CINCINNATI — The words great, special, and even historic were tossed around the potential on the Baltimore Ravens defense throughout the preseason.
If the first game of the 2017 season is any indicator, those superlatives are no exaggeration.
The Ravens’ defense never surrendered a point in Sunday’s season-opening, 20-0, road win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The unit forced five takeaways and intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton four times. Baltimore sacked him five times.
Dalton threw just eight interceptions all of last season.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been saying since the beginning of OTAs. We think we have a special group here. This is the start of it,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “We did exactly what we wanted to do. The thing is, we still got to get a lot better. We came out and finished the game. We went out and executed the plays.”
Baltimore had lost six of the last seven games against the AFC North rival Bengals, including five straight losses at Paul Brown Stadium.
“That was really my first shutout? It makes it more special against them, really. Like I said, this is always a 12-round fight. Today, it wasn’t,” cornerback Jimmy Smith, who recorded one of the four interceptions, said. “Against a fierce rival, we haven’t won here since my rookie season, so it felt really good.”
Cincinnati gained just 221 yards on the afternoon – 144 through the air and 77 on the ground.
Quarterback Joe Flacco debuted for the Ravens after missing all of training camp and the preseason with a lower-back injury. He answered the question of whether he had enough time to develop cohesiveness with newly-signed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin with a 48-yard touchdown pass between the two with 1:52 left in the first half on a crucial third-and-7.
“It was actually an audible by Joe based on the look we got. He got to what he thought would be successful and the rest is history,” Maclin said. “I kind of saw what they were lined up in. In the back of my head, I’m just hoping. I hope nobody drops. They end up coming with pressure and he was able to hit me in stride.”
The Ravens used a pick play to get Maclin open, taking advantage of a Cincinnati defensive formation that had no safeties helping over top with the defense bringing a blitz.
“I told Marty that if they want to bring all-out blitz, cover-zero, that’s what I want to go to. We had the chance to do it,” Flacco said. “Ben did a really nice job getting a rub with Jeremy’s guy and Jeremy took it from there.”
The touchdown began a wild stretch in which Baltimore scored 14 points over a 24-second span just before halftime, growing a 3-0 edge to a comfortable 17-0 margin. On the second Bengals’ play of the ensuing possession, safety Lardarius Webb intercepted an Andy Dalton pass – the Ravens’ third pick of the half – after Terrell Suggs had the pass deflect high into the air off of his helmet as he jumped at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens took over at the Cincinnati 2-yard line.
Running back Terrance West punched the ball in on the next play from two yards out.
A Flacco interception gave Cincinnati possession deep in Ravens’ territory just 48 seconds into the second half, but Baltimore’s defense responded with its fourth forced turnover.
Suggs hit Dalton from behind as he dropped back to pass, dislodging the football. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce fell on the fumble, giving possession back to the Ravens.
“I thought Terrell Suggs played great,” Harbaugh said. “I think he was in the backfield pretty regularly. They had to hold him, had to grab him, had to tackle him. He was a huge factor in the game.”
Baltimore used the takeaway to wipe away a large portion of the third quarter with an 18-play, 81 yards drive that ended with a 25-yard Justin Tucker field goal. The possession lasted 9:38 and brought the score to its 20-0 final.
Webb, Smith, Brandon Carr and C.J. Mosley intercepted passes, with Mosleys coming in the end zone in the second quarter after a lengthy Bengals’ drive. Suggs had two sacks, including the strip, while Pierce, Za’Darius Smith and Tony Jefferson each added one.
“It’s a good place to start, but you can’t be satisfied,” Suggs said. “I’m in Year 15 and I’ve seen it all, with all kinds of starts and all kinds of finishes. It’s good to take one. We’re going to enjoy it for right now.”
Flacco completed 9-17 passes for 121 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“It wasn’t that fun to play on offense today, just to be honest,” he said. “I was 9-17, I threw 100-and-a-couple yards. That’s not that fun, I’d rather throw for 350 and win 42-0, not 20-0. But it’s fun to win and that’s the most important thing.”
The Ravens ran the ball 42 times for 157, led by 80 yards from West and 71 from Buck Allen.
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig