Once again the secondary let down the Baltimore Ravens.
Sure, the penalties didn’t help (especially the normally reliable Elvis Dumervil continually lining up in the neutral zone), but Phillip Rivers and the San Diego offense had their way with the Ravens defensive backs in last weeks disheartening defeat at home. There were other reasons for the loss, but the secondary has been and will remain public enemy number one for 2014.
Things don’t get any better this weekend, as the Ravens are heading down to Miami to face a dynamic Dolphins offense led by emerging quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a collection of talented yet underrated receivers.
The doom and gloom has been present all week, but things got even murkier for the Ravens on Thursday morning when it was revealed that nose tackle Haloti Ngata had been suspended for the remainder of the season after testing positive for and admitting to taking Adderall.
Ngata’s loss weakens a stout front seven that needs to dominate for the Ravens to have any shot at winning a game, let alone making a run to the playoffs. Rookie defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and second year nose tackle Brandon Williams will be the initial beneficiaries of Ngata’s absence. While I’m excited to see both players get well-deserved additional playing time, to see it happen due to these circumstances is not how anyone would have wanted it to go down.
Make no mistake, Baltimore has very little margin for error. A loss to Miami would severely hamper any chances of the Ravens securing one of the AFC Wild Card spots and virtually eliminate them from the AFC North division title.
It’s all going to come down to the secondary and the players in the backend of the defense are well aware that the spotlight is on them.
“We have to be a stronghold on this team,” starting cornerback Lardarius Webb told reporters earlier this week. “If we get our stuff together in the backend, then we’ll be a hell of a defense.”
“My guys, we’re ready,” Webb continued. “We know what happened last week. Yeah, it hurts us. It hurt us to death. But hey, we have to come back. We’re ready to play. We are going to be there for our defense.”
With all due respect to Webb, I’m scared to see what things would look like if this current secondary wasn’t “ready to play” or if they weren’t “there for their defense.”
Women and children would have to avert their eyes. Hopefully this won’t be the week, as the Dolphins present a real challenge for the Ravens defense as a whole.
The key to stopping the Miami offense will be forcing their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, into making mistakes. While certainly not impossible, mistakes from Tannehill have become fewer and farther between as 2014 has rolled along.
Tannehill, in his third year out of Texas A&M, is finally emerging as the player Miami hoped they were getting when they drafted him in the first round and eighth overall in 2012. Tannehill is on pace to throw for the most TDs of his career, while also improving his completion percentage (66.5) and quarterback rating (92.1).
The Miami QB is also turning the ball over less in ’14 with only 9 interceptions (down from a high of 17 in ’13) and only 4 fumbles (down from 9 each in both ’12 and ’13).
The scariest thing about Tannehill may be his mobility. We’ll probably hear more than once on Sunday about how Tannehill played wide receiver at Texas A&M, didn’t get to play quarterback full-time until his senior year, and that he can flat-out run. He is currently averaging 6.4 yards per rush; has 48-yard, 40-yard, and 31-yard runs on his career resume; and will set a new single-season career high in rushing yards at year’s end with a figure that should push close to or over 400 yards.
Tannehill has the ability to both throw in the pocket and make things scary when the pocket breaks down. Now I’m not trying to anoint Tannehill as the second coming of Steve Young, but he’s dangerous and should not be taken lightly.
Supporting Tannehill in the passing game is an underrated corp of receivers headlined by former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Wallace. Wallace has proven to be overpriced as a number one guy, but he always came to play against the Ravens as a Steeler and I would expect the same on Sunday. Wallace knows how to get open when the pocket breaks down and his breakaway speed will certainly give whoever is covering him fits throughout the game.
In addition to Wallace, Miami has two other wideouts who have made their fair share of contributions in 2014: Jarvis Landry and Brian Hartline. While Hartline plays the role of possession receiver and chain mover, Landry, a rookie out of LSU drafted in the 2nd round, has proven to be a steal for the Dolphins. Working mostly out of the slot, Landry currently leads the team in receptions and is second in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
What this boils down to is another long day for the Ravens’ defensive backs. The speed and ability of the Dolphin receivers as a group is one of the strongest Baltimore has faced this season and I haven’t even discussed tight ends Dion Sims or Charles Clay.
For the Ravens to leave the land of beaches, nightlife, and Cuban sandwiches with a win, the offense will have to carry the day. Fans have to cross their fingers that Webb’s comments about the secondary being “ready to play” aren’t just empty words.