Dolphins Ravens Preview: “Fish” vs Fowl

With four weeks left in the NFL regular season, every battle counts. Baltimore and Miami square off Sunday in South Florida for the second straight year with the playoffs in their sights. Last season saw a classic with John Harbaugh’s squad pulling out a 26-23 road win. Joshua Soden, our resident Fins expert, breaks down this year’s Dolphins Ravens matchup.

Chasing the postseason in the AFC’s crowded 7-5 corridor, the Miami Dolphins presently hold the slimmest of tiebreaker margins and would be the 6th and final team to qualify for the NFL playoffs if the season ended today. With four games remaining and six teams vying for one spot, every game will be treated as a must-win by these teams.

The Dolphins are coming off an ugly 16-13 victory against the Jets where they made just enough plays to grit out a division road win. Baltimore is coming off a bitter 34-33 defeat at home against the Chargers, who outscored the Ravens 21-10 in the fourth quarter.

When the Ravens Have the Ball

This showdown will be determined in the trenches. According to Pro Football Focus (premium content), the matchup will boast the NFL’s two highest-rated pass rushing teams. Baltimore carries a league-leading 49.3 grade into this game, while Miami trails slightly at 45.6.

Against the Jets, New York’s relentless rushing attack gashed Miami’s defense in the first half. The Dolphins’ rotating defensive tackle trio of Jared Odrick (-1.8), Earl Mitchell (-2.9), and Randy Starks (-4.7) all graded out poorly against the run according to PFF*. Miami will need to quickly sort through what went wrong on the defensive side of the ball with this week’s quick turnaround following their Monday night game.

Justin Forsett will enter this game as PFF’s 5th-ranked running back league-wide with an overall rating of 12.8 on the season. Forsett, worth 143 DYAR according to Football Outsiders, has played better than anyone could have anticipated in filling the void left by Ray Rice. The Dolphins were able eventually to stop the bleeding against the Jets by loading up the box and forcing the Jets to let Geno Smith attempt a pass. Miami won’t have that luxury as Joe Flacco is an infinitely more capable QB than Smith. It’s going to be on the Miami front seven to stop the run.

When the Dolphins Have the Ball

While the greatest strength of both teams is getting to the quarterback, these two defenses diverge widely beyond that. Baltimore’s run defense has been stout all year with a 43.2 rating*, but their biggest weakness has been defending the passing game (a -22.4 rating*). The Ravens will surely try to exploit Miami’s flawed pass protection (-39.7*) and pressure quarterback Ryan Tannehill into making some mistakes. While Mike Wallace carries the marquee name, Jarvis Landry remains the central focus of the passing game. The rookie leads the team in receptions and should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the Ravens’ poor secondary.

Interestingly, Lamar Miller has been slightly more valuable this season than Forsett. Miller has been worth 185 DYAR and 19.4% DVOA**, which would suggest that while his rushing stats may trail Forsett’s and have been down over the last few weeks, Miller has actually been performing very well against some difficult matchups.

Three Keys to a Dolphins Victory

  1. Protect Ryan Tannehill. Miami has struggled to keep their QB clean the last few games. The loss of left tackle Branden Albert has certainly been felt. Rookie Ja’Wuan James’ play has improved at that position in each of the last four weeks since moving over from right tackle; he’s graded out at -7.0, -4.8, 0.4, and 0.4 overall, with a 2.4 rating in pass protection against the Jets, his second-highest grade of the season*. Baltimore’s pass rush is one of the league’s best, but their secondary can be exploited if Miami can give Tannehill enough time.
  2. Feed Jarvis Landry. He might be overshadowed by his former teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., but Landry has quietly emerged as a vital cog in Miami’s offense. The second-round draft pick out of LSU is PFF’s highest-rated slot receiver in the league according to their signature catch rate* stat, which reflects the percentage of receptions compared to targets on balls thrown while the receiver is in the slot. Landry has 43 receptions on 55 targets in the slot for a catch rate of of 78.2%. For Miami to neutralize some of Baltimore’s pass rush, expect lots of quick passes on screens, slants, and drags, which is where Landry thrives.
  3. Big game from Reshad Jones. Jones is presently playing some of the best football of his career. After regressing last year, he has recaptured the 2012 form that made him a Pro Bowl selection; he ranks as the highest-rated safety in the league in terms of rushing the passer*. Baltimore features a balanced offensive attack, and Miami will need Jones to step up against the run and generate pressure against Joe Flacco.

Three Keys to a Ravens Victory

  1. Run the ball. Miami’s defense played at an elite level until Week 12. Since then, against both the Broncos and the Jets, the Dolphins surrendered a combined 478 rushing yards at 5.69 yards/carry. The onus is on defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to find a solution to this glaring issue. Baltimore is most certainly aware of this and will try to impose their will on Miami’s defense.
  2. Take away the short passing game. Miami’s offense is predicated on the short- to- intermediate passing game. Baltimore needs to play press coverage and throw off the timing of these quick -hitting routes. As illustrated in the chart below, Tannehill’s accuracy is outstanding on the short passes, but suffers immensely when he throws it greater than 20 yards*. The Ravens need to dare him to beat them deep with Mike Wallace.
  3. Win the special teams battle. While Justin Tucker became the most accurate kicker in NFL history last week, Caleb Sturgis missed one field goal attempt and booted a kickoff out of bounds against the Jets. In a game that will be as tightly contested as this one, execution on special teams may end up determining the outcome.

Prediction

Expect the Ravens to treat this matchup like a postseason battle. John Harbaugh will have his team motivated and prepared for this pivotal matchup. Miami has struggled against physical teams like the Bills, the Jets, and even the Jaguars all season long, and this game should be no exception. However, they also won their previous critical matchups with playoff implications against the Bills in Week 11 and the Chargers in Week 9.

In the end, Miami should make just enough plays to escape with a critical tie-breaking victory over Baltimore. The Dolphins passing attack is built around short-range throws, and they can neutralize the Ravens’ biggest strength while exploiting their biggest weakness on defense. Expect Coyle to address the obvious issues Miami has recently had against the run in preparation for this game.

Final Score: Miami 23, Baltimore 20

All premium stat content courtesy of Pro Football Focus* and Football Outsiders** where noted.

Follow Joshua on Twitter @joshu_wa.

Joshua Soden has covered the emerging Jelani Jenkins, the fully recovered Rob Gronkowski, and previews the big games.

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