Ravens looking to tame Dolphins' Wildcat

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens have already tamed, declawed and caged the Miami Dolphins' complicated Wildcat offense once this season. Yet, the true mark of whether they've completely mastered the Dolphins' unpredictable scheme won't be revealed until Sunday when the Ravens (11-5) take on Miami (11-5) in an AFC wild-card game at Dolphin Stadium.

The Ravens' second-ranked defense is wary because of the improvements the Dolphins have made in orchestrating the evolution of the Wildcat attack.

The Ravens confounded the Dolphins in the first meeting by aggressively blitzing against the gadget-laden, direct-snap offense that features running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The Dolphins gained just four yards in five Wildcat plays, also drawing a false-start penalty in another attempt, with their longest gain coming on a four-yard Williams end-around.

"Obviously, we did pretty good against it the first time," said cornerback Frank Walker, who jammed quarterback Chad Pennington so hard at the line of scrimmage when he lined up at wide receiver that he nearly sent Pennington into the Gatorade bucket on the sideline. "You can't rest on that, though. You've got to prepare for different things out of the Wildcat this time. Everybody is always going to get better, and they're able to tweak and work out the things that didn't work the first time."

The strategy from highly-regarded defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was fairly simple: crowd the line of scrimmage, make the Dolphins' talented runners go sideways and time up blitzes to stop end-around runs that simulate a conventional handoff. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis wound up leading the defense with 10 tackles as Miami gained just 71 yards on the ground in the Ravens' 27-13 victory earlier this season.

Afterward, Lewis pointed out that it was a matter of staying disciplined and utilizing strong technique in not overreacting to the Wildcat offense.

"There's still one football, no matter how many formations you run," Lewis said Oct. 19. "I tried to keep my defense focused on no matter who carries the ball, understand there's one football, stay where you're supposed to stay, run to the football and everything will take care of itself."

Ultimately, the Dolphins resorted to an empty backfield and primarily throwing the ball to gain the majority of their 359 yards of total offense.

The Ravens' success didn't prove to be a blueprint for the rest of the NFL to copy necessarily other than the stock answers of don't let the running backs bounce outside and beware of Brown's ability to throw the football on halfback option passes.

As dangerous as the single-wing formation has been, the Ravens have paid careful attention to the changes the Dolphins have engineered with the Wildcat since the first game.

Now, the Dolphins have improved markedly through their use of trickery and made the Wildcat a larger part of their base offense.

"They have expanded that package, they've grown it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It looks more and more like the complete package. They run every one of their runs off of it. They run a number of different passes off it, expanded the gadget plays off of it. So, it's tougher to defend than it was earlier in the year."

When the Wildcat is executed perfectly, Brown is extremely hard to stop. He has rushed for a team-high 916 yards and 10 touchdown runs, throwing a touchdown earlier this season against the New England Patriots. Williams has rushed for 659 yards and scored four touchdowns in a complementary role.

"They use Ronnie Brown and Ricky very well, and they set up a lot of stuff off of that," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "They've got us studying right now, very hard."

And Pennington has thrown the fewest interceptions in the NFL with seven, completing 67.4 percent of his throws for 3,653 yards and 19 touchdowns for a 97.4 quarterback rating. He was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year on Wednesday. He's also the quarterback whose swing pass was intercepted by linebacker Terrell Suggs and returned 44 yards for an interception during the first game.

The Ravens lead the NFL with 26 interceptions, returning five for touchdowns to rank second in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers.

"We certainly hope we've improved on our fundamentals and just playing good, solid football," Pennington told Baltimore reporters in a Wednesday conference call. "We know that we have a huge challenge in front of us, playing probably the best defense in the league in my opinion because they're so aggressive. They have an offensive mentality when they play defense.

"You've always got to know where all 11 of those guys are on the field at all times. They do such a great job of turning turnovers into touchdowns that you can't give them easy points like that because they capitalize on it. They're the best in the league at doing that and wreaking havoc back there and causing turnovers."

In the Wildcat, Brown can always lateral it to Pennington when he lines up at receiver. That sets Pennington up to fling the football downfield to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (56 catches, 790 yards, 14.2 average per catch) or tight end Anthony Fasano, who leads the team with seven touchdown receptions.

"It's all the multiple packages they run and the way they utilize their talent and spread them out in different areas," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You have to account for where everybody is. It's a lot of window dressing and moving people around.

"It's much different from what they were doing at the beginning of the season. Back then, it was just a full package and they would run out in it and you could see it when they came onto the field. Now, they're running the Wildcat out of their base formation and they'll disguise a few things. It's a lot more to think about now."

Of course, the Ravens can always resort to physical tactics against Pennington when he's fair game as a wide receiver.

"That's what we do when he's a receiver, we lined up and pressed him," Walker said. "Quarterbacks aren't too used to getting hit like that. They definitely don't like that at all."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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