Sparano Speaks

With the Dolphins now done with their major preparations and media obligations, all that's left is to step on the field for Sunday's playoff game against Baltimore. In the meantime, we look back at Tony Sparano's comments throughout the week regarding the Ravens and his first playoff game as an NFL head coach.

Here were Sparano's answers to the playoff-related questions:

On how critical it is to score on the first drive against the Ravens on Sunday: "It's very difficult to do it against the Ravens. In fact, they've given up 13 points in 16 games on the first drive of the game. It's, I believe, the second best in the National Football League, maybe the first. It's difficult to do. Our guys have been pretty good in the first drives. Now with that being said, it's a collective effort in there but Dan (Henning) calls it up and I think he's not afraid to take some chances in the first drives of games which has been good for us. But more importantly, I just think it says a lot about the offense and what they do right away out of the gate. They execute pretty well. Usually, there are some pretty serious jitters going on in the first drives of the games and these guys have been able to execute pretty well at a high level."

On how he deals with a lack of playoff experience as a coach: "This team really, over the last several weeks, I would find it hard that anybody can argue to me that we haven't played like it's a playoff game. We're not here if we don't win over the last several weeks. So, this team, I think, has gotten a little battle-hard as we've had to go through this process to get here, they've matured. The young guys know that being in that kind of situation has helped them mature along the way here. So, I would hope that the inexperience that we might have going into this game, and there's no question that they're more experienced than we are, I would hope that some of that has leveled off because of what we've had to do over the last several weeks. I don't think that our guys are going to be ‘big-eyed' in that situation. I think that they're going to be pretty clear and ready to go."

On if he is doing anything different going into his first playoff game as a head coach: "No, I mean, honestly, to me, it's business as usual. Again, for six or seven weeks right now if we didn't win, we'd be worrying about next season right now. We've gotten to this point right now, I don't think we deviate the coaching any different than you've been coaching it, any of those things. Every one of these games, we've had to win, so we needed to be able to put ourselves into position to win and you have to play the game with the intent to win. So, all those things in the playoffs, there are no ties in this thing, so we've got to go out and win the football game. I don't think you coach it any differently. I don't think you prepare any differently, so that's the way we approached it."

On the key to containing Ravens LB Terrell Suggs: "They move him around so he's going to end up on both sides; both Jake (Long) and Vernon (Carey) will have to block him at some point. Sometimes he'll show up inside in some of their nickel stuff; standing up, moving around that way. Everybody's going to have to be aware of him and I think that's the key; the biggest key is being aware of him. He's got a lot of good pass rush moves, outstanding pass rush ability, does a great job with his hands, can get low, can bend. I think the key is, you've got to challenge these guys early, and you can't let them get started. If you let them get started and you create too much space in between you and them that opens up a problem I think for you. You've got to try to challenge them early up front and you've got to know that when you're playing against guys like Suggs, you're going to be in for a long battle the whole day."

On what Ray Lewis still brings after 14 years in the league: "What I see is not a guy that's been in the league 14 years. The guy can still run sideline to sideline, he still makes all of the tackles on the field if you let him make all of the tackles on the field. That being said, you're going into games, just like the question here with Suggs, you have to know where he is, you have to block this guy, you have to try to put a helmet on him; easier said than done because he does study it and he does know it very well. That being said, we need to study it and we need to know it well, too. We need to know where Ray's going to be and how he's going to approach us, that's the nice thing maybe about playing him once already is that you get a little bit better understanding of how he plays some things and maybe what he does. You've got to match this guy's intensity that he brings to that group and certainly, you've got to put a hat on him. If not, there are several guys in this league that can ruin the game for you. He's one of the guys that can ruin the game for if you don't block him."

