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Wild Card Weekend Preview #1: Baltimore at Miami

Wild Card Weekend is one of my favorite weekends all year, regardless of whether the Steelers are involved or not. I am ecstatic that Pittsburgh has the week off to rest up and begin preparations for the Divisional round, but I always try to watch as much of the opening round games each year as possible. As we've discussed on several occasions, we are not guaranteed to play the winner of any one game. In fact, the only team that we are guaranteed not to meet in our first playoff game would be the Baltimore Ravens. Why? Simple: as the #6 seed, if they win, they will travel to take on Tennessee, the AFC's #1 seed, who is assured of being matched up with the highest remaining seed still standing after this weekend.

That said, with news fairly scant in Steelers country this early in our off week, let's take a few minutes to preview both of the AFC Wild Card games, beginning with the match up between the #3 seed Miami Dolphins and the visiting #6 Baltimore Ravens.


Team and Individual Statistics + Schedule


Team and Individual Statistics + Schedule

The Last Time They Met:

Baltimore 27 @ Miami 13

When Miami lost to Baltimore in Week 7 of the 2008 NFL regular season, they dropped to 2-4 and seemed to be heading towards a far more modest improvement from their 1-15 season a year ago. Since then, Miami has rattled off 9 wins in their past 10 contests. They've found ways to win in a variety of ways - with defense, through the air, pounding the ball on the ground, etc. But it's mainly been the maturation and evolution of their offense that has been so interesting to follow. I'd rather not delve into it fully here, but if you get a chance to watch Miami this weekend, watch how many different formations they deploy, how they use screens, pre-snap motion, misdirection, and of course, the Wild Cat.

I wrote this summer about innovation in football, wondering what changes we might see to the game, and offenses in particular in the future. I didn't offer any real prophecies myself, but I sure have been fascinated watching the copy-cat NFL league adopt this thing they call the 'Wild Cat' gradually during the 2008 season. Miami has been at the forefront of that innovation and it will be interesting to see what happens next. 

That day though, Miami looked fairly punchless against Baltimore. I watched a lot of this game actually and distinctly remember seeing a different Miami offense than the one I saw in the final quarter of the season.

The Dolphins ran only 5 plays out of their 'Wildcat' formation that day, gaining just four yards on them. Baltimore blitzed heavily to disrupt it and Miami more or less abandoned it, opting instead to take to the air more conventionally. Chad Pennington threw the ball 35 times, where as Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for just 17 rushes.

The problem with this distribution if you're Miami facing Baltimore is that Pennington can become a bit too predictable when he's asked to throw it that much. Baltimore's offense was humming that day, but Miami left some points on the board themselves. They had to settle for two FGs inside the Baltimore 10 yard line. Pennington also telegraphed a pass that was taken to the house by Terrell Suggs for a 44-yard score.  I think Miami's offense is a lot more versatile, unpredictable, complex and refined since that meeting, so I'd expect them to still throw early to try to set up the run, but I expect the play calling to be more like what we've seen from Miami later in the year rather than when things were still a bigtime work in progress. 

I also wanted to point out that Joe Flacco and the Ravens frequently went no huddle that day. I was fairly surprised to see it at the time, but it sure was working. The Dolphins, who had a very healthy 40 sacks on the year, got to Flacco three times, but he also had tons of time most of the day to pick apart the Dolphins secondary. He had 232 yards passing and 1 TD on 17/23 passing. Note to Steelers offensive coordinators, past, present and future: if Joe Flacco can handle running the no-huddle for a big chunk of his 7th professional game, Ben Roethlisberger surely can as well 5 years into his NFL career. Got it? Wonderful.

Cam Cameron has had several excellent game plans this year, that Week 7 game included. Last week's win over Jacksonville was also impressive. Can he chalk up one more on the road with a rookie QB? I think this game's going to come down to coaching to a big degree. The usual suspects like turnovers, redzone efficiency and penalties are still vital of course, but I think this particular contest is going to be largely decided by the offensive game calling.

And as much as I've been impressed with Flacco, I have a hard time seeing him have a great game on the road in this spot. The game is already lightning fast, and it  picks up a notch in the playoffs. As we saw in the Steelers game a few weeks ago with 1st place on the line in the AFC North, Flacco was a bit wound up early, missing high on a few key early throws. My feeling is he might have similar struggles this weekend.

That can all not matter if Miami turns the ball over, but I think Pennington will continue his streak of solid games, the Miami running game will be more successful this time around, and Pittsburgh will be welcoming Miami to Heinz Field two Sundays from now with a trip to the AFC Championship game at stake.