As the Ravens (7-5) prepare to square off with the Miami Dolphins (7-5) on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to keep an eye on.
1. Timmy Jernigan
Now that dominant defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has been suspended for four games for testing positive for Adderall, a violation of the NFL performance-enhancing drug policy, the Ravens will have to make an unwanted to adjustment to life without the five-time Pro Bowl selection. Ngata is a rare run-stopping, pass-rushing presence who's also capable of intercepting and disrupting passes. Without Ngata in the lineup, the Ravens will go with rookie second-round NFL draft pick Timmy Jernigan as his main replacement. Jernigan has displayed some playmaking ability, but he's not Ngata. It will take a rotation of defensive linemen providing assistance to Jernigan to come close to approaching Ngata's production. How not having Ngata will affect inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith remains to be seen. With Ngata in the front seven, the Ravens were allowing just 86.3 yards rushing per game to rank fourth in the NFL. Ngata's absence could also limit the impact of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens' leading pass rusher with 12.5 sacks. Eleven of the 28 sacks allowed by the Dolphins have happened in the past four games, an escalating problem with standout offensive tackle Branden Albert out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
2. Red zone offense
After being repeatedly stonewalled in the red zone last week during a 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens fell to 21st in the NFL in red zone offense. They've scored touchdowns on just 25 of 48 red-zone possessions, a 52.1 touchdown percentage inside opponents' 20-yard line. They went 3-for-7 in the red zone against the Chargers. The Dolphins' red zone defense is fairly stout, ranking 12th in the NFL. The Ravens' 10th-ranked offense has lacked creativity in close quarters and been unable to regularly pound the football across the goal line. The Ravens could have an edge this week, given the Dolphins' recent vulnerability against the run. The Dolphins have allowed over 200 rushing yards in each of the past two games. They gave up 167 yards rushing to Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson and gave up 277 yards rushing to the New York Jets as Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory ran roughshod against the Dolphins on Monday. Justin Forsett is dealing with a relatively minor knee injury, but has gained over 100 yards rushing in each of the past three games and has 1,009 rushing yards for the season.
3. Steve Smith
The veteran wide receiver's body language told a story against the Chargers -- one of frustration. Smith was glaring at quarterback Joe Flacco and shaking his head after Flacco missed him when he was open. Smith dropped a potential touchdown pass and caught only one pass for two yards on four targets. The key for keeping Smith happy and productive appears to be getting him involved early in the game, the way the Ravens did in a win over the New Orleans Saints. Whether Smith will rise to the occasion against an equally-feisty competitor in Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes is one of the more intriguing questions of this game.
4. Asa Jackson
The Ravens are hoping that the return of Jackson can give a struggling secondary a boost. The cornerback is capable of playing outside or inside, but is best operating against slot receivers. Jackson hasn't played since an October loss to the Indianapolis Colts when he severely sprained his toe. Now, Jackson is back, having been activated from injured reserve-designated to return on Saturday and could help a defensive backfield that's been having trouble stopping virtually every kind of pass pattern. The Ravens rank 31st in the NFL against the pass and are on pace for a historically bad season against the pass. Jackson is small, but is an athletic, tough cornerback who has shown some ability in the past to make plays on the football.
5. Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill was a wide receiver early in his career at Texas A&M and is one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league. He runs some read-option plays and tends to keep more than pitch the football. The Ravens haven't played against this type of offense since beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, when they had some issues with Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' Pistol offense. They practiced against Kaepernick in training camp in Owings Mills, though. The Ravens have to account for Tannehill on the ground, as well as him throwing on the run, as he orchestrates the Dolphins' version of the spread offense that features four wide receivers and one back. The Dolphins like to throw short passes and create extra yards after the catch with wide receivers Mike Wallace and Jarvis Landry. How the Ravens tackle in the open field is likely to be a huge factor in deciding the outcome of this game.