When the Ravens pass the football
Joe Flacco is not Geno Smith. Unlike the embattled Jets quarterback who could not threaten the Miami defense with the pass last week, Flacco is accomplished and more than able to get hot — as his five-touchdown performance against Tampa Bay earlier this year proved. The Ravens are averaging 27.5 points per game on the road this season and this offense’s balance is a big reason. But Flacco is without security blanket Dennis Pitta, who was lost for the season with a hip injury, and although WR Torrey Smith will play after missing the entire week of practice with a knee injury, he cannot be at full speed. That leaves 35-year-old Steve Smith Sr. as Baltimore’s most accomplished wide receiver. He’s an alpha and that could be an issue because the Dolphins will be without Cortland Finnegan for a fourth consecutive week. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
When the Ravens run the football
When Ray Rice was suspended, the Ravens expected Bernard Pierce to be the primary back with Justin Forsett as a change of pace. But Forsett took off on a career year and hasn’t looked back. Forsett has 1,009 yards in 12 games and is averaging a hefty 5.46 yards per rush. The problem? Forsett did not practice all week because of a knee injury. So Pierce might get more work than usual. The Miami run defense has been bad the past two weeks, allowing over 200 yards against Denver and the New York Jets. That has included poor play on the inside and missed tackles all around. The question is what level of pride Miami defenders will have to change the tide of 200-yard games? ADVANTAGE: Even.
When the Dolphins pass the football
The Miami offensive line, particularly the right side, and specifically right tackle Dallas Thomas, has struggled in pass protection. The Dolphins often help him with a tight end or a back but Thomas simply loses as often as he wins (perhaps more). No wonder the Dolphins are trying to remedy the situation by throwing quickly, attacking with short passes and short pass patterns. So continue to expect the bubble screens to receivers, the quick slants to Jarvis Landry and the fast in-cuts to Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. The Ravens secondary has been decimated by injuries this year, although Asa Jackson (on injured reserve with designation to return) is hoping to get back this week. The best defense against the pass for Baltimore is pressuring the QB, and OLBs Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are an outstanding combination doing that. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
When the Dolphins run the football
The same Miami line that struggles in pass protection is generally proficient in run blocking. As has been the case much of the season, the success of the run game lies in quantity as much as quality. The Dolphins simply haven’t run the ball enough to get into a rhythm as an offense or allow running back Lamar Miller to get a feel for the game as an individual. Miller doesn’t complain but the issue is obvious. The Ravens’ run defense suffered a major loss when the NFL suspended defensive tackle Haloti Ngata for four games after he violated the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Despite that loss, the Baltimore run defense is more than good. The Ravens are No.4 in the NFL against the run, in part because of its depth, in part because its linebackers are very active. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
The Ravens have arguably the best kicker in football. Justin Tucker has connected on 59 of his past 60 FG attempts from within 55 yards and ranks as the NFL’s all-time most accurate kicker with a 91.2 percentage. He is, however, not as accurate from 50-plus this year compared with past years. He is 4 of 7 from that range. The Ravens’ Jacoby Jones is one of the NFL’s dynamic returners, as his kickoff-return TD in the Super Bowl years three years ago proved. Caleb Sturgis has continued to be inconsistent as he had a miss in four kicks last week. Punter Brandon Fields has improved his gross punt average to middle-of-the-pack status, but the Dolphins are 23rd in net punting. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
John Harbaugh has to get his team to recover from a stunning last-minute loss to San Diego at home and a stunning midweek loss of Haloti Ngata to NFL suspension. Those two setbacks will test the coaching staff’s ability to quickly right a bad situation before a season-defining game. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin successfully got his team to survive a potential trap game last week against the last-place New York Jets. Now the question becomes can he raise his team’s level of play against a high-caliber opponent. The Dolphins coaching staff also has to figure out why the defense suddenly cannot stop the run. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.