On how much of a chess match there will be between Chad Pennington and Ray Lewis on Sunday: "I think that there's a chess match there, a little bit, trying to figure each other out. Ray's the quarterback of that defense without a doubt and Chad being our guy on offense. I think there's a little bit there. They do a great job scheme-wise, they really do. From our end, it will be a chess match. I think Chad's prepared as he gets out there and I'm sure they're prepared."On how tough an assignment Samson Satele has this weekend with Haloti Ngata: "The fortunate thing for Samson, and this is not taking anything away from Ngata who is a tremendous player as well, but in our division, we've had to play against some pretty good players there. He just comes off of playing against (Kris) Jenkins and he's had to play against (Vince) Wilfork and he's had to play against some of these people, Buffalo's group there. These type of players, he's had to play against a couple times apiece. It is a challenge with all that they do, defensively, because they are complicated, they do move the front, they do move around and try to confuse you so your center's got to get you lined up in some of those situations. It's something that he has to pay attention to and Chad has to pay attention to. All of that with the ball between your legs and this big guy over you, it's a challenge. Samson has done a good job to his credit with that."

On how ready he is for Sunday: "I'm ready for Sunday to come. I can use a couple hours sleep before that, but I'm pretty ready for Sunday to come right now. We're excited. We're excited about this opportunity that we have right now, and that's what it is; it's an opportunity. When you put yourself in these positions right now, you can't worry about what's down the road, you've got to worry about one game at a time and that's exactly where we are."

On if it's more important to keep a sense of normalcy this week or to ramp things up: "No, I think it's important to keep it as normal as possible. I think, when you try to go overboard, the players might read into that, get a little bit tight, could get some of these things. But at the same time, you can't be ‘loosey goosey' out here with them. You've got to stay the course. For us, that's what we've tried to do. We try to stay as consistent as possible. We didn't deviate practice wise; New Years, New Years Eve, New Years Day, no deviation, we just treated everything like we would during a normal work week so that it's as consistent as we could for the players."

On if he thinks the success of he and John Harbaugh have opened the door for position coaches to be considered for a head coaching position: "I hope so. I just know that I've been in a lot of rooms with a lot of different coaches and because they aren't coordinators, doesn't mean that they aren't good coaches. All the assistant coaches that are out there, they go through the same thing; there's a pecking order or at least there was a pecking order and that came with well, ‘He's got to be a coordinator, because the coordinator runs the room'. That's not necessarily true. I can't tell you the number of house that I spent as the offense line coach, assistant head coach, out in front of the team, out in front of the offense, presenting the run game, presenting the protections, doing those things. So, you're in front of the room. You're commanding the entire room. Todd (Bowles) does the same thing for us in the defensive meetings. When we talk coverage and we talk what's happening in the backend, he's the guy up talking. It's no different than George Edwards (Inside Linebackers coach) talks about play action, or Kacy Rodgers (Defensive Line Coach) talks about the run game. That's all part of trying to get your coaches to mature a little bit and to bring them along that way and it's part of becoming a head coach."

On what he has learned from being in the playoffs and if attention to detail is important: "That's to me, a great question, just because when you get into this, you're talking about the details. From my end, people always say, ‘What did you learn from the playoffs?' That's what of the things I learned from the playoffs. The smallest of detail can cost you in this and there are no do-overs. There's really not. You don't get to go two losses in the beginning of the season, then two wins, then two losses and then two wins, it's all over. You don't handle the ball well, the ball comes out, you put the ball on the ground, you throw an untimely interception, you peek into the backfield and they make a big play, you don't wrap up, whatever it is, maybe you go home. So, the details, the minor details are really major at this time of year and if you stop coaching them and you stop talking about them, I think you're really going to get in trouble in this situation. All you can do is bring it to their attention. You can keep whacking them around like that with it in the meeting rooms and trying to do some of those type of things out here on the practice field and you hope that they get it."

On if the Dolphins or Ravens have improved more since the last time they faced each other: "I don't know the answer to that question. I think that we've both improved tremendously. I have to believe that we've improved a great deal right now since the time we played the last time. I think, defensively, we've been in some struggles out there and we've had to show up, defensively, and play pretty well. Offensively, when we've needed it, we've done that. We've faced weather, we've faced all of those types of scenarios - four out of five on the road, we've won close games; we've done those things. Then, when I watch the Ravens team, I see a lot of the same things. I see them doing a bunch of those things right now. It's easy to be impressed with their defense when you turn the film on, it's very easy to be impressed and that's not blowing smoke, any of those types of things, they're just a good defense, the stats tell you that. What I've been mostly impressed with, and I think where they've grown the most, is at the quarterback position. The last time I think that we played, I thought (Joe) Flacco at that point in time, obviously was very efficient and did a great job against us in the first ballgame, but you could see right now that he's got total command of the entire playbook. You can see right now that he's getting to his second, his third, he keeps the play alive, kind of Tony Romo-like, he can keep the play alive and hurt you in some of those situations. I just see a completely different kid back there right now from the first time we played."

