There are two schools of thought regarding the Baltimore Ravens’ otherworldly run defense:
1. This might be the best collection of run-stoppers ever.
2. The Ravens are getting fat on some of the worst running backs in football.
Both could be true. Neither could be true.
Where do the the Dolphins weigh in? We’ll know more around 4 p.m. Sunday.
The Dolphins on Sunday will be the latest to try their luck against a Ravens defense that leads the NFL in rushing (74.9 yards per game), rushing touchdowns (four) and ranks second in yards per carry (3.4).
“A lot of good players up there,” Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi said. “[Terrell] Suggs, he’s been doing it for a long time. Their linebackers, as well, are good. I know we’re going to have a good challenge again this week. They’re playing well right now; we’re playing well, so it will be fun.”
Fun? Perhaps. But certainly intense.
The stakes could hardly be higher. The Dolphins’ six-game winning streak has breathed life into this franchise, its fan base and its playoff chances. But now we’re in December. And a perfect November will mean nothing if the Dolphins again fold down the stretch.
So while Ravens-Dolphins, a showdown between a 6-5 team and a 7-4 team, isn’t quite an elimination game, it’s close. The Dolphins will need to find three wins in their last five games to have a realistic shot at their first playoff berth since 2008.
At the least, they’ll need to either beat Baltimore on road, Buffalo on the road or New England at home to get in.
Each team presents its own challenges. But what Baltimore is doing defensively is on another plane.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. The Ravens have been playing great defense for a long time. Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen should know. As a Colts assistant, he faced the Ravens 11 times in 14 years, including three times in the playoffs.
“We’ve had some awful great battles with them through the years,” Christensen said. “I think the thing that people don’t realize is how much power there is in continuity. For them, they’ve had the same GM [Ozzie Newsome]. They’ve had the same defensive scheme. They keep replacing people.”
He added: “That defense is proven. They know it inside out. They know what they’re doing, and every year they’re formidable. They keep plugging people in.”
Now it’s players such as Suggs, Timmy Jernigan, Elvis Dumervil and Eric Weddle continuing the legacy of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Peter Boulware.
But they’re also writing a history all their own. The advanced statistics website Football Outsiders crunched the numbers and found that this Ravens team actually stops the run better than the 2000 Super Bowl unit, which is in the conversation for best defense of all time.
Here’s how overwhelming this group has been:
The Ravens have played 11 games. They’ve given up more than 65 rushing yards just three times, and opposing teams have averaged four or more yards per carry twice.
But as always, stats tell just part of the story.
Here’s the rest:
The Ravens have been very lucky in their opponents.
This is the Ravens’ 12th game. Ajayi will be just the fourth back Baltimore has faced who ranks in the NFL’s top 10 in rushing, and only the fifth who ranks in the top 15.
And although it might be really tough to run on Baltimore, it’s not impossible. Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell lit up the Ravens for 133 yards and a touchdown in Week 2. Matt Forte went for 100 in Week 7 (although it took him 30 tries). And Ezekiel Elliott fell just 3 yards shy of a century in a Cowboys win.
Plus, the Dolphins don’t fear highly ranked defenses. They face one seemingly every week.
“It’s our ninth top-five defense,” Christensen said with a grin. “I thought top five meant there’s only five of them. … We’ll just keep trucking.”
It surely would help if Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert play Sunday after missing the Niners game because of injuries. The Dolphins are a different team when their offensive line is healthy.
It was when the Dolphins beat the Jets a month ago; New York at the time had the league’s best run defense and Ajayi torched it for 111 yards on 24 carries.
“I don’t think that running against these guys is going to change our confidence level,” said Ajayi, who is 153 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. “We feel like we can run against anyone, and I don’t think that’s going to change, whether we run against these guys or we run against another team. I think we’ve shown already what we can do in the run game if we’re all clicking, if we’re all healthy. It’s just about executing.”