By Jeff Zrebiec
5:00 AM EDT, October 4, 2013
RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw a career-high five interceptions against the Buffalo Bills, has traditionally responded to poor performances. He’s thrown two interceptions or more in 14 regular-season games. The following week after those contests, he’s thrown 18 touchdown passes and four interceptions. His supporting cast remains in flux as four of his top five receivers weren’t full participants in practice this week. Flacco hasn’t directed a first-quarter scoring drive since Week 1.
DOLPHINS PASSING GAME: Second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill can hurt teams with his arm and legs. He could use better protection — he’s been sacked a league-high 18 times — and more involvement from speedy wide-out Mike Wallace. The Dolphins gave the former Pittsburgh Steeler a five-year, $60 million deal but he’s averaged just 11.7 yards per catch, down from his 17.2-yard average entering the season. Tannehill has plenty of other targets, including Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and Charles Clay.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: The Ravens’ ground game has gone from a concern to a team crisis. They are 28th in rushing yards per game (64.0) and 30th in yards per carry (2.6). Things got so bad against the Bills that the Ravens had 31 straight pass plays and ran the ball a franchise-low nine times, including just twice in the second half. Ray Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl running back, has yet to rush for 40 yards in a game this season. The Ravens keep saying that things will change, but no evidence exists to support that optimism.
DOLPHINS RUNNING GAME: Though this clearly isn’t saying much, the Dolphins have run the ball a little bit better than the Ravens. They are 24th in the NFL with an average of 81.5 yards per game on the ground and they have scored five rushing touchdowns. Miami misses Reggie Bush, though second-year back Lamar Miller is averaging 4.6 yards a carry and has scored twice. Short-yardage back Daniel Thomas also has two touchdowns. Center Mike Pouncey is considered the Dolphins’ top offensive lineman.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: After establishing a strong front against the run for the first three games, the Ravens allowed the Bills to rush for 203 yards and a touchdown. That left the Ravens 16th in the NFL against the run, allowing 106.8 yards per game. Still, they are holding the opposition to 3.5 yards per rush, tied for the fifth lowest total in the NFL. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith leads the Ravens with 37 tackles. They need a better effort from weak-side linebacker Josh Bynes, who was a step slow last week.
DOLPHINS RUSH DEFENSE: Miami’s interior defensive line is loaded as defensive tackles Paul Soliai, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks (Maryland) provide all sorts of problems with their speed, strength and athleticism. The Dolphins have yet to be tested against a good running team, though they’ve held the opposition to 98.5 rushing yards per game, the 10th lowest total in the NFL. They’ve also allowed two rushing touchdowns. Former Raven Dannell Ellerbe leads the team with 38 total tackles.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: It continues to be a mixed bag for the secondary as cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety James Ihedigbo have played well but Corey Graham and Matt Elam have struggled at times. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs has been the Ravens’ best defensive player with sacks in all four games but strong-side linebackers Elvis Dumervil has been quiet the past couple of weeks. The Dolphins struggle to protect Ryan Tannehill so this would be a good week for a breakout game from the pass rush.
DOLPHINS PASS DEFENSE: This group was taken apart by Drew Brees on Monday night as the New Orleans Saints quarterback passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns. The Dolphins dropped to 24th in the NFL against the pass, allowing 296.8 yards per game through the air. It certainly didn’t help that top pass rusher Cameron Wake did not play in the game because of a knee injury. Wake is expected to be a game-time decision Sunday. Like Ellerbe, cornerback Brett Grimes is proving to be a big free agent acquisition.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Veteran punter Sam Koch is off to one of the best starts of his career with an average of 48.9 yards per punt, a net average of 42.1 and seven punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Kicker Justin Tucker has made five consecutive field goals since missing two against Cleveland and continues to be a weapon on kickoffs. He has the fifth most touchbacks in the NFL since the 2012 season. With the offense struggling, the Ravens could use a jumpstart from their kick return game.
DOLPHINS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Dolphins used a fifth-round pick in April to select kicker Caleb Sturgis and the rookie from Florida has delivered, making all seven of his attempts, including a 54-yarder. Sturgis is one of only two rookie kickers in Dolphins’ history to make two field goals of 50 or more yards. Veteran Brandon Fields ranks second in the AFC and third in the NFL in punting. Marcus Thigpen is one of the league leaders in kickoff return yardage.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: Head coach John Harbaugh challenged his team this week following a poor showing against the Bills. Slow starts, penalties and mistakes continue to hamper the Ravens, especially in their two road losses. Harbaugh and his staff spent all week on harping on those things. In acquiring left tackle Eugene Monroe, the front office sent the right message to the players. The Ravens are 1-4 in regular-season games in Miami but 2-0 there in the playoffs.
DOLPHINS INTANGIBLES: Second-year head coach Joe Philbin has the Dolphins headed in the right direction with a disciplined and physical style. Miami has been assessed the third fewest penalty yards in the NFL this season and they had one two-game stretch where they were flagged just twice. With victories over the Indianapolis Colts and the Atlanta Falcons, the Dolphins have proven that they are no fluke. But they are on short rest and they have a couple of key injuries.
PREDICTION: In the past, Harbaugh’s Ravens have been at their best in bouncing back from tough losses and responding to adversity. This, however, is a completely different team which has already taken on an erractic persona. It’s hard to project how well the Ravens will play down in South Florida, but the bet here is they’ll finally get off to a good start, get some positive contribution from their running game and force the Dolphins into a few mistakes. Tucker wins it with a late field goal.
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