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Dolphins vs Chargers: Three Key Matchups

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For the second week in a row, the Dolphins lost two of the three key matchups that I highlighted in this segment - and the end result of each game was a loss.  On Monday night, the Dolphins lost the "Dallas Clark vs Gibril Wilson/Yeremiah Bell" matchup and the "Dolphins pass rush vs Colts offensive line" matchup - and in the process, lost the game.

As they now travel west to San Diego on short rest to take on a Chargers team that is also coming off of a tough loss, here are the three key matchups, in my opinion.  Be sure to share your thoughts below as well.

Antonio Gates vs Everybody
On Monday night ,we saw four different players fail to cover Dallas Clark - as Clark went off for 180 yards receiving and a touchdown.  Channing Crowder, Akin Ayodele, Yeremiah Bell, and Gibril Wilson all had their shots and all failed.  Just a week earlier, the Dolphins also failed to contain Tony Gonzalez - as he made big play after big play for the Falcons.  And, of course, we saw the Dolphins struggle all preseason in covering opposing tight ends.  So this is now officially a recurring problem that needs a solution fast.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Tony Sparano made it a point to tell the media that they didn't use the same gameplan for defending Gonzalez and they did Clark.  And there will be a different one yet to defend Antonio Gates.  Hopefully the Dolphins can go back to what worked so well last year.  If you remember, the Dolphins did an outstanding job on Gates in their week 5 meeting last season, with Gates being held to just 1 catch for 12 yards.  That game saw Yeremiah Bell defending Gates most of the time.  I'd imagine we'll see something similar, at least, to start off.

If Bell can't handle him, though, I think you need to go to more drastic measures.  That's why I labeled this as "Gates vs Everybody."  One of the ideas that has been kicked around my you all has been to replace a linebacker on the field with Vontae Davis in passing situations and let Vontae cover Gates.  Truth be told, I love that idea and would be all for it if Bell can't be as effective as he was last year covering Gates.  Either way, though, something has to be done to ensure the opposing tight end doesn't simply walk all over this defense yet again.

Dolphins offensive line vs Chargers defensive line
The biggest positive that came out of Monday night's loss was just how dominant Miami's running game was.  The Dolphins ran for 239 yards on 49 rushing plays.  Up front, Miami's expensive offensive line actually played up to their salaries, physically dominating the Colts' defensive line.  They blew them off the ball time and time again and rarely let a Colts defender into the backfield.  On 49 rushing attempts, only one was for negative yardage.  On the flip side, 12 of those 49 attempts - or nearly a quarter of Miami's rushing attempts - went for at least 7 yards.

That again will be the key formula this week for the Dolphins to pull off the upset.  Miami's offensive line must again dominate and provide Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams some running lanes.  Last year against San Diego, the Dolphins were able to do just that - with Brown and Williams combining for 164 yards rushing on 36 carries.  And that was with the Chargers having their monster nose tackle Jamal Williams.  But Williams was placed on Injured Reserve last week and the Chargers continue to look for his replacement.  Whoever it is, though, the Chargers will not be able to physically replace the 348 pound monster in the middle that was Williams.

So far through two games, the Chargers are 24th in the league in rush defense, allowing 139 yards per game.  On the flip side, San Diego is allowing less than 200 passing yards per game.  So for the Dolphins, the ground game will again be critical.  And that all starts up front with the "big uglies."

Darren Sproles vs Dolphins coverage units
This one might come as a surprise, but that's how important it will be to contain Darren Sproles on kick and punt returns.  He's as talented as they come and can change the momentum of a football game in a matter of seconds.

Last season, Sproles was one of the best return men in the NFL.  And in 2009, he has looked even better.  He leads the league in average yards per kick return, averaging 33.1 yards per return.  Of his 9 kick returns, 6 have gone for at least 20 yards and 3 have gone for at least 40 yards - with a long of 66 yards.  To put that into perspective, the league leader in number of kick returns over 40 yards last year had nine the entire season.  Through two weeks, Sproles already has three.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins kick coverage has looked better recently than in the past.  Against the Colts last week, the Dolphins held Chad Simpson to an average of just 18 yards per kick return, which is impressive when you consider the fact that Simpson averaged 27 yards per return against Jacksonville in week one.

On Sunday, the Dolphins have got not let Darren Sproles shrink the field for the Chargers.  After all, they have enough offensive weapons as it is without handing them great starting field position.