On how much the secondary has improved since the first Baltimore game: "I think that our secondary has improved quite a bit since the first game that we played. In that first game that we played, we just came off of some games where we gave up some big plays, we did some of those things, then we had a couple games sandwiched there where we played pretty well, but there was a little bit of inconsistency where I think right now, those guys have been pretty consistent for a long time. They're challenging a lot better back there, they're playing with a lot more swagger back there; the group has been consistent. What I mean by that is from Week one right now until Week 17 here, these guys have all been together with the exception of Renaldo Hill back there for the first two weeks of the season. I think that way there, the communication, the growth that needs to take place back there in the secondary when you're seeing as much as you're seeing has been something that's stood out."

On how much he missed Jason Ferguson in the first game against the Ravens: "We missed him quite a bit in that football game. When you're playing a team like the Ravens, if you don't have a guy like Jason Ferguson in the middle, you're going to miss him. Randy Starks went in there during that game and he did a nice job, but during that week, we didn't have Jason, we didn't have (Paul) Soliai. We didn't have either one of those two players, really, for that ballgame. Randy Starks went in, did a heck of a job, but you lose something when you don't have Ferguson in the middle there. He's a guy that can occupy two people and these guys like to double team, they like to push and wear you down."On how much the Ravens' offense has changed using Le'Ron McClain: "He wasn't, but the other guy (Willis McGahee) was the first time we played them. I think that going into that game, we really had to prepare for both backs. Right now, it seems like he's kind of taken over a little bit back there. He seems to be more of the lead guy in that situation; he's carrying the ball an awful lot more. It's kind of like I remember playing the Giants and getting ready to play that big back (Brandon Jacobs) down there. He can wear you down himself. That being said, McGahee has also done a great job against us, so they've got two backs that certainly can do it that way, but this guy's a load and he seems to be the guy that's out front right now."

On the importance of Chad Pennington's experience when going up against a guy like Ed Reed: "It's important. The thing that we're fortunate with is that Chad's been a good, solid decision maker the entire season. The other thing that we're fortunate with is that he's given them a chance to run with football from a location standpoint. You look at his completion percentage and that's been helpful. If you throw the ball in a poor location against this team, it's going to end up in somebody's hands back there. The number of interceptions that they have is off the charts. Then, when they get it in their hands, those guys turn into kick returners and they can run them back for touchdowns. We have to do a good job that way, but at the end of the day right now, you have to feel good about where you are going into this ballgame with the guy that you have. The guy that we have right now takes care of the football, he is a good decision maker and throws it with good location. We'll see what happens when we get out there."

On what kind of crowd he is expecting Sunday: "I'm expecting a great crowd. Our fans have been great at the end of this whole thing right now helping us to get where we need to be. I think they're excited about this opportunity as well they should be. I know that they are and I think that can make a difference, certainly, during the course of these types of games. I'd rather be in our place than going someplace else and getting out there on the road in a playoff game. I've played in Seattle in playoff games a couple of times; that's not a good deal. When you're out there on the road and you're in somebody else's place, it's a hard thing to do. I'm looking forward to our fans this week making it difficult, as difficult as they can make it and I think that our players will be excited about it."

On if the preparation week changes for the playoffs: "No, it doesn't change. It's business as usual. You try to turn it up maybe one more notch with the players, but you don't have to say a whole lot to them that way. They understand where they are. They know that right now there are a lot of people watching and they get a chance to play. They understand that. This team has been tremendous in that each week, the stakes have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and they've handled those things. They handled those situations. They've been pretty mature about it and they've kept their focus. I don't think anything changes. From our end, we don't deviate and we'll just stay as consistent as we possibly can."


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