Just four days after beating the Titans, the Dolphins look to get back to two games over .500 for the first time since week two. Tonight's game is critical. And on a national stage against a first place Bears team, it's likely going to be a battle.
For the third consecutive week, I have to combine our two usual weekly preview posts into one. So let's get right to it by first highlighting two crucial matchups.
vs Dolphins special teams
Miami's struggles on special teams this year have been well documented. There's no need for me to go back and rehash everything. To simply sum it up, just think back to that week four disaster against the Patriots. Though the coverage units have been better since then, there's still some obvious concerns. When you consider that the most electrifying return man in the NFL is coming to Miami tonight, those concerns are magnified much more.
Consider Devin Hester's numbers in 2010 alone. Two kickoff returns totaling 100 yards. Twenty punt returns averaging a league best 16.7 yards per return - and two touchdowns. Devin's career numbers are even more frightening. He has 13 career kick or punt returns for touchdowns - including 9 career punt return touchdowns, the second most in NFL history. Hester's career punt return average of 11.9 yards per return is the 10th highest in league history.
Making things even more worrisome is the fact that some of the Dolphins' top special teams contributors are banged up while others will have elevated roles in the defense. For example, Chris Clemons is out, meaning Reshad Jones will start at free safety. Both are special teams contributors and Jones, who had been really playing well on the coverage teams, is likely to see more limited reps on those units due to his increased defensive role. Tyrone Culver and Roberto Wallace, both active special teamers as well, are listed as questionable.
That's a lot of missing parts for coverage teams that aren't very good to begin with - a dangerous situation for the Dolphins tonight against Hester.
Peppers may not be having the kind of season he's used to having - only two sacks and three tackles for loss on the year - but the man is still a beast. His 83 career sacks places him 6th among active players. And you can bet he'll be itching for a big performance in front of a national audience tonight.
Long, meanwhile, is only listed a questionable to play. But those who know him believe he will attempt to play with this shoulder injury. The question becomes how effective he will be going up against a premier pass rusher like Peppers. Of course, a 50% Jake Long is still better than a 100% Lydon Murtha. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about this matchup.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Pressure Cutler. No quarterback has been sacked more times than Chicago's Jay Cutler. Jay has been sacked 29 times already - five more than the next quarterback. Much of that has to do with Chicago's inept offensive line. But the Bears' offensive line has improved recently - as they have mixed and matched to find the best five man unit. In two games since their bye week, Cutler has been sacked only twice.
Of course, just getting pressure on Cutler is a recipe for success. Though he's cut down on his interceptions this year (had 26 in '09), he's still a gunslinger who plays in a "gun slinging" kind of offense under Mike Martz. And Cutler has been known to be a bit of a head case when things start going badly on the field. If Cameron Wake and company can get to Jay early, he might just do enough to beat himself the rest of the game.
2. Don't try to reel in Thigpen. We all know that Tony Sparano and Dan Henning want to run a conservative offense. But that just doesn't suit Tyler Thigpen. Tyler is making his first start since 2008. I know the coaches are going to try to limit how much responsibility he has to shoulder here in his first career Dolphins start. But being conservative just doesn't work with Thigpen.
At this point, playing with your third string quarterback, what do the Dolphins really have to lose by letting Tyler go out there and try to make plays? The way I see it, Tyler's accuracy in the short passing game isn't a strength of his anyways. So there's just as much risk involved in trying to make Thigpen a conservative pocket passer as there is in letting him get outside the pocket and take shots down the field.
These next few games might be Thigpen's only opportunity to prove himself as a starter in Miami. Hopefully the coaches play to his strengths and let him go out there with his gun blazing.