Dolphins vs. Texans: 5 Key Matchups for Sunday's Opener
It's about time we get to talk about real football again.
Now the news is what's on the field. We have games to look forward to every Sunday, and a roller coaster of a season.
However, of all of the games this week, one seems like a lock: Miami Dolphins vs. Houston Texans. Houston is a Super Bowl contender playing at home, while Miami is a team that at best is 8-8, at worst the front-runner in the "Blow for Barkley" sweepstakes.
That's what the experts say though, and while I don't see Miami beating Houston, I do think the game will be closer than everyone thinks (I also don't think Miami will sniff the Barkley sweepstakes, Tannehill will be too good).
But what matchups should we look for this Sunday when the two teams come out to play?
Dolphins Offensive Line vs. Houston's Front Seven
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The Houston Texans saw a massive defensive turnaround last season as they went from being perennial defensive bottom-feeders to ranking second in total defense and fourth in points allowed.
Houston ranked fourth against the run, but passing on them wasn't a good idea either as they ranked third against the pass while racking up 44 sacks, 17 interceptions and forcing 24 fumbles (recovering 22 of them).
The heart of Houston's defense is its front seven. Last season Antonio Smith, J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed overpowered their opponents at the line, allowing for their already great linebacking corps to remain flexible. If they wanted to drop back into coverage, they'd be able to do it very well, but if they wanted to rush the quarterback, they could do that well too.
That same front seven must be licking their chops at the prospect of facing an already weak Miami offensive line, and that's before we factor in the status of LT Jake Long, who's expected to play but will be limited by an MCL sprain he suffered during training camp.
Houston's front seven's first priority will be to stop the run; however they will also be relentless on pass plays. It will be up to Miami's offensive line to keep the Texans' rush in check, for that will be the difference between a win or a loss.
Richard Marshall vs. Andre Johnson
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Yes, Andre Johnson will be Richard Marshall's assignment, not Sean Smith's.
Smith will likely cover Johnson at times, but Marshall will have to be the man.
There's probably as much pressure on Marshall as there will be on Tannehill since this will be the first indictment as to whether Miami made the right decision to trade Vontae Davis.
Marshall is going to have to do more than hold his own against Johnson; he's going to have to win every possible battle.
Johnson has torched the Dolphins in the past (his average against the Dolphins is seven catches for 103 yards and a touchdown per game—yes that's his average, the gory details are here) and is a huge reason why the Dolphins still have had yet to beat Houston (Johnson's debut NFL game was the 2003 Dolphins-Texans game that began this streak of incompetence against Houston).
Arian Foster vs. Miami's Run Defense
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Unlike Andre Johnson, Arian Foster hasn't exactly destroyed the Dolphins in his two games against them (in fact it was Ben Tate who did major damage to the Dolphins last season but that was due to Foster being limited by a sore hamstring), but he will be healthy and available Sunday against the Dolphins and will be a huge part of the game.
Miami's run defense last season was among the tops in the NFL (they ranked third against the run), but Houston's running game is predicated on punishing you throughout the duration of the game.
Even though the Texans will likely struggle to run the ball in the first half, if things go their way on defense they will wear out the Dolphins' defense with a steady diet of Foster (and Tate) in the second half under the hot Texas sun (assuming the Texans keep the roof open, which I'm sure they would do as long as it's not raining).
Miami's defense has to stop the Texans' rushing attack early and often in the first half and force as many three-and-outs as possible. The goal is for the defense to be off the field as much as possible.
Miami's Rushing Attack vs. Houston's Front Seven
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I know some of you don't want to hear this because you think that coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman are going to pass the ball 60 times against Houston and only run the ball about 10 times, but the fact is Miami's running game will be a very important part of this game.
We've already gone through what the Texans' defense did last season against both the run and the pass.
On paper based off of last season (their only loss was Mario Williams, who didn't even play the final 11 games) Houston's defense is one that Miami's offense can't do anything against. They can stop the pass of any team, while also shutting down the running game of any team they play.
However, it can be done. Ask Daniel Thomas how he rushed for 107 yards on 18 attempts in his first-ever NFL game last year, against the Texans! Will he run the ball that many times for that many yards? Probably not, but if he can produce at the same pace with a little bit more than half the carries (10 rushes for 54 yards), then wouldn't you be happy?
The main reason for the running game is to set up the pass, which will be the main weapon. Ryan Tannehill runs the play-action very well, but to set that up properly you need your running game to instill fear in the other team that it will move the chains.
This Dolphins' rushing attack can do that, even against the best of the best in the league.
Miami's Wide Receivers vs. Houston's Secondary
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The Houston Texans' secondary doesn't have the big names in the defensive backfield that you'll see with the New York Jets or Philadelphia Eagles, but in 2011 they finished ahead of both against the pass.
This is largely due to the defensive philosophies put in place by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips was brought into Houston prior to last season to fix a defense that had a good front seven but a very maligned secondary that cost the Texans some key games in 2010. Houston's pass defense went from being ranked last in 2010 to third in 2011.
The expectations are that there will be continued improvement in Houston's secondary this season, and their matchup with Miami's wide receivers is a bit of a mismatch.
But when it boils down to it, it's about an offensive philosophy vs. a defensive philosophy; can the West Coast offense's pass schemes beat Wade Phillips' defensive scheme (to read more about it, check out this great piece by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks), and more importantly, can the players execute it?
We know Houston's players can execute their defense, but can Miami's offensive players execute their offense? We will get our first hints come Sunday.
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