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Dolphins vs Panthers: Keys to Victory

It's hard to believe that the Dolphins will already take the field just days after a late rally prevented them from falling to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In less than 24 hours, the Dolphins will battle the Panthers up in North Carolina - with the winner completing their giant dig out of the 0-3 hole both started the season in and reaching .500 for the first time this season.

For the Dolphins, this will mark the third time in less than a month that they will have a chance to get back the the .500 mark. Below are just some of the most important factors for Thursday night's game.

Win the battle in the trenches
Here's the situation. The Dolphins played a game on Sunday. On Monday, they had their players in for film work. On Tuesday, the Dolphins hit the practice field for what essentially was a "Friday practice" - meaning it was shorter and less physical than a typical midweek practice. On Wednesday, the team went through a walkthrough before boarding a plane and heading up to North Carolina. Preparation time? Not much this week.

I take this to mean two things. One - I wouldn't be shocked if the Dolphins unravel some new wrinkle - likely involving Pat White - on Thursday night given that the Panthers also had minimal time to prepare for this game. But more importantly, I get the feeling that this game is going to come down to which team can execute better in the trenches. Who will physically dominate who? The answer to that question will go a long way towards determining who wins this game.

The Panthers and Dolphins come into this game ranked third and fourth respectively on the ground - each averaging just over 156 yards per game. Miami, of course, comes into it without their top running back while the Panther will likely have both of their guys who make up their own dynamic duo. The Dolphins, though, are expected to have Justin Smiley back at left guard after he missed last week with a shoulder injury - certainly good news for us.

With both teams being physical running teams - and even without Ronnie Brown, I do think the Dolphins will remain committed to the run - the difference could come down to which team's defense can do a better job at stopping the run and forcing the other team to throw. Miami is currently 7th in the NFL in rush defense and their 3.7 yards allowed per rush is 5th in the league. Meanwhile, Carolina is surrendering 4.6 yards per carry (25th) and 128 yards per game (25th).

Stopping the run also highlights another important aspect of this game: third down. The Dolphins are the second best team in the league in converting third downs - 49%, in fact - while the Panthers are in the bottom half of the NFL, converting just 40% of their third downs. The Panthers are also among one of the worst passing offenses in the league and quarterback Jake Delhomme is as turnover prone as they come. Holding Carolina to third and long could mean big things for this Dolphin defense.

Bracket Steve Smith all game
When the Panthers do drop back to pass, they really only have one target to stress over. But he's a hell of a target to have available to you. Steve Smith is obviously one of the game's most talented receivers. And his combination of strength and speed (despite his size) makes him a tough little guy to prepare for.

So what will the Dolphins do? I'm not sure - but I know what I'd do. I'd stick the more physical corner we have - Vontae Davis - on Smith all game long. He's got the strength to jam Smith at the line and the speed to hang with him as good as anyone really can. I'd then put safety help over the top as much as possible and tell that safety, which ever one it is, to not let Smith out of his sights. On the other side, you stick Sean Smith on Carolina's other receiving options - guys like Muhsin Muhammad and Dwayne Jarrett. Both are bigger, slower receivers and Sean shouldn't have a problem going one-on-one with those guys for most of the game.

That's my idea for defending Steve Smith. And it's important to note that you aren't ever really going to completely shut down a receiver like him. But Vontae is the kind of corner who can contain him - with deep safety help always available in case Smith just badly beats Vontae - which could definitely happen, especially if Davis misses the jam at the line. But I think if you play him physically and keep decent coverage on him, you can create some turnovers off of forced or inaccurate passes by Delhomme into Steve Smith.

Don't be gun-shy
You might look at the stats and see that the Panthers are ranked fourth in the entire league in passing defense and think that the Dolphins should really do everything they can to not put too much pressure on the young Chad Henne. Yes, Carolina is allowing just 186 yards per game through the air. But they are also seeing the fifth fewest pass attempts against per game - only 30. Why? Probably because of how ineffective they are at stopping the run. We saw this in 2007 in Miami, in fact. The Dolphins were ranked in the top 10 in passing defense for most of the year. Was this because our secondary was so good at defending the pass? Hell no. It was because they were dreadful at stopping the run. After all, why pass it when you can pick up 5 yard chunks at a time on the ground?

The Panthers, though, opposing quarterbacks to complete 63% of their passes (8th highest figure in the league) and have surrendered just as many touchdowns through the air as the Dolphins have (11).

Now I'm not here to tell you that Carolina's secondary stinks. That's not true. But they aren't nearly as good as the stats would lead you to believe. And I hope that while it's obviously important for this Miami offense to remain committed to the run, the Dolphins still trust Henne enough to make a few plays when necessary. The Panthers are going to stack the box. Let's take the leash off of Henne a bit and see what he's got.