Game: Miami Dolphins (8-7) at Tennessee Titans (10-5)
Date/Time/TV: January 2nd, 2022 / 1:00 PM ET / CBS
Location: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
SB Nation: Music City Miracles | @TitansMCM
7 wins later, and we’re still here. I know I wrote this last week, but THIS is now the biggest game of Miami’s season. Of course, if we end up winning on Sunday, I’m sure I’ll just be saying the same thing again next week.
Regardless, Miami travels to Nashville this week to take on Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans. Coached by ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel, Tennessee plays the game tough, fast, and strong. Unfortunately for Tennessee, they’ll be without star running back Derrick Henry, who is quite literally the living embodiment of those three traits.
Even so, the Titans aren’t a team to be taken lightly, and must be played against with the utmost preparation and commitment. Ultimately, Sunday’s game will come to a few personnel and schematic advantages across the field, both of which are highlighted below.
Who’s Got The Edge?
QB - Dolphins. Sorry Ryan, but we upgraded. Don’t worry though, we still love you down here. Jokes aside, it should be painfully obvious that in 2021, Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa is the better football player. While Tannehill is blessed with physical gifts that Tagovailoa will simply never possess, the former is a much more erratic quarterback and often struggles without a strong running game.
In 2021, Tannehill threw a league-high 14 interceptions and only 15 touchdowns. While Tua has only thrown 15 touchdowns, he’s thrown a lot fewer interceptions (9) and ranks 9th in the league in QBR (54.6). For some context, Kyler Murray was selected for the 2021 Pro Bowl, and ranks 8th in the NFL with a QBR of 55.3. Also, Tua leads all NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage, completing an outstanding 70.1% of his passes this season. So yeah, if you didn’t already realize, this Tua kid is pretty good.
RB - Titans. Even with Derrick Henry out for Sunday’s game, Tennessee’s running game is still better than Miami’s. In Henry’s absence, backup D’Onta Foreman has filled in admirably, racking up 365 yards on 86 carries (4.2 yards per attempt). Although Gaskin may have more raw yards (590), he’s done it with almost 2x the carries (167). Of course, Gaskin doesn’t have the luxury of playing behind Tennessee’s offensive line, who play a big part in the Titans’ success on the ground. However, even purely on skill level, Foreman is a much more “natural” running back than Gaskin is. And although Duke Johnson has impressed in recent weeks, his sample size is simply too small to make an accurate judgment. So, even without Derrick Henry, Tennessee’s running game still takes the edge.
WR - Dolphins. The Titans are pretty thin at the wideout position, as they’ve dealt with multiple injuries to various wideouts this season. Leading receiver A.J. Brown has missed four games this year, tallying 57 receptions for 760 yards. Furthermore, the drop-off in quality after Brown is pretty poor. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine has been the Titans’ 2nd-most productive receiver this season, recording a measly 34 catches for 398 yards across 14 games.
Individually though, none of Tennessee’s receivers compare to the production of Miami’s top receiver, Jaylen Waddle. Waddle has played at an elite level in 2021 and seems to be getting better each week. So far in 2021, Waddle has tallied 96 receptions (6th-most in the NFL) for 941 yards. Even DeVante Parker (who’s only appeared in 8 games this season) has 35 catches for 457 yards, posting better numbers than Tennessee’s #2 receiver, but in 6 less games. Even though both teams have suffered their fair share of injuries, Miami’s WRs are definitely the better unit.
TE - Dolphins. I say this every week, but there’s only a handful of tight ends in the NFL that can compare to Mike Gesicki. Yes, I’m well aware of his blocking struggles, and it’s obviously a huge flaw in his game. But, at the same time, I can’t just ignore his overall production on offense. Across all NFL tight ends, Gesicki ranks 4th in receptions (67) and 7th in yards (707). Add those flashy 1-handed catches, and I’m struggling to find many better in his position in the league.
Meanwhile, the Titans’ leading tight end Anthony Firsker only has 27 catches for 211 yards on the year. In fact, even Miami’s backup tight end Durham Smythe has more catches than Trautman this year (29), as well as more receiving yards (288). Very clearly, Miami has the edge here.
OL -Titans. The less I say about Miami’s offensive line, the better. According to Pro Football Focus, Miami’s offensive line still ranks worst in the league, even after slight improvement in recent weeks. I don’t even need to mention Tennessee’s offensive line, because it’s quite literally not possible to be worse than Miami’s. In all honesty, Miami doesn’t have a single player that would start for the Titans’ offensive line. If that doesn’t speak volumes, I’m not sure what will.
