It used to not even matter all that much. Teams would stack eight defenders in the box and the Baltimore Ravens would still find a way to run the ball successfully. When you set team and NFL records in 2019 and lead the league again in rushing in 2020, it’s not like you’re taking anybody by surprise. You’re succeeding in running the football against defenses designed to stop it.
Even in 2021, when significant late-summer injuries robbed the Ravens of their talented duo of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, along with reserve back Justice Hill, the team still finished the season third in the NFL in rushing yards per game (145.8) and fifth in yards per carry (4.8). That was despite relying on four different backs (Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray, Ty’Son Williams and Le’Veon Bell), none of whom are currently on an NFL 53-man roster.
Dobbins and Edwards still aren’t back in the lineup, although the hope is that Dobbins will return very soon, if not Sunday against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. “We’ll see,” Dobbins said Friday, flashing a wide smile when asked if he was planning to play.
However, with or without Dobbins, the Ravens believe they have enough juice in the backfield with Kenyan Drake, Mike Davis and Hill to run the ball successfully. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is healthy again and he’s the player most responsible for making the run game dangerous. The offseason additions of rookie center Tyler Linderbaum and veteran right tackle Morgan Moses solidified the offensive line.
Yet, in the Week 1 victory over the New York Jets, the Ravens had just 11 rushing yards at halftime and 63 for the game on 21 carries. It was the team’s worst rushing performance in a game started by Jackson over the last four seasons. Only the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams rushed for fewer yards than the Ravens last week.
“I would describe (the running game) as very choppy,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “We were rusty in some things — it was a guy here, one thing here, one thing there. So, it’s obviously something we’re attacking and trying to improve. We really didn’t show a whole lot once that game opened up a little bit, and we built a different lead. We had some success throwing the ball down the field, based on the looks we were getting, so that was really positive. But as far as the running game goes, we want to be more efficient. We will be.”
The Ravens attributed many of their offensive flaws in the Jets game to the fact that the majority of their starters, including Jackson and most of their offensive line, didn’t play in the preseason. They believe that the more comfortable the offensive line gets in playing together and the more Jackson settles in, the better the running game will look. There probably aren’t going to be too many games where Jackson has just six total rushes and only two designed runs.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh also praised the Jets’ strategy of loading the box and getting their defensive front to play upfield. What makes that notable is the Dolphins had a similar plan when they met the Ravens last November. They were able to hold Baltimore to 94 rushing yards on 23 attempts. So, the Ravens will almost surely have to run against some stacked boxes Sunday.
“We didn’t do a great job of executing in some of our combination blocks like we want, and we can do better,” Harbaugh said when assessing the run-game performance against the Jets. “From a game plan standpoint, we can do better, and from a blocking and execution standpoint, we can do better. I also think that we had a plan kind of to keep control of the game early, so we didn’t over-scheme it too much. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t have too many negative plays, because that’s a team that led the league … last year in negative runs against them.”
For all the talk about how the Ravens will handle the Dolphins’ blitz-heavy defensive scheme, a strong case could be made that their ability to run the ball might be the most important factor in the game. If the Ravens are able to run on early downs, they’ll stay out of the third-and-longs where the Dolphins can release their creative pressure packages. Running the ball will also allow them to control the clock and prevent a banged-up cornerback group from being on the field for too many plays.
“We’ve got to work through it, work at it. But really, it wasn’t like a massive problem. It was one thing that broke the play down,” Roman said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I feel really good about the guys getting it done.”
There would be no better time than Sunday.
During game weeks, we’ll take a look at some of the big storylines, key matchups, primary questions and roster decisions that the Ravens face heading into their contest.
Now for this week’s first-and-10:
1. Jackson heard all week about how much the blitz-happy Dolphins frustrated him in last season’s 22-10 loss and insisted the Ravens will have an answer for a similar defensive game plan. Lost amid all the talk about blitzing is that the Dolphins tried to confuse Jackson even more than they tried to pressure him. Miami often showed Cover Zero looks and dropped one or two guys back into passing lanes. Sports Info Solutions only credited the Dolphins with six Cover Zero blitzes in which they brought six guys or more, compared to 17 instances where they rushed with five and 27 where they rushed with four. It’s no secret that Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer likes to bring pressure. The Dolphins had the second-highest blitz percentage in the league last year. However, they also like quarterbacks thinking they are going to blitz. That’s Jackson’s challenge Sunday: to not let the Dolphins’ aggressive approach get in his head and not force throws because he’s worried about pressure. The Dolphins’ defensive coaches know that their Raven offensive counterparts are going to be better prepared for what was so successful last year. That’s why Miami will have some alterations to its game plan and Jackson is going to have to be prepared for everything.
