The Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens are both coming off their (arguably) biggest wins of the season against two of the best teams in the NFC. The Ravens stunned Brock Purdy and the 49ers, intercepting 5 passes en route to an impressive 33-19 victory in San Francisco. The Dolphins kicked a last second game winning field goal to take down the Dallas Cowboys at home. This will be a rematch of an exciting week two game of the 2022/2023 season, but don’t expect this one to look very similar to Miami’s 42-38 victory that afternoon.
Let’s break down the keys to this game and how Miami can pull off a difficult road win against, what many see as, the best team in the NFL.
Contain Lamar Jackson
This is everybody's plan coming into a game against Lamar Jackson. He isn’t just the most dynamic athlete at the quarterback position, he might be the most dynamic athlete in the entire NFL (though some Miami Dolphins may have a claim to that). With that said, this isn’t the Greg Roman led power rushing Baltimore Ravens that we are used to from the last couple of years.
This offense runs through Lamar still, but he’s asked to do a lot more in the passing game. They also have better players at the receiver position, with the addition of (a still very capable) Odell Beckham Junior, and the emergence of young receivers Zay Flowers and Rashod Bateman. With that said, your best bet is still to contain Lamar and do your best to turn him into a pocket passer. He’ll still make plays, but he’s not nearly as dangerous as he is outside the pocket and on the move.
The goal this week needs to be to contain (not stop) Lamar Jackson. You do that by keeping him in the pocket and making tackles when you have the opportunity. Maintain rush lane discipline and get your hands up. #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/IEnQvvIdZN— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) December 29, 2023
For much of the game, the 49ers defense did a good job against Lamar. It wasn’t until their offense started giving it away on their own half of the field that the Ravens pulled away. Lamar only got loose for one long run right before half time that led to a field goal. The Raven’s touchdown drives were 53, 44, and 9 yards long, so it wasn’t like Baltimore moved it up and down the field all night.
The 49ers did a (mostly) good job of maintaining their rush lanes and keeping Lamar in the pocket. The one time he did break free it was due to a couple missed tackles in the open field. Lamar has improved as a passer in the NFL, but will still struggles to maintain accuracy in the pocket (especially when he has to take a couple extra hitches). So that has to be the game plan... do your best to turn him into a statue and hope he has a few big misses.
No Hitches Allowed
By sack totals, this is a showdown of the two best pass rush units in the NFL. The Ravens have 54 and the Dolphins have 52. What is so interesting is that neither team heavily blitzes their opponent (Dolphins at 20.4% and Ravens at 22.8%). Both of these squads want to keep two safeties back and let their dominant defensive lines win up front. The Ravens have several excellent pass rushers on the interior and at edge. Justin Madubuike. Jadaveon Clowney, our old friend Kyle Van Noy, and Odafe Oweh all have at least four sacks so far this season.
Brock Purdy (and later Sam Darnold) got in trouble against this Ravens defense when they took too many hitches/extended plays. They have ball hawks in the secondary and a fantastic pass rush (at both interior and edge). Get the ball out quickly and don't force throws. #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/TThYxnX4J7— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) December 29, 2023
You can see that Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold got into trouble when they tried to do too much or held onto the football. This Ravens pass rush is going to get home and you have to realize that for every millisecond that you hold it over the 2.5 second mark you are playing with fire. They’re strong enough in their front seven that they can keep two safeties deep and are usually in zone with their eyes on the quarterback. If you try to play hero ball, you’ll end up like the 49ers with five interceptions.
This means getting the ball out quickly and being very careful to pick your shots. Screens & the running game should factor heavily into this game. For Tua, that means playing exactly like he has the previous two weeks (against two of the best pass rush units in the league). Be patient and avoid the game changing mistakes. They can win this game if they turn it into a defensive struggle, but their pass protection could struggle if this thing turns into a shoot-out.
Injuries to Watch
Both teams are dealing with some key injuries going into this game. Kyle Hamilton, Zay Flowers, and Kevin Zeitler are the biggest for this Ravens team. Hamilton has been used as a third safety (almost like a sub linebacker/slot) and they love getting his length and athleticism near the line of scrimmage. He has dominated in that role and gives the Ravens the versatility to use different packages with the same personnel on the field.
Zay Flowers has become Lamar Jackson’s favorite target and their most dynamic weapon on offense (outside of Lamar). He’s taken to the NFL exceptionally well and his short area quickness/speed gives that receiving corp a true gamebreaker that they’ve missed since the trade of Marquise Brown (I think he’s a better player than Brown if I’m being honest). Zeitler has been one of the most consistent players at the guard position through his career and they’ll need him against this strong Miami front. All three are worth monitoring and will drastically change what this Ravens team can do.
This feels like a very evenly matched game going into it. Makes sense that the Ravens are favored at home, but this is a game that could go either way. For the Dolphins to win, they’ll need to get the ball out of Tua’s hands quickly and remain patient on offense. Keeping Lamar inside the pocket (as much as possible) will go a long way towards limiting their explosive plays. A win here for the Dolphins will clinch the AFC East and put them in the drivers seat for the #1 seed. I know they aren’t going to picked by many people, but I think they’ll find a way to win. Expect another lower scoring, hard fought game... and for the Dolphins to pull out an improbable 24-21 road victory over a fantastic Baltimore Ravens team.