DL - Dolphins. Whilst Miami may not have a single “star” on their defensive line, the Dolphins still lead the NFL in sacks (45) and rank 2nd in QB pressures (182). Sure, coaching and schematics plays a huge part in this, but it’s also the sheer talent that Miami has up front. Emmanuel Ogbah, Jaelen Phillips, and Christian Wilkins are some of the most underrated players in the league, and their ability to plug up holes and attack the QB are huge reasons as to why Miami’s defensive line is so effective. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Christian Wilkins is actually the 3rd-best nose-tackle in the NFL, with an overall grade of 86.1.
But, Tennessee’s defensive line isn’t too shabby either. They rank 11th in the league in sacks (37) and 8th in QB pressures (150). Edge rusher Harold Landry and nose tackle Teair Tart are 2 of Tennessee’s best players up front, and both will definitely be a problem for Miami on Sunday. Regardless, it’s obvious that Miami’s defensive line is clearly still the better unit.
LB - Titans. Miami’s linebacking core is probably the weakest area of the Dolphins’ defense, but it’s actually a strength of Tennessee’s. Dolphins’ LB Jerome Baker is a great run-stopper and excels at blitzing, but generally struggles in coverage and in the open field. Meanwhile, Rashaan Evans of the Titans has been a reliable, all-round linebacker since being drafted in 2018.It’s not a landslide, but I’ll have to give the edge to the Titans.
DB - Dolphins. While Kevin Byrd and Amani Hooker of the Titans are two of the best safeties in the league, Miami’s Jevon Holland is an elite player in his own right. More importantly, Miami’s cornerbacks are head and shoulders above the Titans. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are superstar cornerbacks, and will be a handful for Ryan Tannehill and the Titans. Ultimately, although Tennessee has slightly better safeties, the gap between Miami’s corners and Tennessee’s corners is the deciding factor here.
Special Teams - Titans. Titans kicker Randy Bullock has been one of the league’s best kickers this year, knocking through 24 of his 28 field goal attempts (85%). Meanwhile, Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders has struggled all year, missing 7 of his 27 attempted field goals. This is a pretty big advantage for Tennessee, as Sunday’s game might come down to just a few points.
In terms of punting, the Dolphins have the clear advantage in Michael Palardy, who’s landed 28 punts inside the opponents 20-yard-line this season (3rd-most in the NFL). Titans’ punter Brett Kern has only landed 15 punts inside the opponents 20-yard-line this season, and is averaging less yards per punt (44.1) than Palardy (44.8).
But, you don’t score any points for punting the football, and so Tennessee’s advantage in the kicking department gives them the edge.
Which Matchups Will Decide The Game?
1) Miami’s Running Game vs. Tennessee’s 3-4 Defense
The Titans employ a 3-4 defensive scheme, which is typically stronger against pass than the run. However, Miami’s running game has been a weakness all season, with the Dolphins struggling to move the football on the ground. It’ll be tough, but if Miami can run the football well, it’ll force Tennessee to move out of their 3-4 defense, and push extra bodies closer and closer to the line. As a result, Miami can start using the play-action and RPO more effectively, due to the additional space in the open field where Miami’s receivers can wreak havoc. If done properly, that’s how Miami can win the game.
It sounds odd, but running the ball well will actually allow Miami to score points through the air, and effectively take the game out of reach for Tennessee. The Titans won’t be able to keep up in a shootout, especially without the threat of Derrick Henry on the ground. Run the ball well to open up the passing game, and Miami will emerge with a victory.
2) Miami’s DL vs Tennessee’s OL
Protect your QB, and pressure your opponents’ QB. That’s how you win games in the NFL, simple as. Miami definitely can’t do the former, but they excel at the latter.
Tennessee’s offensive line is no joke, but neither is Brian Flores. It’ll be hard to go man-for-man against their offensive line, so I suspect Flores will send extra pressure when needed. Don’t be surprised if you see Jevon Holland or Nik Needham in the backfield at some point! Call blitz packages, give different coverage looks at the line, but do whatever you must to throw off Ryan Tannehill.
Sacks kill drives, but more importantly, they kill confidence and momentum. Miami hasn’t had a problem doing that all year, so I don’t expect that to change on Sunday. If Miami can get to Tannehill in the backfield (they usually do), I don’t see a way that Tennessee wins this game.
So, what are your predictions for Sunday’s game vs. the Titans? Will the Dolphins pull off the upset in Tennessee, or will Ryan Tannehill and the Titans drown Miami in their playoff hopes? Leave your predictions in the comments below!