The Ravens' fourth-ranked running defense enters its first game without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata with a unique challenge in Miami's spread-option offense, which features quarterback Ryan Tannehill as a threat to run, and has proven difficult for defenses to stop all season.
"Tannehill is a unique quarterback," outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "I don't think he really gets a lot of credit for what he do, but watching him on film, he's one of the good ones. We pride ourselves on stopping the run, and every week is a challenge, but this week is a bigger challenge."
The Ravens have had 15 option run plays run against them for 51 yards this season. Nearly half of those yards came in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Miami, by comparison, runs out of the option more than a dozen times per game, with 146 read-option run plays for 721 yards this year — both the highest totals in the NFL. Tannehill either keeps the ball himself or hands off, depending on how a particular player on defense reacts to the play. Starting running back Lamar Miller has 729 yards on 150 total carries, and Tannehill averages 6.42 yards per carry (45 carries for 289 yards).
Overall, Miami's rushing offense is 10th in the NFL (120.3 yards per game), while only three teams have allowed fewer rushing yards per game than the Ravens, who allow 86.3 yards per game. To maintain that against a unique look in Miami will challenge the Ravens base defense, but coaches and players said everyone is responsible for keeping eyes on the quarterback.
"You have to defend the quarterback," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "This guy runs it. It isn't just once a game he might keep it and run outside. This guy will keep it and run, so you have to defend the quarterback, the dive. They don't really have a pitch, but basically they do, because their passes off of that is their pitch. It's really assignment football on defense."
Veteran defensive end Chris Canty, whose playing career has spanned the rise and fall of the "wildcat" offense, which Miami pioneered by snapping the ball directly to their running back, said the read-option has more staying power. Canty believes any kind of option football, even the collegiate offenses like Navy and Georgia Tech, tests a team's run scheme.
"You have to account for the quarterback being a runner," Canty said. "It definitely challenges and tests a lot of your fits and your discipline. You've got to try to be on top of it and really understand your assignment and try to execute at a high level."
Rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who is familiar with similar offenses from his college days at Alabama, said option runs "just provide another gap for us to cover" on defense.
"That's the main focus for us, to get that extra gap covered and keep contain when he tries to bounce outside," Mosley said.
Containment typically falls on the outside linebackers, including Courtney Upshaw and Terrell Suggs. Suggs, who at times can get caught selling out on the pass rush at the expense of his run responsibilities, stressed his preparation in advance of the new offense.
"You have to know where you're vulnerable at, and even with that you have to play run and pass, but that's just like every play," Suggs said. "We're not making too big of a deal about it."
His run-stuffing counterpart, Upshaw, has been a big part of the Ravens' run-stopping success this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Upshaw is eighth in the NFL with 21 run tackles, including 13 tackles for loss. He recognizes it will take the entire defense to contain Tannehill and the Dolphins' attack.
"When you play option-type football — which is what this is similar to, read-zone football — it's everybody on defense," Pees said. "Everybody has to have good eyes, have to play their assignments to the 'T.' "