MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – With $120.6 million quarterback Joe Flacco dropping back to pass on 31 consecutive plays last week, the Baltimore Ravens hardly looked like the team Dannell Ellerbe remembered from his years playing for them.
"When you give a quarterback that money, you want him to throw the ball, I guess," Ellerbe said.
Despite the Ravens' recent propensity for the pass, Ellerbe said he and the Miami Dolphins will be braced to stop the ground game when the teams meet Sunday.
The Ravens ran the ball all the way to a Super Bowl title in 2012, and Ray Rice has been a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past four years. But this season Baltimore (2-2) ranks third-worst in the NFL at 2.6 yards per carry, and Rice has totaled only 89 yards while hampered by a left hip injury
In last week's loss at Buffalo, the Ravens had a franchise-record low nine rushing attempts. Flacco threw 50 passes — and a career-high five interceptions. Rice carried five times for 17 yards and didn't catch a pass.
"We need to get Ray involved in every single way — pass game, run game," coach John Harbaugh said. "We want to do that every week, and obviously we did not do a good job of that last Sunday."
With the Ravens and Dolphins (3-1) trying to rebound from losses, here are five keys to watch in the game:
KEEPING IT ON THE GROUND: Ellerbe figures the Ravens will runs the ball more this week, and he knows them well, spending four years at linebacker in Baltimore before signing a free-agent deal with Miami in March.
Ellerbe said that despite Rice's slow start, the 5-foot-8 running back still looks like the same player.
"Yeah, he's still short," Ellerbe said before turning serious. "He could come down here and run for 100 and whatever, so you've got to be on your p's and q's."
The Dolphins are eager to get their ground game going, too. They planned to run a lot in Monday's loss at New Orleans but had to abandon that approach when they fell behind 35-10 in the third quarter.
Miami's yards-per-carry average has improved each week, but Ryan Tannehill has thrown two-thirds of the time, leaving Lamar Miller with less than 15 rushing attempts in every game.
"A lot of people have been playing us to stop the run to start the season," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "Then as we begin to throw the football and spread it around, now we're seeing more two-safety defenses taking away the deeper balls, and there are a lot more opportunities."
QUARTERBACKS BOUNCING BACK: Flacco and Tannehill are both coming off turnover-tainted performance. Tannehill was outplayed by the opposing quarterback for the first time this year against Drew Brees and the Saints, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble.
Flacco, still striving to mesh with a revamped group of receivers, caught flak for his performance at Buffalo and said it was rightly magnified by his new six-year contract.
"I'm being paid what I'm being paid for a reason," he said. "I don't have a problem with anybody looking at me and putting losses on me when something like that happens."
Like Flacco, Tannehill is working with new receivers, and he has yet to display much cohesion with $60 million acquisition Mike Wallace. Tannehill missed him in the open once at New Orleans, and Wallace dropped two passes, including one for a potential touchdown.
Wallace has gained at least 25 yards on a reception only once. In four seasons with Pittsburgh he did it 45 times.
RAVENS PASS RUSH: Led by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens have 13 sacks for 100 yards in losses, ranking fourth in the NFL in the latter category.
That spells trouble for the Tannehill, who at his current pace would break the Miami one-season record for sacks in the 10th game.
Tannehill leads the league with 18 sacks, and also with six fumbles.
RED-ZONE SHOWDOWN: Something must give if and when Miami gets deep into Ravens territory.
The Dolphins rank first in the league in red-zone scoring with nine touchdowns in 11 possessions. That efficiency is a big reason they have a winning record even though they're a minus-one in turnovers and have been outgained by 292 yards.
The Ravens have allowed only three touchdowns in nine red-zone possessions (33 percent). That's even better than last year's 43-percent rate, when the Ravens' red-zone defense ranked second in the NFL.
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE?: The Ravens are 2-0 at home but 0-2 on the road, where crowds delight in watching their team beat the reigning champions.
The Dolphins' stadium has been a pretty sedate place in recent seasons, but Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo anticipates a lively atmosphere Sunday.
"That stadium is going to be rocking," he predicted. "We have the bull's-eye on our backs, and teams get to play their best football when the Ravens come to town. So that's what we're expecting, and that's what we're preparing for."
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