Much like his team, strong, silent safety Shawn Williams stepped into prime time Thursday night and delivered during the Bengals’ 34-23 victory over the Ravens that sent them from the AFC North’s forgotten child to the only unbeaten-untied team in the division after the first four days of the season.
After getting ejected on the 13th snap of the season Sunday for his hit on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Williams hit Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for the decisive play of the night at Paul Brown Stadium. With the Bengals’ protecting an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter, Williams’ sack-and-strip with 2:42 left turned the ball over to the Bengals for the third and last time. When defensive end Jordan Willis recovered at the Ravens 29 that set up Randy Bullock’s 40-yard field goal with 2:25 left, it put the 2-0 Bengals into first place for the next 10 days leading into their game in Carolina.
Remember those pundits rating them in the late 20s power rankings with records like 4-12 and maybe 6-10?
“We’re a team that stays quiet … We knew we weren’t going to do that with the talent we have,” said wide receiver A.J. Green. “We’re not about to toot our own horn. We knew the type of team we had coming into training camp. We don’t listen to the outside noise.”
You could have heard a pin drop because Thursday night’s national audience suddenly saw what the Bengals have been crafting on both sides of the ball since they knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs on their last play of a 7-9 season.
On offense their new playbook and re-built offensive line in scheme and personnel kept the Ravens’ vaunted pass rush off-balance and sack-less with a revived running game. On defense, new coordinator Teryl Austin, the Ravens secondary coach when they won the 2012 Super Bowl, has installed an aggressive mentality stressing turnovers and pressure and against his old team he watched his new team come up with three turnovers. That gives them five in four days after they generated just 14 all last season.
On Thursday, Williams came up with two of those in the second half. In the third quarter he tracked down a Flacco interception at the Bengals 25 when left end Carlos Dunlap hit Flacco’s arm as he threw and produced a warning track fly ball. With rookie Jessie Bates getting his first NFL interception in the first quarter, the starting safeties each have as many interceptions as they had all of last year.
“Oh my God. I went back to center field in freaking high school,” Williams said. “I waited on it and waited on it. I was hoping nobody would come out of nowhere to knock it down. As long as it was in the air for 38 seconds, I didn’t take my eyes off it.”
The Bengals crushed the turnover battle, 3-0, and are now 10-0 against Harbaugh’s Ravens when they win it.
“I don’t know, but I hope they keep writing it,” said Williams, when asked who came up with the improbable script.
It will be recalled it was just four days before that Williams watched his replacement preserve the opener when Clayton Fejedelem forced a fumble at the Bengals 17 and romped the other way with it for a touchdown with 24 seconds left.
“There was so much on my mind what happened. I was just trying to put it behind me,” said Williams of the thankfully short week. “With it being a mental week and no practice, I just focused on the game and not what happened in the past. I just wanted to be there for my teammates at a critical moment.”
On Sunday, he was watching the crucial moments with security. On Thursday he was in the middle of it all on third-and-10 from the Ravens 25 when Austin flashed the aggressiveness. While former DC Paul Guenther didn’t blitz much and when he did he usually did it with linebackers, Austin likes to send his DBs a little more frequently.
“T.A. isn’t aggressive with just blitzes, but everything else. Like turnovers,” Williams said.
So there was Williams chasing Flacco as Flacco rolled away from him and there was Williams coming from behind to stuff the ball just as Flacco cocked his arm.
“I was trying to get to him before he threw the ball. I think I ran into someone,” Williams said. “And I just kept thinking, ‘Hold it, hold it. Don’t throw it. Don’t throw it. Yes! , Got ‘em!’ I just hoped I didn’t run all that way for nothing.”
And, no, he wasn’t thinking about a potential roughing call.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think about it.”
Williams later limped off with cramps. When it was over, Flacco soon followed, now the owner of 25 interceptions against the Bengals. The 24th was Bates’ first and led to the first TD of the game. Flacco tried to lead wide receiver Michael Crabtree over the middle but it was too far and Bates was right here.
Which is precisely what Austin was thinking when they drafted Bates in the second round and then cut veteran George Iloka in training camp.
“Our job is to get turnovers,” Williams said. “We did well today. Hopefully we’ll keep rubbing off on the corners. It will come. I told Jessie you got that one out of the way. It’s like pressure taken off your shoulders. That’s what George always told me. They’ll come in bunches.”
The Bengals’ draft room had a nice night. The guy drafted with the pick behind Bates, Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard, had his first NFL sack. They told him after the opener he would get more snaps than Sunday’s seven and when right end Michael Johnson went out early with an MCL sprain that was guaranteed.
“We were coming in waves all night. Mike went down early, and we stepped up and rallied together, and whoever was fresh was going out there trying to make a play,” said Hubbard, who also had a tackle for loss. “We just kept coming and just trying to wear him down. They’re a great team. Flacco was getting the ball out fast, but we just tried to affect him any way we could. We did a good job; we’ve just got to build on it.”
Hubbard played four positions on Thursday. Both end and tackle as well as fullback on a failed goal line play. And in the final seconds he reprised his safety career at Moeller High School when he went back there and made the game’s final tackle. Quite a night for the local.
“It was great to do it at home. Yeah, I felt more comfortable (than Sunday),” said Hubbard, who said Johnson plays safety if he’s healthy.
“That’s an end-of-game situation. We put a lot of emphasis on those special situations, so when they occur in the game we’re ready for them,” Hubbard said. “That was just one of those situations we (practice) every week before the game defending the goal line. And it paid off.”
Meanwhile, Bates, the second-rounder, was trying to figure out who gets the interception ball.
“I am sure my mom will have an opinion on that, but we will see,” Bates said.
The youngest Bengal on the field sounded as if he’d played in 20 Ravens-Bengals games and that he knew the Bengals had pulled wool over the experts’ eyes.
“They preach about Baltimore being so physical. I think our guys brought it to them tonight,” said the 21-year-old Bates. “I feel really good about what this team is capable of.”
Running back Joe Mixon, who just turned 22, sounded like he’d been here before. Asked if the pundits were finally aware of them, he shrugged.
“Who knows?” Mixon asked. “A lot of people probably underestimate us still. It doesn’t matter. We just try to play week-by-week.”
Green has an idea the Bengals have been found out.
“It’s Thursday night, right?” Green asked. “We were the only game on.”