The Miami Dolphins (7-5) will be taking on the Baltimore Ravens (7-5) in what is essentially a playoff game to see who will get to play a playoff game. The winner of this game will be on track to land the AFC's sixth playoff berth while the loser will be virtually eliminated from playoff contention.
Here are six things to watch for (well, technically eight) in the most pivotal and important game of the Dolphins 2014 season.
1. Physical game
By physical game, I mean a physical game by the Ravens with the Dolphins trying to match it. The Ravens physically beat up the Dolphins in the past three meetings between these two teams. Coincidentally, the Ravens won all three of those games.
The Dolphins ran for only 22 yards on 11 carries when these two teams met last season. The Dolphins' disastrous 2013 offensive line allowed Ryan Tannehill to be sacked six times.
The Dolphins offensive line has been rebuilt since then but has been subject to shuffling due to various injuries. Even so, Miami's offensive line has performed phenomenally in the run game and admirably in pass protection.
Still, the Ravens possess the fourth ranked defense against the run and will be looking to dominate in the trenches at Sun Life Stadium as they have in three straight meeting between these two teams.
2. Ravens rushing attack
THE DOLPHINS MUST BREAK THEIR TWO-GAME STREAK OF ALLOWING OVER 200 RUSHING YARDS ON DEFENSE. First and foremost. That is where this game starts defensively for the Dolphins. But, the Dolphins will need to stop the Ravens' fifth ranked rushing attack without committing extra defenders to play the run. That is the key of the game.
If the Dolphins cannot stop the Ravens running game they will be forced to deal with...
3. Ravens deep passing game
This has all the makeup of a game that features a secondary break down and allows at least one deep ball to be completed.
The Ravens have an excellent offensive line that can and has controlled opposing defensive lines this year. The Ravens have rushed for less than 90 yards in a game only once this season and have five games of over 150 yards.
The Ravens deep passing attack becomes a real issue if the Dolphins fail to stop the run without stacking the box.
If the Dolphins are forced to load the box with eight defenders and leave the backside vulnerable, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will take shots to receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. Flacco, one of the best deep passers in the league, will likely complete a few of these shots if the Dolphins have only three defenders in coverage.
To add to the worry, the Dolphins are thin at cornerback. Miami will likely give RJ Stanford his first career start due to a lingering ankle injury suffered by Cortland Finnegan.
Stanford didn't start last week (Jimmy Wilson did), but Stanford played a good chunk of the game. Stanford covered New York Jets receiver Eric Decker well, but it must be taken with a grain of salt considering the Jets' quarterback and offensive gameplan (run, run, and run some more). The potential to be pick on Stanford is there, especially if left on an island. We'll see Sunday if the Ravens decide to do so.
4. Rollouts, screens and draws from Dolphins offense
The Dolphins need to take advantage of an aggressive Ravens' front seven and hit the team with a few well-timed screens and draws. The Ravens have a very good defensive front, so if the Dolphins were able to catch that defense on a blitz, in the backfield, and slip something overtop of that front seven, then the result could be a a huge gain downfield.
The Dolphins also need to rollout Ryan Tannehill to get him on the move and away from the Ravens pass rush. It's odd that we don't see more rollouts considering Tannehill is excellent at throwing on the move and would already have a head start to take off if he didn't like what he saw in downfield. Perhaps it's an issue with pass protection, but if the Ravens are playing aggressively on running plays then rollouts should be utilized.
If the Ravens play aggressively, make them pay for it with hesitation and misdirection, just as teams have done to Miami's aggressive defensive in the past few games.
5. Key trench matchups
-Ja'Wuan James vs Terrell Suggs
Suggs, despite being 32 years old, is one of the Ravens most energetic, talented and forceful defenders. Suggs accounted for half of the sacks Miami allowed to the Ravens last season.
Suggs has potential to repeat those results against the Dolphins inexperienced rookie left tackle Ja'Wuan James. Though James has proven to be well worth the 19th overall pick he was drafted with in May, he will be faced with yet another trying tribulation this Sunday when he faces Suggs.
-Dallas Thomas vs Elvis Dumervil
On the opposite side of the line from James vs. Suggs, we have Thomas against Dumervil. Dumervil is back to his Denver Bronco form this year. Dumervil is tied for second in the NFL with 12 sacks this season and will be going up against the inconsistent Dallas Thomas.
Dumervil, as a smaller player, plays with a great amount of leverage, explosiveness and technique. Thomas has notoriously bad hand placement and technique, which often leads to him getting beat bad. We will likely see that happen more that once against Dumervil.
Ryan Tannehill will need to be ready to use his legs and newly found escapability to their fullest extent Sunday.
-Randy Starks vs Marshal Yanda
Starks is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL but has been having a bit of an off season. Yanda is a beast of an offensive lineman and has been playing like it this season.
These two will face each other head to head this Sunday in a heavyweight clash, Yanda from his right guard spot and Starks from his 3-technique defensive tackle spot. This matchup will be huge and play a large part in determining the outcome of the game. Whoever wins this matchup on any given play will more than likely propel a positive play for their team.
Starks needs to win to be able to clog running lanes. set the tone and force the Ravens into unfavorable down and distance situations.
6. Bend, don't break on defense; score on offense
The Dolphins need to be able to stop the Ravens from scoring touchdowns when they get inside the Dolphins' 20-yard line. The Ravens convert 52% of their redzone opportunities into touchdowns, ranked 21st in the NFL. Keeping the extra four points off the board by forcing field goal attempts instead of touchdowns is monumental in this game.
On the other hand, the Dolphins must punch the ball into the endzone when the have the chance. Miami has converted 50% of it's redzone opportunities in 2014, but the team has been trending upward recently, converting nearly 62% of it's redzone tries in the past three games.
The Dolphins cannot settle for, and must force, field goals in what will be a grueling grind of a game.
- I am officially lobbying for the Dolphins to put an end to the rotation of the left guards and insert Shelley Smith as the full-time starter. Smith is clearly a better run blocker than Darryn Colledge, and Colledge may be just as much of a liability in pass protection as Smith.
In fact, most of Smith's pass protection blunders come as a result of being oversized and overmatched in one-on-one situations. But at left guard, Smith would receive center help in pass blocking situations on nearly every non-blitzing play.
- Tannehill had one of his finest moments of the season last year against the Ravens. On fourth and 10, Tannehill was pressured (again) and was barely able to escape out to his left. Tannehill looked downfield, and while still moving at full speed to his left, delivered a strike 46 yards down the field to a diving Brandon Gibson (pictured below) to eventually set up a game-tying field goal attempt, which was missed.
Though this moment didn't end in glory, it was a great play and a huge step in Tannehill's development as it was the first time he really showed this desperation playmaking ability at the end of a game.
I believe Tannehill will have another big moment of that nature in this Sunday's game against the Ravens.