BALTIMORE RAVENS 27 MIAMI DOLPHINS 9
January 4, 2008
The experts got this one right. Going into this game it was difficult to find anyone outside of South Florida who expected the Dolphins to beat the Wild Card Ravens. And so, when it was over, the favored Ravens had met every expectation and easily took care of business in Miami, beating the Dolphins 27-9 to advance to a second round playoff match-up against the AFC’s top team in the Tennessee Titans.
How the Ravens won was a bit of the expected, and a bit of a surprise. A strong defensive showing by the Ed Reed-led Ravens defense was certainly no shock. What was difficult to predict, however, was a 5-to-1 turnover margin that favored the Ravens. After all, in the regular season the Dolphins had tied an NFL record with just 13 turnovers surrendered, including a Terrell Suggs interception in Week Seven. A methodical, finesse-oriented Dolphins offense was again matching up against a physically brutal, risk-loving Ravens defense that led the league in takeaways and defensive scoring.
In the end, the physical nature of the Ravens defense would plunder the Dolphins’ schemes and steal the game out from under them. The Ravens defensive front battered Chad Pennington and forced him to uncharacteristically put the football up for grab. And the Ravens secondary took full advantage of it.
What is becoming characteristic of the Ravens offense is a complimentary physical style of play that also seemed to shock the Dolphins. Le’Ron McClain set the tone on the very first play, bouncing it outside and then running over tacklers in the secondary. The Ravens were driving easily on Miami on the opening series. That’s when McClain, as he has done too often in recent games, put the ball on the ground. With the Dolphins converting the turnover to three early points, and with their reputation for protecting the football, it was easy to be concerned by the early shift in momentum.
But the Ravens defense absolutely dominated the second quarter action, as they had the week prior against Jacksonville, and the game was practically won by the half, with the Ravens leading by ten and the Dolphins searching for answers in their locker room.
Clearly, any hope on the Dolphins part that they were vastly improved was dwarfed by the improvement and balance the Ravens had found.
On the day John Harbaugh was introduced as the Ravens head coach, owner Steve Bisciotti talked about basing his decision on gut instincts. He spoke of taking chances and pointed to the success he achieved in business when he hired people with thin resumes and desire to prove themselves.
After today, John Harbaugh padded his resume considerably, and repaid Mr. Bisciotti’s instincts handsomely. Harbaugh also proved that he meant exactly what he said as he stepped to the microphone at his introduction a year ago and spoke of team, team, and team. However you grade the individual performances, this was a playoff win that met Coach Harbaugh’s expectation of a total team effort.
Joe Flacco was merely a bit player in this Ravens win. But he didn’t do anything to hurt his team’s chances, either. The same of which could not be said about his Dolphins counterpart, MVP-runner-up Chad Pennington. His line gave Flacco outstanding protection. When he didn’t find open receivers Joe did a nice job of moving in and outside of the pocket to buy time, where he was able to make completions or throw the ball away. Not only did he avoid interceptions but he also was not sacked. His best throws were rifled balls to Derrick Mason just beyond the sticks for first downs. He was just 9 of 23 for 135 yards on the day, but five of the completions were third down conversions. He was less effective on longer throws and missed open receivers throughout the game. His lone bad decision on the day was a throw into double coverage that he was lucky to see fall to the ground. He also misfired on a swing pass to Le’Ron McClain. When he didn’t like the coverage in the red zone he was not shy to call his own number on a quarterback draw for the final touchdown.
Running Backs: A-
Le’Ron McClain played faster and harder than any of the Dolphins’ defenders. His most impressive run was the eight-yard touchdown run with extremely low pads and good balance. A significant portion of his 75 yards rushing on 19 carries can be credited to determination and second effort. His lone blemish was a fumble (recovered by Joey Porter) that led to Miami’s opening field goal. Willis McGahee continued to run hard on limited opportunities, including a 48 yard run that broke the back of the Dolphins. He did not show a sprinter’s top end speed but was effective with the ball when given the chance.
Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason were open more often than Joe Flacco was able to get them the ball. They totaled just six catches and 86 yards on the day. But they did contribute clutch catches to move the chains or to get the offense inside the five. Todd Heap had just one catch but it was a big, 31-yard gainer.
It was a quiet day for the Ravens tackles, but that turned out to be a good thing. Jared Gaither completely neutralized Joey Porter on the day although he did flinch once and was slapped with a false start penalty, negating a favorable second down situation. Willie Anderson was solid in pass protection as well. The Ravens used limited three tackle sets with Adam Terry, but tended to run up the middle or away from the strong side.
Interior Line: A-
The Dolphins used a four-man pass rush for much of the game, and the Ravens interior line was impenetrable. Ben Grubbs was getting a lot of push down the line on running calls. He was a step late pulling to meet Porter, who stopped a goal line rushing attempt. He also was whistled for a false start. Chris Chester and Jason Brown both controlled the line of scrimmage. Chester and Brown teamed up for a nice block on Flacco’s touchdown run.
