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Ravens vs Dolphins: Five Questions Miami must answer to beat Baltimore

The Miami Dolphins host the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, looking to rebound after a rough outing in New Orleans on Monday night. Today we look at the five big questions surrounding the team heading into this contest.

Andy Lyons

With the short week this week, I never got a chance to sit down with the guys over at SB Nation's Baltimore Beatdown,  the outstanding Baltimore Ravens blog, to discuss the Ravens ahead of their visit to Sun Life Stadium and the Miami Dolphins this weekend.  Since that didn't happen, today, I thought I would give you my five big questions about the Dolphins heading into the game.

1. Rebound or hangover? The Dolphins got destroyed on Monday night.  They came into the game riding high on a 3-0 record, but the bright lights of Monday Night Football, in the Superdome, against a really good New Orleans Saints team, proved to be too much for Miami.  Which is fine, in and of itself.  A 38-17 loss counts no more at the end of the year than a 7-3 loss would.  The question is, how do the Dolphins respond after such a game.

That's where the true impact of a game like Monday night comes in to play.  Do the Dolphins rebound, putting the game, and the mistakes, behind them?  Or, do they feel like they cannot keep up with the elite teams now, question their play, and let the game cost them another couple of losses?  Sunday's game, against the defending Super Bowl Champions, will again test the mettle of the team.  Will we see a rebound?  Or will we see a hangover?

2. Ryan Tannehill's protection of the ball. We've officially moved from anecdotal observations to an issue that has to be solved.  Through four games, Tannehill has fumbled six times, losing three.  In 20 NFL starts, he has fumbled 15 times, losing seven.  That's horrible.

Tannehill's six fumbles lead the league, one ahead of Ben Roethlisberger.   He is on pace to break the NFL record of 23 fumbles in a season, set in 2001 by Kerry Collins and tied in 2002 by Daunte Culpepper.  Last year, the league lead was 15 by Philip Rivers.  At this rate, Tannehill will surpass that in Week 11.

This isn't even about the interceptions, where Tannehill has thrown five on the season, four behind the league leader Eli Manning.  Interceptions are going to happen, and, while you want them minimized, sometimes, things are out of your control.  A receiver deflects a ball rather than catches it, or a defensive back makes a great play to knock the ball away, and it somehow ends up in the arms of another defender, those things happen (off the top of my head, that's two of Tannehill's interceptions this year).  Decision making goes a long way in the interceptions, but that's not what is most concerning at this point.

It's the fumbles.  Whether he's in the pocket or out running, Tannehill has to do a better job of protecting the ball.  The Ravens have two great pass rushers, who are going to be swiping at the ball every chance they get.  They know he has struggled holding on to the ball, and they will be looking to continue those problems for the second year quarterback.   Without improvement, the Dolphins could see more wins bounce away from them.

3. Will the Dolphins offensive line improve? I know it's hard to imagine, looking back on the Saints game, but the Miami offensive line was actually pretty good in the first half Monday night.  They were able to open up running lanes for Lamar Miller and they protected Tannehill fairly well.

Then the second half happened, and, with the Saints up big, the Dolphins became one dimensional, throwing on nearly every play, and the New Orleans defensive line could simply ignore the run and get after Tannehill.  That's when we saw the problems start.

Let's look at it like this.  There were two sacks in the first half of the game, and both of those were the Dolphins pulling down Drew Brees.  The second half had four sacks, all Tannehill going down.  Obviously, something changed.  And, a large part of that change was the touchdown from Darren Sproles with 55 seconds left in the first half - following Tannehill's first interception of the game.  That score changed the dynamics of the game, where, instead of being, at worst, down 14-10 at the half, the Dolphins were now trailing 21-10.  Add to that a three and out on the second half's opening drive, while New Orleans scored another touchdown on their first possession of the third quarter, and the rout had commenced.

The offensive line, which guard Richie Incognito said this week would need to be fired if they allow 72 sacks this season, which is their projected total at this point, needs to play more like the first half line.  And, they need to do it on every snap of the game - starting this week with the Ravens.

