We can finally put training camp, the preseason, and the roster cuts behind us now and look forward to the 2009 regular season. It feels like forever since the Dolphins last took the field for a meaningful football game. That all comes to an end on Sunday when the Dolphins take the field in Atlanta. Between now and then, we'll talk about both the upcoming season as a whole and the actual game itself.
To kick things off, I wanted to provide my thoughts on what the three keys to a successful season are for the Dolphins. Once you read my thoughts, of course, please tell us what your keys to the season are for our Fins in the comments below.
Run the ball effectively out of base formations
As much as I love the 'Wildcat' and believe it can still be a useful formation for the Dolphins, I still can't seem to shake the notion that the Dolphins implemented the formation out of desperation. What I mean by that is that Miami really was unimpressive running the ball out of its base formations.
If you simply look at the 2008 season stats, you would see the Dolphins ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 14th in yards per carry. But those numbers are greatly inflated thanks to the 'Wildcat' success that the Dolphins had last season. And while I love what the formation has meant to this team and look forward to seeing it used in 2009, the Dolphins can't afford to use it as a crutch again to cover up their inefficiencies running the ball.
Last year the Dolphins averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on non-Wildcat plays. That would have ranked Miami 28th in the NFL least year - tied with the lowly Detroit Lions. With the amount of money invested in this offensive line, there's no reason why the Dolphins shouldn't be able to really improve that figure.
Tony Sparano is also a believer of winning the time of possession battle and simply running more plays than your opponent runs. Now that philosophy covers many things - converting on 3rd down, stopping opponents on 3rd down, not turning the ball over, and so on. But a major factor is running the football. And this philosophy is especially important this season when you consider the high-powered offenses that the Dolphins will face. Nine of Miami's 16 games will come against teams that finished in the top half of the NFL in total offense last year. To win those games, the Dolphins must keep those offenses off of the field.
One other stat to consider: Miami was just 1-3 last year when Chad Pennington was forced to throw the football 35+ times.
Consistent pressure on the quarterback
While most eyes will be on Miami's new look secondary - a unit that will feature two new starters - I'm a firm believer that even more attention should be focused on the Dolphins' pass rush. After all, you can't complete passes if your receivers have no time to get open and your quarterback has no time to locate those open receivers.
Last year, the Dolphjns finished 8th in the league with 40 sacks and Joey Porter led the AFC with 17.5. But Porter wore down as the season went on because he was receiving little help from his teammates. In the final four games of 2008 (weeks 15-17 and the playoff loss to Baltimore), Porter had just one sack.
The Dolphins obviously recognized this and went out this offseason to get J-Peezy some help. They brought back Jason Taylor - and he looks ready for a big year, in my opinion - and signed CFL pass-rushing specialist Cameron Wake.
But it's not the linebackers, in particular, that I'm pointing my finger at. No, it's the defensive line. The Dolphins only got 9.5 sacks from defensive linemen last season. I know this is a 3-4 defense so most pressure comes from the linebackers. But good 3-4 defenses still get push from their linemen. For example, the Steelers got 11.5 sacks from their defensive linemen.
Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, Phillip Merling - I'm looking at you here. Pressure from the down linemen only makes it easier for the outstanding pass-rusing linebackers that this team has.
Match your division rivals
So you're probably wondering what in the world I'm talking about here. Well I've been reluctant to bring up what everybody else wants to bring up when discussing the Dolphins - their schedule.
Yes, it's hard. It could potentially be a very difficult schedule that the Dolphins face in 2009. But outside of two games, all of the teams in the AFC East face the same opponents. For example, while the Dolphins face the Steelers and Chargers, the Patriots take on the Ravens and Broncos. No - not as difficult; but certainly not that much easier, either.
So what do I mean by "matching the division rivals?" Simple - just do what they do. All the Dolphins have to do in their 10 non-divisional games is match the records of their division rivals.
You see, I'm not a firm believer that the Patriots are that much better than the Dolphins. There's this thought out there that since Tom Brady is back, the Patriots will instantly revert to their dominating 2007 ways. Sorry, but that's just not going to happen. It doesn't work like that - no matter what ESPN and other media outlets want you to think.
In my opinion, though, the Dolphins and Patriots are indeed the top two teams in the division. So I'll just single out these two teams. To win the division and make the playoffs, all the Dolphins have to do is match what the Patriots do in their other 14 games - and then beat the Patriots when they play. It's that simple. Everybody wants to make a big stink about how hard Miami's schedule is. But these same people seem to forget all about the schedule when they start discussing the Patriots. But I got news for you - the Patriots aren't so much better than the Dolphins that a tough schedule will have little effect on them while, at the same time, will ruin Miami's season.
That's how this season breaks down in a nut shell - match the Patriots game-for-game in those other 14 games and then knock off the Pats when they play head-to-head. After all, this "tough schedule" nonsense means little if the Dolphins can't go toe-to-toe with New England and beat them.