The Miami Dolphins will host the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the second straight NFC North team to make the trip to Miami. The Dolphins are looking to move to 5-2 on the season and push the two-straight losses they sustained in Weeks 4 and 5 further into the past. Can they keep themselves at the top of the AFC East? Can they beat the Lions? Six players may be the keys to yes answers for both questions:
Brock Osweiler, quarterback - Where else but to start with the backup quarterback who will be making his second straight start of the year? Ryan Tannehill’s shoulder injury will keep him sidelined at least one more week, meaning Osweiler will again get the ball. The Dolphins offense was highly productive on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, and they will need Osweiler to play like that again this week against another NFC North opponent.
Albert Wilson, wide receiver - DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, and Jakeem Grant all would likely have been receivers you would have named before Wilson prior to the season. Now, Wilson is breaking out and becoming a star. His speed - and Grant and Stills are essentially the same way - makes him a threat anytime he touches the ball. He currently leads the league with an average of 14.8 yards-after-catch this season; the second place average is 9.3 YAC from Quincy Enuwa. Miami needs to see that production continue this week, with Wilson able to turn a shovel pass or a screen into a 75-yard touchdown.
Frank Gore, running back - At this point, it sure seems like Gore is the primary running back for the Dolphins. In Week 6, Gore had 15 carries for 101 yards compared to Kenyan Drake’s 13 carries for 57 yards. In Week 5, Gore had 12 carries for 63 yards compared to Drake’s six carries for 46 yards. In Week 4, Gore had 11 carries for 41 yards compared to Drake’s three carries for three yards. It is starting to seem like a reversal of the pre-season expectations for the running back group. If that is the case, Gore, who has 303 yards on 62 carries for a 4.9 yards-per-carry average this year, needs to have another strong showing on Sunday. The Dolphins’ offense is predicated on getting the running game established, then using the play-action pass to open up the field. A strong start for Gore against the 30th ranked rush defense in the league (allowing 145.8 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry), a week after becoming the first 100-yard rusher against the (then) second ranked rush defense, will be a critical aspect of the game.
Bobby McCain, cornerback, and Cameron Wake, defensive end - Two starters on defense appear to be ready to return from knee injuries, and the Dolphins can definitely use them. While the defense has played well over the last couple of weeks, they are missing important pieces, especially if Wake can start generating sacks. Opposing offenses are starting to completely ignore whichever receiver Xavien Howard is covering - probably a smart choice - while picking on whichever cornerback is in the game opposite Howard. McCain coming back could shore up that spot, adding another level of difficulty with which opposing offenses must deal.
Nick O’Leary, tight end - As Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe continue to work their way through their rookie seasons - something some forget is a difficult thing for tight ends - and Miami deals with injuries (MarQueis Gray out for the year, A.J. Derby sidelined by a foot injury but looking closer and closer to returning), O’Leary stepped up big last week. A 2015 sixth-round pick by the Buffalo Bills, O’Leary was cut by Buffalo this year then spent time on Miami’s practice squad before being promoted. Now, he looks like he could be a factor in the Dolphins’ offense moving forward. He could take some of the pressure off the rookies, as well as allow Derby the time needed to reach 100 percent (thought that could be this week), and he could open up more options for the offense. Do not underestimate how important a tight end can be in the passing game. Brock Osweiler definitely made use of having one last week, and that could continue this week.