Preston: Ravens' road to defensive greatness begins Sunday

There has been a lot of talk about the greatness of this Ravens defense, but there won’t be a much better gauge than on Sunday, when they open the 2017 season at the Cincinnati Bengals.

Other than the New England Patriots, few teams have as many offensive weapons as the Bengals and the only way the Ravens can win is to slow them down. That’s a tough assignment.

The Bengals already had one of the top offenses a year ago and then added two more potential stars in the offseason with the additions of running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver John Ross through the draft.

The fast got faster.

“Any game in this league is a tough matchup and of such importance. But a division game on the road? It doesn’t get much better than that to start your season, Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “All the work, since the season ended last year, to accumulate to this point … we’re just excited to get back out there as a team and to see what happens if we get down or give up a touchdown.”

“I’m excited for that. Hopefully it doesn’t happen, but most likely it’s going to happen. We’re going to fight back. This team has something special in them, and I’m just grateful to be a part of it and do my part.”

It’s time to find out how special. This defense has already been compared to the Ravens’ record-setting crew in 2000. That’s ridiculous. That team won a Super Bowl and this group hasn’t even taken a snap in a regular-season game.

Sometimes the purple Kool-Aid can be overwhelming. Let’s just see how the Ravens match up in Game No. 1. The Bengals aren’t the Cleveland Browns. Cincinnati is loaded.

“It’s important to know who they are,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to check out what the jersey number is and the guy who’s in that game. You have to know each guy, because they have versatility at running back. I think it’s probably true for their whole offensive personnel. You have to know who’s lined up where, what those guys do, how they’re utilized, and then there’s the unknown because it’s a new season.”

“So you don’t know exactly how they plan on using guys. I’m sure they’ll have some game-plan twists for us in this game that we have to account for. That’s all part of it.”

This is what everybody knows. The Bengals already had one of the best 1-2 punches at halfback last season with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and then they selected Mixon out of Oklahoma in the second round.

Mixon might have had the best preseason of all three runners. He certainly has the Ravens’ attention.

“They definitely added another weapon with Mixon,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Hill and Bernard already had their personal touches in the running game, and now they’ve added Mixon. I’ve been playing against this team for three years and they know our defense and we know their offense. It’s a downhill running game.”

The Ravens also have to find a way to stop receiver A.J. Green, who has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. He’s the prototype at 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds. Cincinnati also has tight end Tyler Eifert back in the starting lineup. He played in only eight games last season because of ankle and back injuries.

But a major focus will be on Green.

“People think he is just a one-trick pony,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He is not just running the deep ball; he is not just going to run ‘go’ [routes]. He is a pretty precise route runner. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that, but we are not fooled over here. We have a young defense, but we also have a veteran one now. We have kind of seen everything. We know that he is not just going to run deep balls. They are going to give him the ball often and early.”

Green is one of the reasons Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome focused on defense during the offseason. The Ravens didn’t have anyone who could consistently play against top receivers like Green or the Pittsburgh SteelersAntonio Brown. They also failed to get enough pressure on star quarterbacks such as the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

So while the Bengals were loading up on offensive talent in the draft, the Ravens were selecting young defensive talent with cornerback Marlon Humphrey (Alabama), linebackers Tyus Bowser (Houston) and Tim Williams (Alabama), and defensive tackle Chris Wormley (Michigan).

Newsome also signed former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr and former Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson during free agency.

“Ross is down right now and that’s a good thing because of the kind of speed he brings to the table,” Mosley said of the rookie receiver who isn’t expected to play Sunday because of a knee injury. “Both teams feel they added what they needed to on both sides of the ball. We have experience on defense, but we definitely went out and got more speed.”

Sunday’s game is expected to be a defensive battle and the Bengals do have one major weakness on offense. During the offseason, they lost two longtime starters on the offensive line leave in tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler. Cincinnati is expected to start two third-year players, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, at the tackle positions. So the Ravens might be able to get pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been known to commit a major turnover or two under slight duress.

But the key will be shutting down the running game.

“They have exceptionally talented runners,” Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “Hill will probably be in the Pro Bowl this year and Bernard is explosive and a change-of-pace performer. Then you look at Mixon, and this is going to be difficult.

“But we’ve got a game plan in place and if we stay solid as far as technique and fundamentals, we’ll be OK. We need to be where we need to be and stay in place especially with Bernard because he can jump from hole to hole. I can’t talk about their receivers because I don’t play against them, but all their guys can run.”

Cincinnati presents a lot of problems, but great defensive teams shut down great offensive teams. It’s been that way in the NFL forever. If the Ravens want that label, they have to earn it.

The road begins Sunday in Cincinnati.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mikeprestonsun

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