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4. The Wallace Plan. Mike Wallace is absolutely a discussion point everyone wants to have right now.  We want him more involved.  He wants to be more involved.  The team wants to get him more involved.  But, no one seems to know how to do it.

The Dolphins had one game, the second contest of the season at the Indianapolis Colts, when they were creative in finding ways to get the ball into Wallace's hand.  But, too often , they are simply sticking him out on the right edge of the field, and letting the defense take him away.  He needs to line up in different positions.  He needs to run different routes.  The Dolphins have to get creative with their number one receiver.

Wallace's presence on the field is absolutely having an impact on the game.  With him lined up outside on the right, the defense can shade a safety over the top of him, which then opens up the rest of the field for Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews, Charles Clay, Dion Sims, Michael Egnew, Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas, or Marcus Thigpen.  The team has the weapons to not have to force the ball to Wallace as he does take the top off the defense.

But, not getting the ball to a dynamic weapon like Wallace is going to hurt in the long run.  I don't care about his $60 million price tag.  That was the going rate for him, and that's what it took to sign him and bring him to Miami.  I don't write the check that pays him.  Sure, the money I spend for tickets or merchandise does help with that payment - but I would be buying those things with or without him, and the team would be paying him with or without my money.  So, however much he, or any player, on the team makes does not bother me when it comes to playing time, and receptions.  Wallace's speed and ability with the ball in his hand, however, does tell me he needs the ball.

When those passes do come his way, though, Wallace has to do a better job of catching the ball.  During Monday night's game, twice the ball hit him in the hands, only to wind up incomplete.  One was on the deep ball down the sidelines, where the defender tried to knock it down, missed, and then it went through Wallace's arms.  The second one was a little behind Wallace across the middle, but if a receiver gets both hands on the ball - not finger tips, hands - he has to catch it.

You can argue that Tannehill has to better position some of those passes, putting the ball in front of Wallace to allow him to catch the pass in stride, but that does not change the fact that a receiver's number on job is to catch the ball.  If he gets no yards after the catch, but gains 10-, 15-, 55-yards on a pass a little behind him or where he had to slow down a step or two, that's better than yet another dropped pass for an incompletion.  Tannehill and Wallace will get on the same page, eventually, but until Wallace starts catching the balls that are thrown his way, why force more balls that may or may not be caught?

Wallace will probably play a much bigger role in the offense this week.  But, how will he be used, and will it be effective?  That's the Wallace Plan question at this point.

5. What's the status of Cameron Wake? Wake has sat out nearly two entire games with a sprained MCL now.  Will his knee be ready to go on Sunday?  We probably won't know until the team releases their inactives list for the game - which is the same way we found out that Wake would not play against the Saints.  With the team having their bye week after this game, sitting Wake again, giving him two more weeks of rest, would make a lot of sense.

But, there's no denying this team's pass defense is completely different with Wake as compared to without him.  Wake disrupts offensive lines in pass protection the same way Paul Soliai destroys interior running lanes.  After a performance like Monday night against Drew Brees, the Dolphins could really use Wake's presence on the field.

Of course, I am not saying he needs to play no matter what.  If he is not ready to play, you bench him again and let that knee heal.  The Dolphins are still playing with house money at this point in the season, and it makes more sense to have a 100% healthy Wake in Weeks 8-17 than it does to have a 75% Wake the rest of the way.

Wake, however, is going to be pushing to get into this game.

"I haven't missed a game because of injury since 2001," Wake told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly after last week's game. That 2001 date takes Wake, then known as Derek, back to his days at Penn State.  "It is really tough not being out there with the guys. I feel like I can go out there and help.

"If I had one leg I'd try to go out there and run around," Wake continued. "We've got to make the best decision for the team, and at that point it was to sit me down."

Will Wake be cleared to play this week?  Will he push harder to get on the field?  Will he be effective if he is on the field?

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