BALTIMORE — There was this moment in Miami’s lopsided loss to the Ravens on Sunday when John Harbaugh faced a 4th-and-2 at the Dolphins’ 43-yard line.
The Ravens were already leading 14-0 and it was only the second quarter and perhaps the coach was simply trying to draw Miami offside.
Instead, Joe Flacco dropped back to pass and hit Steve Smith for an easy 8-yard gain.
“They’ve got faith in our offense,” Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch said of the play after the game. “And we’ve got faith in our defense.”
But that faith should be wavering.
For Harbaugh and the Ravens felt no fear or intimidation as they stared at a defense anchored by Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh.
Instead, they saw a defense prime for attack.
Flacco and the Ravens coaches had spirited debate this week about the quarterback’s desire to attack and not stop attacking until the game was over.
That fourth-down completion was the 10th play of a staggering 18-play, 88-yard scoring drive that lasted nearly nine minutes.
When it was over, Flacco had hit tight end Dennis Pitta — a recurring theme — for a touchdown and Flacco had been nearly flawless.
Flacco passed to convert four third downs and one fourth down — in what has become a recurring theme — in a drive that seemed to last forever. It was a drive that gave Baltimore a 21-0 lead which felt insurmountable, and was.
“We’ve got to find a way to get off the field,” Dolphins safety Bacarri Rambo said.
“We get them in third down and we get them off the field,” Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas said. “That’s our ‘M.O.’ all season.”
“You’ve just got to find a way to get off the field,” Dolphins linebacker Mike Hull said.
But they couldn’t get them off the field. And that’s the problem.
Even when the Dolphins won last week, defeating the 49ers, there were alarming signals from the defense. And Sunday was a five-alarm fire.
Last week, the 49ers gained 475 yards, including 282 in the air.
This week, the Ravens gained 496 yards, including 386 in the air.
“We’ve just got to have tighter coverage,” Thomas said.
Last week, the 49ers were 7-for-14 on third downs.
This week, the Ravens were 7-for-13 on third and fourth downs.
And this had been a strength for Miami early in the season.
Truth is, Miami’s defense has been somewhat exposed in the last two weeks.
Miami had been finding ways to disguise the loss of safety Reshad Jones to a season-ending shoulder injury, which most felt would be debilitating.
Miami had been finding ways to cover up for the disappointment of Mario Williams, the suspension of Jason Jones, the multitude of injuries to Jelani Jenkins, the inexperience of Tony Lippett and the penalties and inconsistency of Byron Maxwell.
In part, Miami was able to do all this because Wake and Branch were creating mass pressure. But quick-passing Flacco passed 47 times on Sunday and wasn’t sacked once.
And never was it more clear how much the Dolphins need Alonso than on that 18-play drive. Alonso was in Miami’s locker room as trainers tried to figure out what to do with his busted right thumb.
They ended up wrapping it in a soft cast, which he returned to the field with. Alonso was already playing through a sore hamstring.
Alonso has been Miami’s ultimate warrior and with him off the field, Flacco had an even more enticing view of the soft middle of the Dolphins’ defense.
The Dolphins entered the game 30th in the NFL against the run, but the Ravens perceived a team that could be attacked through the air.
And it was immediately clear.
“We came out too lackadaisical, too flat; and we can’t do that,” Branch said. “At the end of the day this is the NFL. You have to compete with the man across from you. And we waited too long.”
But it’s more than effort. Miami will need upgrades on the defensive line, linebacker and secondary, which leaves pretty much, well, nothing set for 2017.
The Dolphins coaches, particularly defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, have generally done a nice job adjusting in-game. But Joseph blamed himself for a failure to solve the 49ers offense last week.
And this Sunday, Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr. suggested the Ravens’ staff made better adjustments than Miami.
“They did a good job changing things up,” Smith said. “And I think we did a better job of making adjustments on the fly, running a no-huddle. We kind of put them in positions to really say and show what kind of defense they were playing immediately, versus sometimes disguising, which they’ve done a really good job in the past with other teams of disguising it. So we knew that.”
Miami also needed to figure out a way to stop the opposing tight end.
At the end of the dreadful 18-play, nearly nine-minute scoring drive, it was Flacco hitting tight end Dennis Pitta (9 catches, 90 yards, 2 touchdowns) on a touchdown when it wasn’t clear who — Rambo, Branch, someone else? — was supposed to be in coverage.
“We all have to do a better job communicating, getting everybody on the same page,” Rambo said of the game, in general.
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill was put in a position to press and threw three interceptions for the first time this season.
But it was Miami’s defense that has seemed to regress most the last two weeks.
And no drive was more demoralizing, more disheartening or more defining than that sustained one in the second quarter where Flacco did whatever he wanted and seemingly could have for as long as he wanted.
“They were executing,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “And we weren’t doing anything to stop it.”