Fast starts have been key for the Ravens’ defense, which is playing well despite injuries

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson scores a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Geno Stone intercepted a pass around the goal line and returned it 36 yards before veering out of bounds — and it looked like he might’ve scored if he’d cut back to his right.

“Gave him a little grief, but at the end of the day he forced a turnover,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “It’s hard to argue with ball production.”

Going out of bounds was perhaps Stone’s only misstep of the day, and the Baltimore defense has picked up where it left off a season ago. Led by a pair of excellent inside linebackers, a better-than-expected secondary and a pass rush that’s put to rest some preseason concerns, the Ravens shut down Houston and kept Cincinnati’s dangerous passing game under control.

Through two games, Baltimore hasn’t allowed a first down in the first quarter.

“Very encouraged by the fast starts. That’s something that we work on every day,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I feel like the guys are just locked in. Every game’s different. Sometimes you start, sometimes you finish.”

A season ago, the Baltimore defense was a handful after the Ravens acquired Smith in a midseason trade. Even after Lamar Jackson went down with a knee injury, Baltimore went into Cincinnati for a playoff game and nearly beat the Bengals.

In fact, the head-to-head matchups with Cincinnati were a big indication of the team’s progress on that side of the ball. After allowing 41 points in each of their two matchups with the Bengals in 2021, the Ravens yielded 17, 27 and 24 last season — and that last figure was inflated by a fumble return for a touchdown that wasn’t the Baltimore defense’s fault.

Last week, the Ravens held Cincinnati to 282 yards of offense.

With Smith and Patrick Queen manning the inside linebacker spots, the Ravens have allowed just 138 yards rushing through two games this season. Those two also have a sack each. In fact, Baltimore has six sacks so far — by six different players. That’s been a positive sign for a team that moved on from pass-rushing standouts Calais Campbell and Justin Houston in the offseason.

The defensive backfield has dealt with constant injury concerns lately. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot) hasn’t played yet, and safety Marcus Williams (pectoral) was hurt in Week 1. Still, Baltimore held Joe Burrow to 222 yards passing last weekend, and Stone’s interception was a huge play.

Even if he didn’t score.

“Geno is a baller. Geno has always been like that since the day he came in,” Queen said. “It’s good seeing him get his opportunity and taking full advantage of making plays. It’s heartwarming. Geno just works so hard, and he wants to be so great.”

Sunday was Stone’s ninth start in four NFL seasons.

“I just feel like everyone here is capable of playing, no matter if you’re on the practice squad or whatever it is,” Stone said. “You’re brought in this organization for a reason, and I think that’s a testament to the scouts and who they bring into this place, and everyone’s trusted as a starter.”

NOTES: The Ravens have a new injury concern with RB Justice Hill (foot) missing practice Wednesday. Hill is Baltimore’s leader in carries thanks in part to J.K. Dobbins’ season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Now the Ravens have added RB Kenyan Drake to the practice squad. … Also missing practice were Humphrey, Williams, WR Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle), LB Jadeveon Clowney (illness), C Tyler Linderbaum (ankle), LB Odafe Oweh (ankle) and T Ronnie Stanley (knee).