The Ravens defense set the standard in the regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals for what it hoped it would become. In a 20-0 victory, the Ravens forced five turnovers, sacked Andy Dalton five times and held the Bengals to 221 yards of total offense.

Three and a half months later, the Ravens defense is seeking an encore against the Bengals, who come to M&T Bank Stadium looking to play the role of spoiler Sunday. A strong Ravens defensive effort would go a long way toward securing a postseason berth and easing any concerns after a few recent uneven performances by the unit.

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“It definitely was a big steppingstone for us as a team and as a defense,” safety Eric Weddle said of the defense’s performance in the Sept. 10 meeting against the Bengals. “It was a tough place to play for us and to come out and play the way we did and set the standard of what we wanted our defense to become — and that’s creating havoc, creating turnovers, setting up our offense — that has really carried us throughout this whole season. Obviously, we’ve had room for improvement. We still do, but we can always count on that big-play potential that we have as a defense to change the game. Offenses know if you make a mistake, we’re going to capitalize on it.”

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Coordinator Dean Pees’ defense has three shutouts this season and leads the NFL with 22 interceptions and 33 total takeaways. The Ravens are allowing the fourth-fewest points per game (18.1) and are in the top 10 in fewest passing yards allowed per game (213.9), total yards allowed per game (322.8), third-down defense (37.2 percent) and red-zone defense (47.6 percent).

For the first half of the season, the defense carried the Ravens while the offense was one of the worst-performing units in the league. However, a significantly improved offense in the second half of the season has coincided with flashes of vulnerability from the defense.

As the Ravens watched film this week from their regular-season opener, they got a visual reminder of what they want to get back to defensively.

“We know it’s kind of going to be on us,” rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “As the season moves on, the defense that makes the least mistakes is usually the team that ends up winning. There has been a lot of poor tackling and things like that. That’s something we’re going to have to really be locked in on. We watched some of the film [from the first Bengals game] earlier this week and guys were flying to the ball. We just have to have the same mentality and go in there and try to eliminate a really explosive offense.”

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The Ravens allowed 20 second-half points in a win over the Detroit Lions in Week 13, then were torched for 545 yards and 19 fourth-quarter points in a 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. A mostly dominant defensive performance against the pathetic Cleveland Browns on Dec. 17 was followed by a shaky one Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Ravens struggled to consistently pressure Jacoby Brissett, who has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL, and they allowed three straight second-half scoring drives on their home field. But they staved off the upset bid by stiffening in their own territory and forcing three second-half field goals. Slot cornerback Maurice Canady’s fourth-down pass breakup as the Colts were driving late in the fourth quarter for a potential touchdown and go-ahead 2-point conversion sealed the win.

“It just goes to show that no matter what week it is or what situation you’re in, at the end of the day and when all else fails, your fundamentals keep you in the game,” middle linebacker and leading tackler C.J. Mosley said. “On the runs that the Colts did hit, on some of the big plays that they did have, a lot of the plays we weren’t square in our gaps or as far as the linebackers, we didn’t get downhill quick enough for the D-linemen to get off double teams. On some of the passes, we didn’t have great leverage. As far as technique and fundamentals, we can play whatever type of defense and as long as we have the right type of fundamentals, we can stop those plays.”

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The Ravens allowed only one touchdown to the Colts. Brissett completed just 16 of 33 passes and the Colts averaged a modest 3.9 yards per carry. It certainly wasn’t a bad performance by the defense. It just wasn’t as commanding as ones the Ravens have put forth against other bad offenses throughout the season.

It also was a bit unsettling to see the banged-up and three-win Colts drive down the field with seeming ease at times and reach the Ravens’ 30-yard line or beyond on six of their nine drives.

“We played good, but when we looked at the film, we kind of felt like, ‘Hey, we left some plays out there,’ ” said safety Tony Jefferson. “They got some opportunities that they shouldn’t have had, that we kind of messed up on our own and we gave it to them. If we want to get to where we want to be, those things got to be fixed, starting with myself and the other guys as well. That’s really been our point of emphasis: fix the really small errors because they can turn into big problems if you don’t.”

The Ravens have been hurt on a few runs over the past two weeks, but they’ve held the opposition to under 100 rushing yards in seven of their past eight games, so it would be difficult to label the run defense as a concern. However, the Ravens have not been as difficult to throw against in the second half of the season. They’ve given up over 200 passing yards in four of their past five games after going six consecutive games without allowing a quarterback to hit that number. It’s not been uncommon in recent weeks to see receivers running free in the middle of the field.

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The Week 13 loss of top cornerback Jimmy Smith to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and a subsequent suspension has certainly challenged the secondary. The Ravens also are not getting as much quarterback pressure as they were earlier this season, and that’s put even more pressure on their cover guys. The Ravens have 12 sacks over the past five games, but there have been too many recent occasions in which quarterbacks have the time to go through all their reads before making a throw.

“We’ve been priding ourselves on getting turnovers and making game-changing plays,” Mosley said. “Whether it’s the offense or the defense, we just have to find a way to come through. That’s going to be the focus for this game and as we try to get to where we want to.”

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Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the voice of the defense, summed up the group’s attitude as he usually does. The Ravens are playing solid defensive football, but they need to be better for the team to make a postseason run.

“I’m really greedy,” Suggs said. “I like to be perfect, but I also live in the real world. Yes, I love the way we’re playing right now, but come Sunday, it’s going to take a phenomenal Ravens defensive effort.”

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