Fabian Washington struggled a bit with his tackling. And he grabbed and held Ted Ginn, Jr. to prevent a significant gain in the fourth quarter. But he also accounted for one of the five turnovers with his interception of Pennington. Samari Rolle had an excellent game. He also was impressive in run support. Corey Ivy gambled to attempt an interception and his miss allowed a short pass to Devone Bess to go for a 45 yard gainer.
Shaking off a couple of missed tackles early, Jim Leonhard ended up being a big contributor on defense. Playing close to the line of scrimmage, Leonhard was in on a number of tackles on running plays (seven total tackles). He also grabbed an interception to give the Ravens possession at midfield. Never to be outdone, Defensive Player of The Year candidate Ed Reed picked off Chad Pennington twice, scoring once. Reed also made a hard tackle to alleviate concerns about his early-season neck injury. Jim Leonhard teamed with Haruki Nakamura for a sack of Pennington late in the game.
The Dolphins were most effective beating the Ravens linebackers with completions to backs in the flat. Bart Scott failed to pick up Patrick Cobbs out of backfield, and it resulted in a thirty yard gain. Ronnie Brown also picked up 23 on a catch and beat Terrell Suggs in coverage for a touchdown. Otherwise, the linebackers did an excellent job penetrating into the backfield to force hurried throws from Pennington or to stuff runs. Most of their success was straight up the middle, blowing up the Dolphins vaunted Wild Cat formation. Bart Scott was delivering heavy blows. Ray Lewis put a big hit on Ricky Williams at the sideline. Ray finished with a team-high nine tackles. Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson contained the edges effectively against the run. Suggs also tallied a sack.
Defensive Line: A
Justin Bannan was very effective against the run, taking up space laterally and penetrating into the backfield. He was drawn offsides by a hard count when the Ravens had the Dolphins pinned deep. Marques Douglas ended a dominant second quarter for the Ravens defense by splitting a double team block by tackle Jake Long and guard Andy Alleman to nearly take the handoff from Pennington. Douglas also stripped a fumble away, recovered by Suggs. It was interesting to see Haloti Ngata literally upend Ricky Williams on one rushing play and then drop back into the middle linebacker spot on the next to showcase his versatility. On Reed’s touchdown return, Ngata turned blocker and pancaked an unsuspecting Ted Ginn, Jr. with a devastating hit that his teammates will be begging to see multiple times on film on Tuesday. Trevor Pryce stepped up his play for the playoffs, bull rushing Vernon Carey to pressure Pennington and reaching him for one sack. Edgar Jones, who had a catch last week as a tight end, appeared as a defensive end on one series. Brandon McKinney was beaten by Carey to allow a ten-yard run near the goalline.
Special Teams: A-
After fumbling, Le’Ron McClain was able to return a short kick-off to Ravens 36, which helped set up the offense to even the score. The punt-return and punt-coverage units played effectively. Sam Koch continued to be a weapon on punts, including one rugby-style kick he planted on the one-yard line, to allow Darren Stone to keep in keep in the field of play. Steve Hauschka had four kick offs deep into the Dolphins end zone, three for touchbacks. Reliable Matt Stover connected on field goals of 31 and 23 yards. Frank Walker blocked an extra point try, although he may have been offsides, but it was not called. He was later penalized for a hit out of bounds on kick coverage.
Rex Ryan had an excellent game plan to pressure Pennington and force turnovers. His emphasis on scoring when the ball is taken away continues to pay dividends. The call of the day for Rex was an exotic blitz, flooding the left side of the Dolphins line to blow-up an end around call and cause a fumble that knocked the Dolphins out of field goal range. Cam Cameron called an effective game as well. That including keeping the pressure on the Dolphins when the Ravens already had the lead by calling for a couple deep passes to Mark Clayton with the Dolphins in one-on-one coverage on the corners. John Harbaugh once again had his team looking like the better-prepared unit, coming out hard after the opening kick.
Phil Simms provides excellent insights and honest assessments. Jim Nance is more of an empty suit, with little feel for the game. He tends to avoid controversial comments and glosses over the details of the game. As with most playoff games, the network spent an inordinate amount of time promoting their own television line-up.
The Ravens will have a short week to prepare for a Saturday game against the Titans, who are coming off their bye-week rest. Time will tell whether that will make the Titans fresh or rusty, as the Ravens will try to do what the Dolphins could not do: avenge a regular season loss in the playoffs. The Titans should prove to be a more physical version of the Dolphins and a better defense, but fairly similar otherwise in their style of play. Regardless, Coach Harbaugh should have his team prepared and thinking of nothing but, well you guessed it…team, team and team.