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Dolphins vs Colts: Three Key Matchups

It's time now to put last week's debacle in Atlanta behind us and move forward by turning our attention to Monday night's home opener against the Indianapolis Colts.  This will be the first meeting between the Dolphins and Colts since New Year's Eve 2006, won by the Colts in Indianapolis.  The Colts have won the last two meetings between these two teams.  But the Dolphins have won the last four meeting prior, dating back to that classic playoff game in 2000.

We'll kick off our coverage of Monday night's game by talking about three critical matchups.  Just how critical?  The Dolphins lost two of the three I listed last week - and we saw how that game turned out.

Jake Long/Vernon Carey vs Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis
This is a big one, isn'it it?  Last week we saw Jake Long look very bad against one of the best pass-rushers in the league.  Things don't get any easier in week two.  He'll likely be up against Dwight Freeney all game long.  While Freeney may be under-sized, he's not any smaller than John Abraham.  And we saw just what Abraham did to Jake last week.

For all the criticism that's been thrown Jake's way after last week's game, people seem to be forgetting Vernon Carey also surrendered two sacks on the Falcons.  Both Jake and Vernon didn't look like themselves last week and the Colts have some tape to review now that exploit these tackles' weaknesses.

Freeney, historically, has been a thorn in Miami's side.  In three career games against the Dolphins, Freeney has three sacks and many, many more hurries.  Robert Mathis, though, has never gotten a sack of a Dolphins' quarterback in two career games against Miami.

Over the past four years, Freeney and Mathis have quietly become one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.  Over that span, they have combined for an average of 17.5 sacks per season between the two of them. 

This will be no easy task for Miami's two bookends who must protect Chad Pennington far better than they did last week.  Expect to see some help in the form of chip blocks from Miami's backs to give Pennington enough time to survey the field.  With that said, though, Long and Carey will still be asked to block these two pass-rushers one-on-one at times.  And they simply cannot allow themselves to get beat as often as they did last week.  If they do, it could be a long day.

Dallas Clark vs Yeremiah Bell/Gibril Wilson
The problem that the Dolphins had covering opposing tight ends in the preseason carried over to the regular season last week when Tony Gonzalez made big play after big play en route to a 5-73-1 performance on Sunday.  And even when one of Miami's safeties had good coverage on the big tight end, Gonzalez found a way to make the grab on perfectly thrown passes from Matt Ryan.

Things don't get any easier on Monday night for Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson.  These two players will be asked to defend Colts tight end Dallas Clark for most of the game.  Clark, though, presents a different challenge than Gonzalez did.  Clark is shorter and faster than Gonzalez.  And with starting receiver Anthony Gonzalez on the shelf for Indy, there's a good chance Clark will be used even more split out wide as a slot receiver.  This poses an entirely different issue for the Dolphins.  Clark is too big and strong to matchup a cornerback with him.  But he's too quick for safeties.  So whoever gets the job of covering Clark play in and play out will have their hands full.

With Anthony Gonzalez out and Marvin Harrison gone, Peyton Manning will rely on Clark and WR Reggie Wayne more now than ever.  If the Dolphins can find a way to neutralize Clark, this dynamic Indy offense suddenly doesn't look as terrifying as it has in years past.

Dolphins pass rush vs Colts offensive line
The best way to attempt to contain Peyton Manning is to not let him physically throw the ball.  Of course, that's impossible.  But the next best thing is consistent pressure in Manning's face.  Last week, Manning was sacked just once by the Jaguars and was hit just two additional times.  That's three times Manning got knocked around on 30 drop backs.  You let that happen, and Manning will do just what he did to the Jaguars - complete 74% of his passes for over 300 yards.

This Indianapolis offensive line is far from a rock solid unit.  There's no reason the Dolphins shouldn't be able to get pressure on Manning on a consistent basis.  Joey Porter and Jason Taylor both should receive ample opportunities going against Indy's far from spectacular tackles.  Last week, Taylor did pick up his first sack of 2009 - but was relatively quiet for most of the afternoon.  Porter was just as quiet for the entire game - rarely even getting close to Matt Ryan.  Both of these guys must step up on Monday night.

But it goes beyond just Porter and Taylor.  Phillip Merling had an outstanding game last week and will look to build on that with another on Monday.  He got pressure on Matt Ryan three or four times.  From what I can tell, Merling is a "gamer" and I do expect another solid performance. 

But what about everybody else?  Channing Crowder blitzed a couple of times with no success last week.  Charlie Anderson needs to get in on the act.  Kendall Langford was invisible in week one from his defensive end spot - which was a disappointment for all of us after hearing such great things all offseason and camp long about how he has improved.  And what about Cameron Wake?  Will he be active on Monday night?

Somehow, some way, the Dolphins must get to Peyton Manning early and often.  If he's comfortable in the pocket right from the start, it could be a long night for this defense.