-2 system. The absence of Hall, who tore his left Achilles tendon in last Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and

Johnathan Joseph

, who left to join the

Houston Texans

via free agency in the offseason, means that Flacco and the Ravens will see two different cornerbacks in

Nate Clements

and either

Kelly Jennings


Adam "Pacman" Jones


That should play into the Ravens' favor, according to CBS Sports NFL analyst

Dan Dierdorf


"Looking at Cincinnati, you've got to go after the corners," said Dierdorf, a former St. Louis Cardinals offensive tackle who will be calling Sunday's game with Greg Gumbel. "Johnathan Joseph is gone, Leon Hall is on injured reserve, Nate Clements is an older guy. You've got to go after the corners."

Forcing a change

Theismann said there are two ways to beat the cover-2. One is attacking the middle with a pass-catching tight end. Theismann said that unlike former Raven

Todd Heap

, the duo of

Ed Dickson


Dennis Pitta

are athletic and fast enough to get separation from middle linebacker

Rey Maualuga


The second method involves running the football. If a running attack led by

Ray Rice


Ricky Williams

can gain yards on the ground, Cincinnati could be forced to drop a safety into the box and abandon the cover-2.

"The best way to get somebody out of a Cover-2 is to run the football," Theismann said. "Ray Rice touching the ball five times in the running game [as he did in Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks] is not going to get it done against the Cincinnati Bengals. And Joe Flacco throwing it over 50 times [as he did Sunday] is not going to get it done either."

Ravens offensive coordinator

Cam Cameron

, who will call the plays this Sunday, disagreed with the theory that the pressure is squarely on Flacco this week.

"It's really like any other week," he said. "But it's been a couple years now where people have quit putting the safety in the middle of the field. They've done that to a lot of quarterbacks this year, a lot of young quarterbacks or guys they thought couldn't beat them outside. So there's no doubt. We'll come out and we'll see what most people do to us: give us a [cover-2] shell and try to disguise what they're doing."

Baltimore Sun writer Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.