It's week 9 and the Dolphins are still playing meaningful games. Who would of thought?
And this is a very big game. A win here would get the Dolphins to the .500 mark with two winnable home games up next (Seahawks and Raiders) before the Patriots come to Miami in week 12.
So with that said, let's talk about 5 important questions that must be answered here in week 9 if the Dolphins want to go into Denver and escape with a win.
Can the Dolphins get back to running the ball successfully?
Following the win against the Chargers back in week 5, we all thought that the Dolphins' were finally going to be able to establish a dominating rushing attack. However, in the 3 games since that win, the Dolphins have averaged just 73 yards per game and just 3 yards per carry - going 1-2 in those 3 games.
But enter the Broncos defense - a unit that is allowing 154.6 yards per game (30th) and 5.4 yards per carry (31st). And in Denver's 3 losses, the Broncos surrendered an average of 208 yards per game and have allowed opponents to average 5.95 yards per carry. And besides the offensive production, being able to run the ball keeps Denver's potent offense off of the field. In those 3 losses, the opposing team has kept the ball for 7 more minutes than the Broncos - thanks in large part to the running game. On Sunday, Miami's offense line will have to overpower Denver's defensive line and create running lanes for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
Can Ted Ginn build on last week's career day?
This has certainly been a hot topic all week. We all saw - for the first time, really - glimpses of what could be from Ted Ginn. We saw why the previous regime spent the 9th overall pick on this potentially dynamic receiver. But now Teddy needs to show some consistency. A 7 catch, 175 yard performance is great. But it means nothing if he can't sustain his high level of play from week to week.
Luckily, the Broncos also struggle defending the pass. They rank 28th in the NFL in pass defense, surrendering 254.3 yards per game. They've also allowed 20 receptions of 20 yards or more - which is the 11th most in the league. Now without one of the game's top corners (Champ Bailey), this Denver secondary is even weaker. Whether it's Dre Bly or Karl Paymah covering Ginn, Teddy will have an opportunity to shine for the 2nd week in a row. Let's see if he takes advantage of this opportunity to win over even more Dolphin fans.
Can the Dolphins get out to an early lead?
As much fun as it was to watch the Dolphins come back from a 9 point 3rd quarter deficit to defeat the Bills, I don't think the Fins can let this become a habit. And it's probably no coincidence that at the end of the 1st half, the Broncos were trailing in each of the 3 games that they lost.
An early 2 score lead would allow the Dolphins to get really aggressive on defense. The Broncos offense is damn good - and we all know how suspect Miami's secondary is. The ability for the Dolphins to get out in front early and to control the ball would allow Paul Pasqualoni and his defense to really go hard after Jay Cutler. And pressuring Cutler will be key. The Broncos have only surrendered 5 sacks all season, the 2nd lowest total in the NFL. If Miami can jump out early, this Dolphins defense - led by sack master Joey Porter - will really be able to pin their ears back and go after Cutler play after play. Let's knock him around a bit and then see if he's still as good as he thinks he is.
How will the Dolphins stop Brandon Marshall?
Alright. I'll admit it. I've been having Brandon Marshall nightmares for the past few nights. But how can I not? We all saw what similar big, physical receivers have done to the Dolphins. Remember Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin? Remember Andre Johnson? Those guys simply dominated this Miami secondary.
Marshall is a lot like those receivers listed above. Physically, he's 6'4, 230 pounds, and immensely athletic - very much similar to the type of player Andre Johnson is (6'3, 223). Marshall is Jay Cutler's favorite target - and for good reason. He's 3rd in the NFL with 49 receptions (despite missing week one due to a suspension) and 8th in the league in receiving yards with 598. So how will the Dolphins defend this monster?
That's the question that Tony Sparano, Paul Pasqualoni, and the rest of the coaching staff are thinking long and hard about this week. Conventional wisdom says that he'll likely be played tight by a corner with safety help over the top all game long. But which CB? Will Allen is the best cover corner on the team, but is just 5'10. Andre Goodman is also 5'10 - and isn't exactly a quality corner. But then there's wildcard Jason Allen. Might this be Jason's time to prove himself as a corner? It's an interesting idea. After all, I do believe that Allen began working exclusively as a corner right around the time Andre Johnson tore up this secondary. At 6'1 and possessing 4.4 speed, Allen is the kind of corner that could have more success against a WR like Marshall. But will the coaches really take the risk of using somebody so raw at the position?
Yeah, this is going to be interesting.
Can a rookie head coach and his staff out-coach one of the game's best?
Everything we discussed above are questions that this coaching staff - headed by Tony Sparano - will be figuring out as we approach the game on Sunday. If you remember, though, it was week 3 in New England when we saw Sparano - a rookie head coach - simply out-coach Bill Belichick. Could he possibly do it again to Mike Shanahan - a coach who is as smart and experienced as they come?
The reason I ask this is simple. Last week, for example, many thought that the Dolphins would attempt to get back to the basics and run the ball at the Bills' defense. Instead, they came out aggressive, throwing a 46 yard pass down the field to Ted Ginn and setting the tone. That one play softened up Buffalo's secondary and allowed Chad Pennington and his receivers the room to operate. It's those kinds of surprises that can really help you win a football game that many feel you have no business winning.
In two of Miami's three wins, I really feel like the key was that the Dolphins' coaches out-coached the opposing teams' coaches (NE and Buffalo). Can they do it again - this time a mile above sea level?
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