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The Ravens face a tough road challenge to avoid falling below the .500 mark for the first time since the 2008 season when they take on the 3-1 Miami Dolphins Sunday afternoon.
Much discussion this week centered around the surprising acquisition of Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe for two draft picks, but it’s difficult to argue with general manager Ozzie Newsome’s desire to shake up an offensive line behind which the Ravens are averaging only 2.6 yards per carry. It remains unclear how big of a role Monroe could serve against the Dolphins after just two days of practice and little time to absorb the Baltimore playbook.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins are overcoming a humbling 38-17 defeat at the hands of undefeated New Orleans on Monday night, but Miami’s front seven will pose a challenge to an offensive line struggling to open running lanes and to hold up consistently in pass protection.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for the ninth time in regular-season history with the Dolphins holding a 5-3 edge. However, Baltimore is 2-0 in postseason meetings with both games being played in Miami. The Ravens are 1-4 in the regular season at Sun Life Stadium after winning the last regular-season game played in Miami in 2008 and also won the last overall meeting between these teams, a 26-10 final at M&T Bank Stadium in 2010.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens continue to look for their first road win of the season …
1. Bryant McKinnie will receive the start at left tackle, but Monroe will factor into the game in some capacity. Coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens would love Monroe to be ready to play against a talented front that could include the returning Cameron Wake at defensive end, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine the fifth-year tackle being comfortable enough to play. The Ravens are in a tough spot weighing whether to play an understandably-disenchanted McKinnie, who knows he will be losing his job sooner rather than later, or an underprepared Monroe. My guess is McKinnie receives the nod, but Monroe will be active to serve as a tackle-eligible blocker in the jumbo package — blocking tight end Billy Bajema was also released earlier this week — and could spell McKinnie if his performance isn’t up to par against the Dolphins.
2. Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace will test the Ravens secondary deep and catch a long touchdown pass. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is questionable for Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury but is expected to play, so Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman should test the Ravens’ top defensive back early and often. Miami has been criticized for being too conservative in its offensive approach with a young quarterback this season, but the Dolphins will be aggressive at home as Wallace catches a long touchdown. Wallace is only averaging 4.4 receptions and 60.9 receiving yards per game in seven regular-season contests against the Ravens, but his speed will burn what’s been a vulnerable secondary for the second touchdown of his Dolphins career.
3. Running back Ray Rice will crack 100 total yards in a game for the first time this season. The Ravens’ rushing game has been so bad that it’s unlikely to expect much success against the league’s 10th-ranked run defense, but offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell should have been paying attention to the way Saints running back Darren Sproles exploited the Miami pass defense for 114 receiving yards and a touchdown last Monday. Rice isn’t a carbon copy of the speedy Sproles, but the Ravens must find ways to get him the football in open space as a receiver if the running game continues to be such a non-factor. The Ravens will feature a stronger commitment to the running game — you can’t get much worse than last week’s nine attempts — but Rice will be rediscovered by quarterback Joe Flacco in the passing game, giving Dolphins linebackers problems and Rice his first productive game of the season.
4. Linebacker Terrell Suggs will continue his early-season sack streak with 1 1/2, which will include a forced fumble against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The key to crippling a Dolphins offense that has some talent at the skill positions is to pressure the second-year signal caller, who hasn’t handled the heat very well this season. Tannehill has been sacked 18 times and has fumbled six times this season, losing three of them. The strength of the Baltimore defense is its front seven that has collected 13 sacks in four games to help what’s been an inconsistent secondary. With the Ravens struggling so much offensively, they would benefit greatly from a takeaway or two by the defense to set them up on a short field. Suggs is off to a great start in 2013 and continues his streak of having a sack in each game with a strip of Tannehill to set the Ravens up deep in Miami territory.
5. In a game that looks like a coin flip, quarterback Joe Flacco and the defense bounce back in a 21-20 Ravens win. There’s not a lot to like about the Ravens playing away from M&T Bank Stadium right now, but Flacco will not allow a five-interception performance in Buffalo last week to affect him. The potential availability of wide receivers Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson would bring some much-needed speed to complement Torrey Smith in the passing game, but the offense will once again hope to simply be efficient on third down as it was in the second half in wins against Cleveland and Houston. I’ll buy stock in Flacco and the Baltimore defense to rebound with strong performances and Rice to reappear to provide just enough to take away a narrow win over the Dolphins to improve to 3-2 on the season.