2. This is certainly a big game for Roman, too. When Jackson acknowledged that the team was caught “off guard” by the Dolphins’ game plan last year, that didn’t reflect well on Roman and the offensive staff. Roman needs to make sure that the Ravens are the aggressors Sunday rather than having Miami’s defense dictate the play. Another game where the offense looks overwhelmed and confused would only heighten the criticism of the team’s fourth-year offensive coordinator. Not only will the Ravens’ response to the blitz and the adjustments they make be highly scrutinized, but also how quickly Baltimore gets in and out of the huddle and gets plays off. That was an issue last week. The last thing Roman, Jackson and the Ravens need Sunday is repeatedly rushing to get snaps off against a creative, attacking defense.
3. Linderbaum had an uneven NFL debut, showing an ability to get to the second level in the run game while struggling at times to fend off the Jets’ explosive 6-foot-3, 303-pound defensive tackle, Quinnen Williams. Linderbaum pretty much played to his pre-draft scouting report, which praised his athleticism, intelligence and potential as a run blocker, but questioned whether his below-average size would make it challenging for him to match up against the bigger, more powerful defensive linemen. Things won’t get any easier this week. The Dolphins are loaded with big and talented interior D-linemen. Christian Wilkins is 6-foot-4, 310 pounds. Zach Sieler is 6-foot-6, 305 pounds. Starting nose tackle Raekwon Davis is 6-foot-7, 330 pounds and reserve John Jenkins is 6-foot-3, 335 pounds. From quarterbacking the offensive line against a blitz-happy defense to dealing with several big and athletic defensive linemen, Linderbaum will be tested this week.
4. In 17 games last year, the Ravens got 5 ½ total sacks from interior defensive linemen. In the Week 1 win over the Jets, Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike combined for 1 ½ sacks, and Madubuike and Broderick Washington had one full sack each taken away by a penalty in the secondary. The Ravens are excited about their interior defensive line corps, which was dominant against New York. This is another week where that group needs to lead the way. Miami’s offensive line struggled last week against the New England Patriots and starting right tackle Austin Jackson is out. One of the matchups that appear to be in the Ravens’ favor, at least on paper, is their defensive front against the Dolphins’ offensive line. The Ravens will need to force Tua Tagovailoa to rush some throws and get their hands on a few footballs.
5. This isn’t a good week to be banged up at cornerback, not with one of the NFL’s best receiving duos in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle coming to town. But that’s exactly the situation the Ravens find themselves in. They lost Kyle Fuller, who was on track to play every snap before tearing his ACL late in last Sunday’s victory over the Jets. Brandon Stephens, who was expected to step into Fuller’s No. 3 cornerback role, sustained a quadriceps injury in Wednesday’s practice and was not on the field the rest of the week. Top cornerback Marlon Humphrey tweaked his groin in Thursday’s practice and didn’t practice Friday. Marcus Peters has a chance to play in his first game since the team lost to Buffalo in the playoffs during the 2020 season, but it would be a lot to ask upon his return to chase around two of the league’s fastest receivers all afternoon. The only two Ravens corners to practice fully all week were rookie fourth-round picks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams. It feels inevitable that the Ravens will use practice squad elevations on one or two corners this week, and they have Ar’Darius Washington, Daryl Worley and T.J. Carrie to choose from.
6. The Ravens faced Tyreek Hill three different times when he was on the Kansas City Chiefs and got mixed results. In 2018, he caught eight passes for 139 yards against Baltimore. In 2020, he had five receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens held him to just three catches for 14 yards in a victory last year. It will be interesting to see how first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald approaches defending Hill. In the past, ex-Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale would often have the team’s No. 2 or 3 corner match up with Hill and then commit a safety to help. That would leave Humphrey or Peters in a one-on-one situation on the other side. Last year, Anthony Averett saw a lot of Hill and received safety help. The presence of Waddle, who had 104 catches for 1,015 receiving yards last year and caught a touchdown in Week 1, and the health of the Ravens’ cornerbacks obviously complicates the decision-making.
