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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Ravens defense facing tough challenge vs. Dolphins, a track team in shoulder pads | COMMENTARY


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One week after being on a nearly impossible mission against the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens face another one Sunday when they play the Dolphins.

The Ravens (12-3) host Miami (11-4) at M&T Bank Stadium and can clinch the No. 1 seed and the first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a win. (Baltimore can still secure the top spot with a loss if it beats the Pittsburgh Steelers next week and the Dolphins lose to the Buffalo Bills.)

The Ravens smacked San Francisco around Monday night in a 33-19 victory, and the 49ers and Dolphins have a lot in common as far as offensive philosophy and schemes.

But no team has as much speed as Miami, which boasts two 1,000-yard receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and a pair of dynamic running backs in Raheem Mostert (1,012 rushing yards) and rookie De’Von Achane (637). Combined with the league-leading 70.5% completion rate of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the offensive brilliance of coach Mike McDaniel, this track team in shoulder pads presents major concerns for the Ravens.

“It’s a challenge. It’s unique to the rest of the league because it’s at every spot,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “Every guy that can touch the ball can take off and score from any point. So, it sounds cliché, but it is all 11 players. You have to take great angles, you have to have great force, great secondary force and a third guy in the alley. And the ball can hit at any point in the field, anywhere from the A-gap all the way out to the alley. So, it’s a challenge.

“How we structure things, and how we play blocks, and they do some things, schematically, that are a little different from what we’ve seen in the run game and the perimeter, like screen game. So, we’re getting a great look this week.”

Few teams have been able to slow down Miami. The Dolphins are averaging 30.9 points and 411.5 yards per game, both tops in the NFL. While Tagovailoa has thrown for a league-leading 4,214 yards with 26 touchdowns, the offense is built around Hill, the best receiver in the league.

He has 106 receptions for 1,641 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing Week 15 with an ankle injury. Hill needs 324 yards in the final two games to break the NFL record for receiving yards set by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (1,964) in 2012.

Hill’s speed is jaw-dropping, and the Dolphins use him in motion anywhere on the field. He might line up as a tight end and sprint to the outside. He could line up outside, then go in an orbit motion behind the quarterback or go to the other side of the field to anchor the slot.

He can disappear faster than Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“Well, they do a great job of getting him the ball creatively,” Macdonald said. “It’s different if someone just lines up at the X, and he’s on the ball, and he’s not moving, and you know where he’s going to be — that’s definitely not the case with Tyreek. So, we have some initial plans on how we want to handle it. Obviously, I don’t want to divulge it right now, but it’s a challenge in how they move him.”

The Ravens will get a break because Waddle, another speedster, won’t play because of a high ankle sprain. With so much emphasis on Hill, Tagovailoa has been able to find Waddle streaking open in the middle, often in one-on-one coverage.

Hill, though, is the playmaker. The New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys tried to bracket him, or shade zone coverage toward his side of the field. Other teams have tried the two-high safety look. Regardless, Hill has run through double and triple teams at times.

The Dolphins also have outstanding speed with Mostert (4.8 yards per carry) and Achane (8.1 yards per carry), the second-fastest player on the team after Hill.

There are no pretenses with the Dolphins. They want to run outside. Like everything else the Dolphins do on offense, they try to cause confusion with motion. Then it’s beep, beep, gone.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throws a touchdown pass ahead of the rush of Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, left, on Sept. 22, 2022, at M&T Bank Stadium.
Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throws a touchdown pass ahead of the rush of Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, left, on Sept. 18, 2022, at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

“Honestly, I just think it’s eye candy, for sure,” said Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith, who leads the team with 151 tackles. “I think it’s more so just about the final formation. You get back to what you’re doing.”

Maybe the Ravens want to look at Kansas City’s game against Miami earlier this year, a 21-14 Chiefs victory in Germany. Tagovailoa completed 21 of 34 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown, while Hill had eight catches for 62 yards and Waddle had three for 42.

A key for the Ravens is to get pressure on Tagovailoa with their front four so they can drop six, seven or even eight defenders into coverage. Kansas City also confused Miami by bringing pressure off the perimeter. Tagovailoa is basically a one-read quarterback, and he can’t move outside the pocket. If he holds the ball too long, panic sets in.

There is more pressure on the Ravens going into this game than Monday against San Francisco. The Ravens went into that prime-time matchup with a chip on their shoulders because they were underdogs. They are favored against Miami.

The Dolphins have won two straight against Baltimore, including last year’s 42-38 victory in which Miami scored 28 points in the fourth quarter. The Ravens could be without four injured starters in guard Kevin Zeitler (knee/quad), rookie receiver Zay Flowers (calf), cornerback Brandon Stephens (ankle) and safety Kyle Hamilton (knee). The Ravens are also operating on a short week after a physical game against the 49ers, and they would prefer to secure home-field advantage with a win against Miami instead of having that emotional battle with the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday.

There is one person, though, who remains calm, and that’s Smith. The Ravens are ranked No. 5 in total defense and are allowing the fewest points per game (16.3) in the league.

“At the end of the day, the field is 100 yards long — and what is it, like 53 yards wide? — so you can only go so far,” he said. “There is 100 yards this way and 50-or-so yards going that way, so when you look at it from that perspective, I think it’s just more so doing our jobs and getting back to our responsibilities.

“I think if we do that, we’ll slow a lot of that down, but obviously, it’s a lot easier said than done. We’re ready for it, and we’re going to be ready for it.”

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