CINCINNATI — The preparation for one of the more dominant defensive performances in team history started in late July. At the time, the Ravens were over seven weeks away from their regular-season opener here and they had four preseason opponents ahead of them.
But the Ravens started watching film of the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that had flummoxed them in recent years, on the first day of training camp. They watched so much film on the Bengals offense that Ravens safety Eric Weddle conceded Wednesday that he was tired of seeing Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and company.
"Everything was tailored for this game and it showed," Weddle said late Sunday afternoon.
Members of the Ravens defense have spoken brashly this summer about having a special unit and one that ultimately could be comparable to some of the best groups that a franchise known for its defense has put out. The current group's opening statement was loud and emphatic as the Ravens forced five turnovers in a 20-0 rout of the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, which was half empty by the start of the fourth quarter. It was the Ravens' first win in Cincinnati since the 2011 season.
The organization's first shutout since a 16-0 blanking of the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 16, 2009, equaled a feat achieved by two of the franchise's all-time best defenses. The 2000 defense, which was coordinated by current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and played a starring role in a Super Bowl run, shut out the Pittsburgh Steelers in its opener.
The 2006 group, ranked No.1 overall at the end of the regular season, pitched a 27-0 shutout over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in its first game.
As a group, the current Ravens downplayed Sunday's achievement and said it won't mean anything if they can't repeat the effort next weekend against the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens, though, certainly set a high bar.
They forced Dalton, who threw only eight interceptions last year and seven the year before, into four picks by four players: Brandon Carr, C.J. Mosley, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.
Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs also strip-sacked Dalton and had two of the team's five sacks. Overall, the Bengals had just 221 yards of total offense and wound up without any points despite getting inside the Ravens' 20-yard line three times.
"We did some good things, but I think it's going to get better," said Suggs who spent much of the afternoon abusing Bengals young left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. "But be more concerned with things we didn't do so well. We're going to go back and try and get those fixed."
For all the talk coming into the game about how the Ravens offense, and Joe Flacco in particular, would perform given how little practice time so many key players got this summer, the defense made it a moot point.
Flacco and the offense certainly did their part. Flacco led a 13-play drive on the Ravens' first possession that led to a field goal by Justin Tucker. The quarterback hit wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for a 48-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter and 24 seconds later, after Webb's interception return to the 2-yard line of a pass deflected by Suggs, Terrance West plunged in for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead.
From there, the Ravens offense needed just one more drive to put the game away and it came in the third quarter, courtesy of a 17-play, 81-yard march that took 9:38 and ended with another 25-yard field goal by Tucker. The Ravens ran the ball 14 times on the drive — they ran it 42 times for 157 yards for the game — and didn't complete a single pass. They didn't need to.
"I think that goes in the category of doing what it takes to win the game. Our guys did that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It was downhill football. The backs ran north and south, they got their pads down and ran upfield, protected the football. The line was physical. It was a very important drive because it took the time off the clock and really put them behind the eight ball in terms of their chances to come back."
Flacco finished the game 9-for-17 for 121 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Perhaps most importantly for the Ravens, he exited Paul Brown Stadium feeling good about the state of his back, which sidelined him for five weeks this summer. Flacco was tested for a concussion after taking a hit late in the third quarter, but he passed that test, too.
"It's not that fun," Flacco joked of being a part of such a run-oriented plan. "I'd rather throw for 350 and win 42-0. But it's fun to win, and that's the most important thing."
This one was really only in doubt for the first quarter and a half. Trailing 3-0 late in the first quarter, Dalton drove the Bengals into Ravens territory, but he was picked off by Carr, who corralled a deflection by weak-side linebacker Patrick Onwuasor.
On the Bengals' next possession, they had the ball inside the Ravens' 10-yard line when Dalton made perhaps his worst decision on a day full of them. He tried to force the ball into Brandon LaFell in the back of the end zone and Mosley stepped in front of the receiver and plucked the ball out of the air.
"We tried to show man pressure," Mosley said. "We knew it was a passing situation. I did a good job reading his eyes. Give credit to the coaches for putting us into the right positions."
The Ravens didn't capitalize with points off the turnover, but two drives later, Flacco hit Maclin for the touchdown. And then on their next drive, they needed just one play to get in the end zone after Webb's interception.
“I’ve been here for nine years, man. Yeah. I’ve had some days like that,” Webb said. “You know I’ve played with Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs. We have had some days like that, but to start a season off like this is very promising. We know where we’re trying to go. I think we’re on the right path to get there. Right now, we’ve just got to keep pushing each other to be the best defense in the league.”
Several other prominent Ravens said similar things. It was only one game, they cautioned. It just was hard to imagine it going any better from a defensive perspective.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been saying since the beginning of OTAs,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “We think we have a special group here. This is the start of it.”