The Miami Dolphins return to Sun Life Stadium for just the third time this season as they face the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday. A Week 11 contest between two teams hoping to battle their way into the Playoffs, the game could be crucial to the hopes for both teams, with Miami looking to climb back to .500 and Dallas trying to snap a seven-game losing streak. Will the return of Tony Romo to the Cowboys' lineup be trumped by Miami's return home?
There are plenty of keys to this game, with Miami needing to come ready to play against a team that should be sparked by the return of Romo. This morning, we take a look at three things to watch for the Dolphins, which should indicate how this game is going to end.
Stop the Dallas running game
The Dolphins held former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to just 61 yards on 22 carries, a 2.77 yards per attempt average. Murray led the league in rushing by nearly 500 yards last year, running behind a Dallas offensive line that dominated every opponent. This year, the Cowboys, now with Darren McFadden as the starting running back, are not having the same type of success, but that does not mean they are not dangerous.
Even after allowing just 83 yards rushing last week, Miami is still 31st in the league with 134.6 rushing yards per game allowed. Dallas knows the struggles Miami is having against the run this season. Add in injuries to starting linebacker Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, and the Cowboys should come out trying to run the ball straight down the Dolphins' throat. If Miami is going to win this game, they have to start by stopping the Dallas rushing attack. To do that, defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell have to clog the middle of the field, and whichever linebackers are on the field have to fill gaps and make tackles. That is not a sure thing, but if Miami is able to do that, then they could turn the game into a one-dimensional contest, with Dallas having to rely on a (possibly) rusty Romo.
Going hand-in-hand with stopping the running game will be the overall play for the linebackers. Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi have not been practicing this week, due to respective ankle and abdomen injuries. Spencer Paysinger has been limited due to a neck issue. That leaves Kelvin Sheppard, Zach Vigil, Chris McCain, Neville Hewitt, and the newly-signed James-Michael Johnson as the only healthy linebackers on the roster. They are going to be taxed to stop the run, and they are going to be needed in coverage on tight end Jason Witten.
"I would say there is more on his plate, I don't know, I would say there is more," Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell said on Thursday about Sheppard being the only healthy member of the starting linebackers. "I don't know if I want to say considerably more, but certainly just the fact that he will have to do more and then he's going to have a lot of young guys that he's trying to prep for the game and his communication and all those things and yeah, he's got a load, but let me tell you Shepp is another guy who has gotten better week after week and he's really been steady as a rock and he's been, you watch the way he plays and he's sideline to sideline and he's a really good communicator, guys feed off him, he knows how to play off (DT Ndamukong) Suh, he does a lot of good things for us."
"Well, everybody's up with where we're at," Miami defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo added on where the linebacker position stands heading into the game. "All those guys are getting reps and we've kind of still got two more days and we'll kind of see how it plays out, but all hands are on deck and I think it was a lesson and well learned last week; if you're on the 53-man roster and if you're going to be active, you certainly better have a great handle on the game plan and those guys did, the younger guys and we were able to get out of there with the win but, no, everybody's up,"
The Dolphins' linebackers could decide this game, either for Miami or for Dallas. Miami will be relying on young players to prove themselves. They did well last week, but will have to back it up again this weekend if Miami is going to climb back to an even 5-5 record on the year.
Stay committed to the run
The Dolphins have found success when they stay committed to the run each week. When they abandon the run game in favor of a pass-heavy attack, the offensive line breaks down, Ryan Tannehill does not get the time to make reads, and the game quickly gets away from the offense. Lamar Miller is having a good year when the Dolphins give him the chance to carry the ball, and rookie Jay Ajayi has burst on the scene the past two weeks. Sticking with the run game will open up the rest of the offense, but the Dolphins have got to be committed.
Miller has the second fewest carries of any running back in the top 20 in rushing yards with 107 (Giovani Bernard has 99). Miller is 18th on the season rushing yardage list, but jumps to ninth in yards per attempt at 4.9, with only one runner ahead of him having more carries than Miller.
The Dolphins need to feed the ball to Miller, making the Cowboys defense, which ranks 15th against the run this year (yards per game allowed), work to stop him. A running game will open up the play-action pass, it will open up lanes for quarterback runs, and it will allow Miami to use the full playbook, rather than resort to the Philbin-esque pass-only offense.