Like the old Mad Magazine cartoon of Spy vs. Spy, the Miami Dolphins' gadget Wildcat offense and the Ravens' complex defense offer an intriguing matchup of clever schemes.
The first time around, Oct. 19 in Miami, it was clearly advantage Ravens as they held the Dolphins to 4 yards on five plays run out of the Wildcat in a 27-13 win; all five were rushes.
Before their game with the Ravens, the Dolphins had averaged more than 10 yards per Wildcat snap (and scored six touchdowns) on 25 plays over a three-game span against the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.
Asked whether his unit is braced for the Wildcat again, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said: "We'll see. They've got 11 guys out there. However they configure it, unless they put more footballs out there."
Although they've lost the element of surprise, the Dolphins showed in the past three games that they can still be effective with the Wildcat, running 15 plays out of the formation for 128 yards.
"It's a good offense, though, it really is. It makes you prepare," Ryan said. "We take 10 minutes extra after each practice and just go over Wildcat-type plays. And they're doing it differently. They're doing it out of multiple personnel groups and things like that."
Miami running back Ronnie Brown usually takes the direct snap and bolts, but he has occasionally uncorked a pass out of the formation.
"They use Ronnie Brown and Ricky [Williams] very well, and they set up a lot of stuff off of that," Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle said. "They've got us studying right now, very hard."
That the Ravens have been running their own version of a Wildcat helps in preparing for the Dolphins, Ryan said, even though the Ravens use quarterbacks Troy Smith and Joe Flacco, while tailback Brown sets it in motion for Miami.
"It makes it difficult because their quarterback happens to be an All-Pro running back," Ryan said, referring to Brown. "So he runs through tackles and everything else. But they do a nice job of it. If I was just watching the game as a fan, I would appreciate ... all of that stuff. But we see all kinds of stuff with our offense, too. So I think we're prepared for it."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked whether his staff could feel the excitement in the region generated by the team's playoff run.
"Well, we're not on the streets, so I'd like to say yes, but really, we're in here. Our players get a feel for it, but we don't get much of it," Harbaugh said. "We joke that our place is a beautiful place, but it's like a submarine. At the beginning of the week, we take it down, and we come up again at the end of the week."
Cornerback Fabian Washington and running back Ray Rice are still likely to be game-time decisions. Washington (toe) missed the last game with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Rice (shin) has been out for the past three games.
"They seem to do better and better as the week goes on," Harbaugh said. "We still haven't made any decisions for sure, and you don't know until Sunday, but there are some positive signs."
Rookie safety Tom Zbikowski returned kickoffs for the first time as a pro against the Jaguars on Sunday and could wind up doing it again in Miami, especially if Yamon Figurs (concussion) and Rice are physically limited. Zbikowski, who had last returned kicks as a junior at Notre Dame, averaged 24 yards on his two shots against the Jaguars.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg didn't say who will get the call tomorrow.
"It kind of depends on what the roster looks like on Sunday," Rosburg said. "We haven't got to that point yet. We're practicing with more than one returner in preparation for that."
Ghost of Super Bowl past
Former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, an analyst for ESPN, was at the team's practice facility yesterday wearing the Super Bowl ring he won with the team in 2001.