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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with The Phinsider

Some information given to us courtesy of The Phinsider’s Kevin Nogle

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

In preparing for the New Year’s Eve matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, The Phinsider’s Kevin Nogle and I exchanged questions to better inform our respective readers.

Check out the Q&A below, and be sure to check out DraftKings Sportsbook for all your betting needs this season.

1. Since Week 8, the Miami Dolphins defense has ranked No. 1 in points allowed, No. 1 in total yards per game and second in sacks. What changed that propelled them toward such a marked difference?

Part of it was getting players back up to full strength. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s return from a training camp knee injury that forced him onto injured reserve to start the season was huge. Miami built their defensive system assuming they would have Ramsey on one side and Xavien Howard on the other. Kader Kohou, a solid second-year player who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M-Commerce last year, was forced outside, but he is a natural nickel cornerback. Putting everyone on the field and in their correct positions let the coverage click into place.

I was not all injury returns to form, either. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins conducted a training camp/preseason long “hold in” - showing up but not participating in any drills all summer - as he looked for a new contract. He was rusty early in the season and did not look like himself. Once he was able to get up to football shape, Wilkins’ play jumped back up to Pro Bowl level, and Miami’s pass rush picked up steam; they are now second in the league in sacks, trailing just the Ravens.

The final piece of why Miami’s defense took a major step forward midseason is defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Under Brian Flores and Josh Boyer, the Dolphins defensive system was designed to be a man-to-man scheme, leaving cornerbacks on an island so linebackers and safeties could blitz. The team would line up with seven, eight, or even nine players crowding on the line of scrimmage, with no one appearing in an assigned role, with some players rushing and some dropping into coverage at the snap. It was a very amoeba-like system, and the Dolphins were among the league leaders in blitz rate. Under Fangio, the system is a zone scheme, with the defense designed to prevent the deep ball and then close on the underneath routes. The defensive look dares teams to run the ball, knowing they can stop it. About mid-season, in part because of the return of Ramsey, the Dolphins seemed to finally get comfortable with their roles in the new system and it started coming together. Fangio is also evolving his system, with additional blitzes being called. It is not quite a hybrid of the two defensive styles, but there have been a few times when the Dolphins’ defense has looked like a Flores system, and they have success in that style as well.

2. The reports right now are saying running back Raheem Mostert is expected to play, but wide receiver Jaylen Waddle is uncertain as he deals with a high-ankle sprain. What do the Dolphins lose if Waddle were to be out in this game?

The easy answer if Waddle or Tyreek Hill is not available is to have Robbie Chosen take that spot in the lineup, keeping the speed options that is Miami’s offensive identity. That said, even when Chosen has had an opportunity for playing time, he has only had four receptions for 126 yards this year. He may be on the field, but he is not the target. Cedrick Wilson, Jr., and Braxton Berrios have both been solid when needed, and tight end Durham Smythe can give the Dolphins a possession-style receiving option, but none of the three are going to suddenly become the focus of the offense in Waddle’s place.

Hill is going to get his looks, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is fearless in pushing the ball to Hill almost exclusively. Running backs Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane will be more involved, with Jeff Wilson, Jr., able to fill in if Mostert is not at full strength. I would expect Miami to look to use screens and motion for Hill to get him up to speed and with the ball in his hands quickly, along with a more dedicated rushing attack to try to offset the Ravens pass rush and to make up for Waddle not being on the field.

3. If you were the Ravens defensive coordinator, how would you scheme to contain this Dolphins offense? What weaknesses do they have, or deficiencies?

Be disciplined as a linebackers group and stay in the quick passing lanes. Get after Tagovailoa with four, leaving seven players in coverage, especially across the middle. Miami makes their money with slants and crossing routes, pulling the safeties up in support, then going over the top with Hill’s speed. If the linebackers can stay in the lanes, removing those slants and crossing route options from the Dolphins, Miami may need help to make adjustments. The Dolphins’ offensive line has been solid for the most part this season, but the injuries to the linemen continue to be an issue, and they are less effective than they were just a few weeks ago. Stunts could force the offensive linemen to hesitate as they make sure they are sticking with their correct assignment, making the difference between the Ravens being stopped at the line or them getting to Tagovailoa.

The Dolphins are an effective running team, but head coach Mike McDaniel can abandon it and become a pass-first, pass-often, pass-only type of playcaller. If the Ravens can slow the rushing attack early, it could lead to Miami abandoning it - especially if Mostert is unable to play or is not at full strength - allowing Baltimore to pass rush on every play.

4. Who are two Dolphins players (one offense/ one defense) Ravens fans should pay specific attention to in this game that aren’t household names?

Offensively, it may be center Liam Eichenberg, who has had an up-and-down career with the Dolphins and has been asked to play every position on the offensive line. He seems to best fit at right guard, but with the injury to Connor Williams a couple of weeks ago, Eichenberg will finish the year as the team’s starting center. Again, he has been up and down throughout his career, so he is someone Dolphins fans will be watching as he works against the Ravens defensive line. He might be the make-or-break point of the Miami offense this week.

As for a “skills” position player, it is strange because several of the depth options for Miami are players who were at least recognizable names at some point in their career but are now deeper on Miami’s depth chart. Robbie Chosen (or Chosen Anderson or Robbie Anderson), Cedrick Wilson, Jr., Braxton Berrios, and Chase Claypool are all depth wide receivers who had success earlier in their career somewhere else. They are now options for the Dolphins but have yet to see a significant share of the playing time. Tight end Durham Smythe is not a household name and could have success, but it is as likely that he sees no targets and is primarily a blocking tight end this week. Achane and Jeff Wilson, Jr., are both running back options behind Mostert, and could have success, particularly Achane who has an 8.1 yards per attempt average for his rookie year, but he has not broken 100 yards rushing since a three-game stretch in Weeks 3-5 when he recorded 203 yards, 101, yards, and 151 yards. An IR stint sidelined him during the season, and since returning, he has yet to find the same form from earlier in the year.

My defensive answer is usually linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, who always seems to have something good happen when he is on the field. Still, he has picked up some recognition this year, especially with Good Morning Football and Hard Knocks. We already talked a little about cornerback Kader Kohou, who could also be a good answer here. I will add defensive tackle Zach Sieler to the list. If you have been watching Hard Knocks, he is the Salt to Christian Wilkins’ Pepper. Sieler is a force on the defensive line, but Wilkins overshadows him. Sieler has a career-high 8.5 sacks this season, five more than his previous high, and has an interception return for a touchdown. While the focus will be on Van Ginkel, Wilkins, and Bradley Chubb as the pass rushers for Miami, Sieler will be there to make a play at some point.

5. DraftKings Sportsbook set the line for this game at Ravens -3.5. Share why you agree/disagree.

I am surprised this is not a more significant spread. After the Ravens demolished the San Francisco 49ers last week, I expected this to be a big line. Add in the injury to Jaylen Waddle, and this feels like it could be pushing toward a touchdown spread. I think this is a close game and that Miami’s offense can find a way to have some success against the Ravens defense. The fact that this is in Baltimore is worrisome because the fans will be loud in this game, impacting Miami’s ability to use their pre-snap motion to the full extent. The AFC North and the first seed in the AFC playoff picture are on the line on Sunday, and the Ravens fans will be hyped. Baltimore definitely has the advantage in this game, but I think the Dolphins can keep it close and, hopefully, pull off the upset to make it three-straight wins over the Ravens, take the lead in the all-time regular season head-to-head matchup between these two inter-division rivals, and set up next year’s meeting - in Baltimore for a third-straight year. At least the 2025 meeting will finally be back in Miami.