7. Tagovailoa likes to get the ball out quickly to give his guys an opportunity to rack up yards after the catch, and he has plenty of dynamic athletes to target. Even beyond the receivers, Miami’s top two running backs, Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, are big-play threats out of the backfield. The Ravens spent a good part of the week emphasizing tackling and taking proper angles to the ball. They were credited with only five missed tackles against the Jets, which is a pretty decent showing considering it was Week 1 and the defense was on the field for 84 plays. Tackling will again have to be on point Sunday, particularly on the back end. The Ravens can’t allow Tagovailoa to just dink and dunk down the field and have short passes turn into big plays.
8. The two that got away: Sieler, a seventh-round selection by the Ravens in 2018 out of Ferris State, was Ozzie Newsome’s final draft pick as a general manager. The Ravens, though, waived him twice. Sieler cleared waivers and returned to the team’s practice squad the first time. The second time came in early December 2019 when the Ravens jettisoned Sieler to make room for veteran center Hroniss Grasu, who was needed after starting center Matt Skura went down with a season-ending injury. The Dolphins claimed Sieler and he’s become a key member of their defensive line rotation. Mostert was cut by the Ravens in December 2015 as they wanted to get a better look at running back Terrence Magee. He was claimed on waivers by the Cleveland Browns. He’s been on five different teams since he departed Baltimore, but when he’s been healthy, Mostert has been a legitimate home run hitter from the backfield.
9. There aren’t a whole lot of secrets in the NFL, but if the Ravens had any questions about the Dolphins’ defensive approach, they didn’t need to go far to get an answer. First-year Ravens outside linebackers coach Rob Leonard was with Miami for the previous three seasons. He coached the Dolphins’ linebackers in 2019, worked with the defensive linemen in 2020 and then coached the outside linebackers in 2021. Nearly the entire Dolphins defense returned from last year, so Leonard has plenty of familiarity with their personnel.
10. The Ravens promoted outside linebacker Steven Means from the practice squad Wednesday, but they entered the weekend with one open spot on the 53-man roster along with the two available practice squad elevations. With health issues at cornerback, one or two of the openings could be earmarked for that position. However, the Ravens might need reinforcements in other areas. If fullback Patrick Ricard can’t play through a calf injury, could Ben Mason get the call? Are the Ravens comfortable enough with rookie Daniel Faalele as the swing tackle or do they also want David Sharpe available and active? Do the Ravens feel like they need Kyler Fackrell as the fourth outside linebacker? Would one of the three practice squad wide receivers (Makai Polk, Binjimen Victor or Raleigh Webb) get an opportunity because James Proche (groin) isn’t going to play? The Ravens have a lot of roster questions to sort through before 4 p.m. ET Saturday.
• With two receptions Sunday, Rashod Bateman would become the fastest player in Ravens history to reach 50 career catches.
• Kicker Justin Tucker has made 58 consecutive field goal attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime.
• With Ja’Wuan James out for the season and Ronnie Stanley still sidelined, Patrick Mekari is in line to make his first career start at left tackle after already starting games at center, right tackle and right guard.
• Ravens rookie third-round defensive tackle Travis Jones, who missed the opener with a knee injury, returned to practice this week and could make his NFL debut against Miami.
• Interesting statistic from ProFootballTalk: Tagovailoa is 7-1 in starts against Super Bowl-winning coaches, with victories over Bill Belichick (four), Jon Gruden (two) and Sean Payton (one). The one loss was to Andy Reid’s Chiefs.
• The Ravens have won four of five all-time matchups against the Dolphins in Baltimore.
• Baltimore has won six straight home openers, outscoring its opponents 181-78 in those games.
• The Ravens will have a pregame ceremony Sunday to honor former players Tony Siragusa and Jaylon Ferguson, both of whom died in June.
• It’s expected to be a hot one Sunday, with temperatures potentially reaching 90 degrees.
Dolphins 23, Ravens 20
I’m not sure which aspect of Sunday’s matchup is more daunting for the Ravens: having to deal with the Dolphins’ speedy and talented offensive skill position players with a banged-up secondary, or facing an aggressive and well-coached defense with an offensive line that’s still trying to find its footing. This just isn’t a great matchup for the Ravens, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Dolphins have talent on all three levels of their defense and have quietly been playing really good defense since about the midpoint of last year. Over their last 10 games dating back to last season, the Dolphins, who returned just about everybody defensively, have held the opposition under 20 points seven times. There’s no reason to think that the defense won’t be able to keep the Ravens in the game and the team should get a huge lift from the home crowd. Yet, it just feels like there is a lot for the Ravens to overcome here.