Dolphins vs. Cardinals: 10 Keys to the Game for Miami
Entering this season, the Cardinals had a rather dismal outlook.
One year after signing a $65 million deal, Kevin Kolb lost the starting quarterback job to former fifth-round draft pick John Skelton. Beyond that, Arizona had no viable wide receiving threats outside of Larry Fitzgerald, and its defense ranked just 18th in the NFL in 2011.
Despite their perceived lack of talent, the Cardinals have defied the odds and defeated the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles in the first three weeks of this 2012 season.
If anything, the Cardinals' tale should be an inspiring one for the Miami Dolphins—another team that was ruled out of playoff contention by the masses before the season even started. However, if the Dolphins don't win this daunting road matchup, then whatever playoff hopes this team has will take a damaging blow.
But by following these 10 keys, the 'Phins can get back to .500 and escape from Arizona with a win.
Blitz Early and Often to Expose Arizona's Suspect Offensive Line
Although the Cardinals won their first three games, they are far, far from perfect. Arizona still has glaring shortcomings on its roster, particularly along its offensive line.
The Cardinals' starting offensive line—D'Anthony Batiste, Daryn College, Lyle Sendlein, Adam Snyder, Bobby Massie—has collectively yielded six sacks, four quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries.
Pro Football Focus currently has Batiste ranked as the worst offensive tackle in the NFL.
Although Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals offense has succeeded despite these offensive line woes, that shouldn't prevent Kevin Coyle from blitzing aggressively.
Get Lamar Miller More Involed, Especially If Reggie Bush Is Inactive
Whether or not Bush does in fact play, Miami needs to make a concerted effort to get Lamar Miller more involved in the gameplan.
In the last two weeks alone (inactive in Week 1), he has racked up 113 rushing yards on 19 carries and one touchdown. Miller has showcased the explosiveness that made him such a dangerous and dynamic weapon at the University of Miami. And, he has also displayed an ability to run in between the tackles.
The Dolphins are and should be cautious with Miller considering his past durability issues; however, he has shown too much to sit on the sidelines. Mike Sherman should get him involved in any way possible, even if that means playing him at wide receiver, where he took reps in minicamp.
Force the Cardinals to Rush off the Left Side of Their Offensive Line
Cardinals running back Beanie Wells was placed on injured reserve yesterday, so the Dolphins will see a heavy dose of sophomore Ryan Williams and veteran LaRod Stephens-Howling (but primarily Williams).
This is a welcome break for the Dolphins, especially considering Williams is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry thus far.
In order to completely thwart Arizona's substandard rushing attack, Miami should try to steer Williams and Stephens-Howling to run off the left side of their offensive line. So far this season, Cardinals running backs have rushed for a dismal 48 rushing yards on 26 carries when they rush outside of the left tackle, in between the left tackle and left guard and in between the left guard and center (Pro Football Focus).
The Dolphins have been absolutely dominant against the run this season, so shutting down the Cardinals rushing attack should be a cakewalk. In order to ensure this, the 'Phins should use their domineering front seven to force Arizona's running backs in toward their most inefficient spots.
Do Everything Possible to Shut Down Larry Fitzgerald
When the Cardinals defeated the Patriots in Week 2, Larry Fitzgerald caught one pass for only the third time in his nine-year career.
Fitzgerald rebounded strongly in Week 3, reeling in nine receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Although Arizona won both games, Miami should try to replicate New England's shutdown effort and contain Fitzgerald by all means necessary. When he is removed from the game, Kevin Kolb is left with an arsenal that includes names such as Andre Roberts, Early Doucet, Michael Floyd, Todd Heap, Jeff King and Robert Housler.
Sean Smith has the size and athleticism to limit Fitzgerald, and Richard Marshall practiced against him when he was a member of the Cardinals last year. Neither Smith nor Marshall have lived up to expectations to this juncture, but Sunday's game is a prime opportunity for one or both to redeem themselves.
Respect the Cardinals Defense
The Cardinals defense might not strike you as a dominant unit, but it has been just that since the second half of last year.
In the last nine games of the 2011 season, the 'Cards allowed just fewer than 16 points per game. During that stretch, Arizona went 7-2.
So far this season, opponents are averaging only 13.3 points per game against the Cardinals.
This doesn't bode particularly well for a Dolphins offense that sputtered against the Houston Texans and New York Jets. It's imperative that Miami respect how good this Cardinals defense is. In other words, this isn't the game to experiment.
Instead, the Dolphins should stick to an efficient, quick-pass, run-first offensive attack.
Protect Ryan Tannehill
Still don't believe the Cardinals have a dominant defense?
Then, consider this: They have 12 sacks through three games, good enough for second-most in the NFL. To make matters more concerning, the Cards are generating a pass rush from all over the place. Seven different players have registered sacks, and no player has recorded more than two.
Needless to say, the Dolphins need to do everything in their power to protect their rookie QB, especially in a hostile environment.
Last week, the Jets blitzed on 14 passing plays (PFF). Tannehill failed to complete a single pass on those 14 plays, so you can rest assured the Cardinals will bring heavy and complex blitzes throughout Sunday's game.
It's time for Jonathan Martin and John Jerry to elevate their games and keep Arizona's pass rush at bay.
Don't Abandon the Gameplan Again
A strange and disturbing trend has developed through the Dolphins' first three games: abandonment of the gameplan.
In each game, Miami has stressed a run-first offensive approach with great results. However, it has departed from this effective attack in favor of a pass-first attack, which has proven ineffective on all occasions.
Joe Philbin might've come to Miami with intentions to install a pass-happy aerial attack, but he does not have the personnel to do that this year. Truth is, the Dolphins' passing game is in no shape to close out a game or carry this team to a victory.
Instead, he and Mike Sherman need to stick to what's currently working: the running game.
Get Tight Ends Involved in the Gameplan
Arizona's defense has few weaknesses, so the Dolphins need to expose those select shortcomings in order to steal a win on Sunday.
Getting Anthony Fasano and Charles involved in the passing game may expose one of those weaknesses.
The Cardinals yielded a combined eight receptions for 111 receiving yards to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Brent Celek in the last two weeks. Furthermore, in Week 2, linebacker Daryl Washington surrendered eight receptions on nine targets for 96 yards. And last week, linebacker Paris Lenon surrendered two receptions for 25 yards.
Charles Clay has literally been a ghost this season, but Anthony Fasano has already contributed 10 receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. If there was ever a week to get Clay involved, this is it. But either way, Fasano should be a focal point of Sunday's scheme.
Execute in the Red Zone
The Dolphins have scored on only five of their nine red-zone trips this season.
According to TeamRankings.com's calculations, the 'Phins rank 20th in red-zone scoring attempts per game.
Given the offense's struggles, it cannot afford to stall in the red zone. If the Dolphins are only going to make, on average, three trips inside of their opponents' 20 yardline, then they simply can't afford not to capitalize on every opportunity.
Sunday's game figures to be a low-scoring affair, and a missed red-zone attempt could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Laces Out, Dan
Don't panic because Dan Carpenter missed two field goals last week.
But understand that while Carpenter has been very reliable for the majority of his five-year tenure with the Dolphins, he has also encountered some serious struggles.
In 2010, Carpenter had the worst season of his career. He missed 11 field goals (though, in his defense, he did attempt a league-high 41 field goals), and the Dolphins went 1-5 in games that he missed tries in.
Carpenter certainly isn't to blame for all of those losses, nor is he to blame for last week's. However, this Dolphins offense needs every point it can scavenge, so it's vital that he convert on all of his field-goal tries on Sunday.
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