Miami Dolphins And Baltimore Ravens Have Been Playing A Chess Match For 10 Months

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It was a startling surprise last November when the Baltimore Ravens, among the NFL’s hottest teams at the time with six wins in seven games, visited the struggling Miami Dolphins and their 2-7 record. The Ravens got out-coached, out-played and generally just outed as not an elite playoff contender.

It was a shock when the Ravens, averaging 29 points per game over the previous month, had no clue how to move the football when facing the zero blitz — a gambling defensive strategy the Dolphins used so many times it frustrated quarterback Lamar Jackson to the extent he was yelling at coaches and teammates on the Baltimore sideline.

“I was hot,” Jackson said at the time, very much meaning angry.

The Dolphins beat the Ravens last year by pressuring quarterback Lamar Jackson. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

John Harbaugh Respects The Dolphins Coaching Staff

And it would be a stunning surprise if the Ravens, with 10 months to study and recover from this game of coaching wits, aren’t more prepared to deal with what the Dolphins may to bring to Sunday’s rematch in Baltimore.

“We would have been negligent if we hadn’t worked on it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. “It’s something we needed to get a lot better at. We’ve studied it the whole offseason. We’ll have a plan for it and hope it works.

“These guys are probably the best in the league at doing it right now. They do it more than anybody, they do it better than anybody. It’s something they’re committed to. I have all the respect in the world for what they’re doing defensively.”

Advantage Dolphins.

The Dolphins crafted a strategy so effective that other teams copied the blueprint and used it against the Ravens. Harbaugh, arguably the best coach in the NFL, responded by having his best minds figure out how to combat the strategy.

Big Advantage To The Miami Dolphins

But the big advantage for the Dolphins is they can try to use it again Sunday. Or not — perhaps using something different the Ravens didn’t spend months of prep work trying to figure out.

The element of surprise remains with Miami. The Ravens are expecting Miami to do it. But Miami knows this and might predictably go another direction.

It’s the proverbial “I know that you know that I know” situation.

So Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who has been with the club since 2019 and became the coordinator in 2020 under Brian Flores, has options. He’s obviously not saying what the Dolphins will do next and will actually try to disguise his intentions up until the moment the ball is snapped.

“Sometimes when you line up, obviously you can kind of tell what’s coming defensively,” Boyer said. “We try to disguise things as best we can so that all looks don’t look the same. But I think it comes down to execution. I really do. I know you guys keep referring to the game from a year ago, but even in some of those zero blitzes, they had some good answers, but it really came down to execution.

“And that’s in any defensive scheme or any offensive scheme. They have good coaches over there. They’re going to be well prepared. We know and understand that. We’re working very hard to put together the best game plan that we feel going into the game and we’re looking forward to the competition on Sunday.”

The Dolphins sacked the Ravens Lamar Jackson 4 times last November. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Zero blitz, by the way, is a strategy that lines up one defender in coverage against each of the offense’s receivers — be that three receivers or four. And everyone else rushes the quarterback.

It’s great when the pressure, which comes from all positions including safeties, confuses or even sacks the quarterback. But it can also be a nightmare for the defense against quarterbacks that get the ball out quickly to receivers who beat man coverage quickly.

So it’s a gamble, which is why not a lot of teams use it often and definitely not as often as Miami, which led the NFL in zero blitzes a season ago.

Here’s a stat: The Dolphins blitzed a defensive back on 24 of Jackson’s 48 dropbacks last November. That represents the most blitzes from the secondary by any team since Next Gen Stats started tracking those numbers in 2016.

Josh Boyer History Suggests Changes

The Dolphins didn’t use it a ton against the New England Patriots last week but that was perhaps because they enjoyed a 17-0 halftime lead and there was no need to use dangerous blitzes while nursing that lead.

Maybe Boyer was saving his best blitzes for this week. But maybe he intends to go a totally different route.

Remember that Boyer comes from the same New England coaching staff that virtually stopped the Los Angeles Rams and their dynamic offense in the Super Bowl in February 2019. Largely because after playing man coverage most of that season, they played zone in that game.

The Rams had prepared for man and simply didn’t produce against the unexpected strategy. When Boyer and former coach Brian Flores were in Miami and played the Rams again in 2020, they did not recycle the strategy they used in the Super Bowl.

This time they attacked L.A. quarterback Jared Goff with the zero blitz — again, something the Rams were not expecting.

So Boyer comes from a school of thought that tries to do something different every rematch rather than repeat the same strategy. That’s why a chess match looms Sunday.

“We hadn’t really gone over defenses doing all-up zero against us, like, just all-up, flat-out zero,” Jackson said this week recalling the last game. “But I feel like we’ll have an answer for it this year. We watched a lot of film on those guys, because we don’t want it to happen again.”

We’ll see.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

For a breakdown of the rest of Sunday’s games, check out Dan Zaksheske’s piece here.

Written by Armando Salguero

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