The Miami Dolphins are returning from their bye week to face a grueling stretch of the schedule. The Dolphins play the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions in the next five weeks, then travel west to face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos not long after that.
The Dolphins must take this stretch one game at a time, one opponent at a time. This Sunday the Packers will be in town, so lack of focus cannot be afforded. The Dolphins will need to be focused, energized and precise in order to pull out a victory. Here are six things to watch for during the game:
1. Can the Dolphins win a shootout?
Can the Dolphins win this game if the Packers offense has a great day and scores over 30?
We know the Packers can move the ball. The team has scored over 30 points in each of their three victories this season. If the Dolphins fail to make the Packers one-dimensional, will Miami's offense be able to pick up the slack and not only keep the Dolphins in the game, but pull out the dramatic shootout victory?
There's no telling at this point. This team has shown flashes of being a great offensive team (second half against the Patriots), but has proved to be inconsistent. We don't know which offensive team we are going to get, but we can only hope that Ryan Tannehill will still be riding the groove he had in the Raiders game two weeks ago.
This game will be a big stepping stone for the Dolphins. While a shootout isn't guaranteed, it's likely that the Packers will score over 25 points. Will the Dolphins offense step up to the challenge and put enough points on the board to win the game? Or will they step down and squander the opportunity at a season-changing victory?
Something that will have a huge effect on this is....
2. How much Miami runs the ball
The Dolphins need to pound the rock Sunday. Why? Because the Packers are currently ranked dead last in the NFL in run defense and Miami boasts the fifth best yards-per-carry average. Expect to see Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and Knowshon Moreno (if healthy enough to play) handed the ball plenty.
Not only would a healthy dose of the run game keep Miami's offense balanced, it would also keep Green Bay's off the field. The old ground-and-pound, Tony Sparano-type football might be the best recipe today. Running the ball, winning the time-of-possession battle and forcing Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers offense to watch from the side of the field will work wonders.
The Dolphins will also get a huge boost on this unit with the return on Mike Pouncey. It's unclear what position Pouncey will play, guard or center, but the return of the young Pro Bowl lineman is a huge boost for an overachieving patchwork offensive line.
3. Koa Misi's return
One of the biggest question marks heading into the season for the Dolphins was the state of the team's linebacking corps.
Former strongside linebacker Koa Misi's ability to move inside and lead the Dolphins defense was a subject of much observation and discussion during the offseason. After proving to be well-acclimated to the position in limited action in the preseason, Misi injured his ankle in the first half of the Dolphins Week 1 win over the New England Patriots.
Misi has missed every game since suffering the injury but looks to make his second start of the season Sunday. Misi's return couldn't come at a better time as the Dolphins will be up against the Green Bay Packers, who boast one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses.
Misi's sure tackling will be needed in the middle of the field against the Packers' big back Eddie Lacy. The Dolphins plan on trying to make the Packers one-dimensional to try to slow the explosive offense, so Misi will need to be an enforcer in the middle.
Misi is also a very good blitzer from his middle linebacker position. Getting pressure on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will be key in this game, and having a bull like Misi available for blitzes will definitely help in that department.
Misi's return allows Jason Trusnik, a core special teamer who's been limited on his most effective unit due to filling in for Misi at MLB, to return to a struggling special teams unit.
4. Line of scrimmage battle & turnover battle
The winner of these two battles will likely be the winner of the game.
The trenches is where any given football game is won. If you get abused up front you won't end the day victorious. The Dolphins must win up front on defense. Stopping the run, forcing long third downs and getting pressure on Rodgers will be key for a Dolphins victory.
Getting Mike Pouncey back from injury is huge for the Dolphins offensive trenches. The Dolphins now have two Pro Bowl lineman and can be much more forceful in the running game.
The Dolphins must also win the turnover battle. The Dolphins currently have a turnover margin of zero despite the team's eight takeaways. That's means the team averages two turnovers per game. The Dolphins cannot afford those types of mistakes and expect to pull out a victory against a team as good as Green Bay.
A timely turnover on a strip/sack from Cameron Wake would be just what the Dolphins need (because let's be honest, the likelihood of getting an interception against Rodgers isn't great for a team that didn't have an interception until the fourth game of the season against a rookie QB).
5. Jarvis Landry
Why will Landry be someone to watch Sunday? Two reasons.
One, it's likely his last shot to impress at punt returner now that both Marcus Thigpen and Damian Williams (Landry's competition for the spot throughout training camp) are back with the Dolphins. Landry has muffed one punt and has fumbled once in his first four games as an NFL punt returner.
Two, Landry will see a bulk of action at slot receiver with Brandon Gibson's hamstring injury. Landry hasn't been overly impressive and, contrary to his reputation, has dropped a few passes. Sunday could be Landry's breakout game.
Landry has been most effective on quick-hitting play-action slant routes over the middle, and it's likely we'll see more of that this Sunday if the Dolphins establish the run game.
6. Dolphins young CBs vs Green Bay's dynamic WRs
This will be interesting to watch intently as it could be potentially lethal for Miami.
Veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan has been hobbled by injury throughout the week, and it he is unable to go then that means sophomore cornerbacks Will Davis and Jamar Taylor will handle the workload.
If Davis gets matched up on Jordy Nelson then watch out because it's a double move waiting to happen. Davis likes to jump routes, but that will get him into deep trouble against the Packers talented passing game.
It will also be interesting to see what the Dolphins decide to do with Jimmy Wilson. Will he continue his role as free safety or will the Dolphin coaches decide that Reshad Jones is ready to return to his starting role after return from his four-game suspension? Wilson will likely be on the field, but whether it's at safety or nickel cornerback is yet to be seen.