Dolphins vs Bengals: 10 Keys to the Game for Miami
Although the Dolphins sit at the bottom of the AFC East with a 1-3 record, they're a pair of missed field goals and inexplicable fourth-quarter collapses away from a 3-1 record.
But there's no point in playing the "what-if" game.
Miami can only move forward from here, and it has a great opportunity to rebound from those heartbreaking losses this week.
The Cincinnati Bengals may boast a 3-1 record, but they are a flawed team vulnerable to a strong rushing attack and run defense—two things the Dolphins specialize in. By following these 10 keys, the 'Phins can begin their climb back to .500 this week.
Shut Down A.J. Green by All Means Possible
In only his second NFL season, A.J. Green is already creeping into the sphere of elite NFL wide receivers.
After four games, Green has 27 receptions (fifth-most in the league) for 428 yards (second to only Brian Hartline) and three touchdowns (second-most amongst wide receivers).
Green is not only the most dangerous weapon in Cincinnati's arsenal, he's one of the most explosive players in the entire league. Naturally, it's absolutely imperative the Dolphins do everything in their power to contain him.
If Green is contained, then Andy Dalton must rely on a substandard supporting cast highlighted by a struggling BenJarvus Green-Ellis, drop-prone Jermaine Gresham and no-names Andrew Hawkins and Armon Binns.
But, can Sean Smith and the Dolphins' 30th-ranked pass defense realistically slow Green?
And, if it does, can it also shut down the rest of Cincy's offense however pedestrian it might be?
Respect Andrew Hawkins and Armon Binns
Unless you regularly scour the fantasy football waiver wires, chances are you've never heard of either Andrew Hawkins or Armon Binns.
Just for some quick background: Hawkins is a 5'7", 26-year-old Toledo alum who's in his second NFL season (but first on an active roster). He has 23 receptions for 263 yards through four games. Binns, meanwhile, is a 6'3" undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati who has reeled in 12 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown.
Although their stat lines are underwhelming, the Dolphins and their banged-up 30th-ranked pass defense cannot take them lightly. Both Nolan Carroll and Richard Marshall are struggling with injuries, further diminishing the secondary's capacity.
If a healthy Dolphins secondary allowed Andre Roberts to register 118 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, then what kind of damage might these two under-the-radar wideouts do?
Generate a Pass Rush to Ease the Burden on the Secondary
If the Dolphins can pressure Andy Dalton like they did Kevin Kolb last week, then it'll greatly ease the burden on this shoddy, injury-riddled secondary.
The Bengals have already yielded 12 sacks in 2012, which is the third-highest total in the NFL. Although no one lineman has played particularly poorly, there are two players whom the Dolphins should concentrate their pass rush toward: Andre Smith and Jermaine Gresham.
Smith, Cincinnati's right tackle, has only allowed one sack this season. However, he has allowed six quarterback pressures, which doubles the second-highest total amongst Bengals linemen. Smith has the misfortune of lining up across from Cameron Wake, who Pro Football Focus ranks as the best pass-rusher in the NFL. Wake will turn those quarterback pressures into sacks.
Then, there's tight end Jermaine Gresham. Through four games, he has stayed in to pass block on 30 snaps, during which he has surrendered two sacks, one quarterback hit and two quarterback hurries. Gresham is a liability in pass protection, and the Dolphins should aim to further expose his struggles.
Don't Ask or Expect Ryan Tannehill to Repeat His Week 4 Performance
Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins passing game exploded for 431 yards last week.
Now facing the league's 16th-ranked pass defense, it only seems logical for the 'Phins to continue airing it out.
Not so fast.
Bengals starting cornerbacks Nate Clements and Leon Hall are both set to return from injuries this week. Those two will significantly bolster Cincy's ailing secondary and ensure Tannehill doesn't go off for another 400-yard plus performance.
Plus, backups Terence Newman and Adam 'Pacman' Jones played very well in place of their injured superiors.
The Dolphins can't ask Tannehill to replicate his record-setting Week 4 performance. Rather, they should stick to the conservative gameplan that has worked in these last few weeks—short to intermediate routes in the seam and at the numbers.
Don't Fear BenJarvus Green-Ellis
The Dolphins will have their hands full with A.J. Green on Sunday, but they won't have such trouble with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis signed with the Bengals in March following a productive four-year stint with the New England Patriots.
Although he was a symbol of consistency and reliability in New England, he has been anything but in Cincinnati.Through four games, "The Law Firm" is averaging a measly 3.5 yards per carry and has already fumbled three times.
Furthermore, Green-Ellis has never played particularly well against the Dolphins. In six career games versus Miami, he has registered 227 rushing yards on 54 carries—a decent 4.2 yards per carry.
The Dolphins currently have the NFL's top-ranked run defense, and it shouldn't have any problems thwarting a stale Bengals ground game. Instead, Miami's defense can focus its efforts on slowing A.J. Green down.
Beware Geno Atkins
Though the Dolphins shouldn't be intimidated by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, there's one player on the other side of the ball whom they should be intimidated by: Geno Atkins.
Pro Football Focus ranks Atkins as the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL.
So far, the 6'1", 293-pound defensive tackle has accrued five sacks, three quarterback hits, 13 quarterback hurries and 12 stops—defined by PFF as "the number of solo defensive tackles made which constitute an offensive failure."
Atkins is a one-man wrecking machine who will make his presence felt on Sunday. It's up to Miami's interior offensive line—Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry—to prevent him from terrorizing Ryan Tannehill and swinging the game in Cincy's favor.
Welcome Bengals Blitzes
As odd as it might sound, the Dolphins shouldn't fret too much about Geno Atkins and the Bengals pass rush.
Because Ryan Tannehill leads all NFL quarterbacks in accuracy percentage under pressure. Tannehill has come under pressure in 31.2 percent (48) of his 154 drop-backs and has completed 23 of 41 pass attempts.
It's an astounding feat for any rookie, let alone one who only started 19 games in college.
The Bengals have one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators in Mike Zimmer. Chances are, he's aware of Tannehill's success under pressure, and hence might not send too many blitzes—but rather keep his defense in coverage.
If that's the case, then Reggie Bush, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas can slice up Cincinnati's 24th-ranked run defense.
Emphasize a Run-First Attack
Despite Ryan Tannehill's Week 4 success, the Dolphins should stick to their bread and butter—running the football.
For starters—and as I mentioned earlier—the Bengals secondary is receiving a big boost from the return of cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements. Cincy's pass defense may only rank 16th, but that figure should rise in the next few weeks.
Secondly, Cincinnati's run defense has been dismal this season. It's surrendering 130.8 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.
This is a great matchup for Miami's fifth-ranked rushing attack, even if Reggie Bush isn't at full health.
Contain Jermaine Gresham and the Bengals Tight Ends
Year after year, the Dolphins struggle to contain opposing tight ends.
This year is no exception.
Although the 'Phins are yet to face a top-flight tight end (though, to his credit, Owen Daniels is a borderline top 10 tight end), they've been burnt regardless. Here's how opposing tight ends have fared against Miami thus far:
Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham has already caught 17 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers might sound underwhelming, but Gresham is far more dangerous than some of the tight ends that have already thrived against the 'Phins.
The Dolphins need to make a concerted effort to shut down A.J. Green, but they can't let Gresham slip through the cracks and torch them.
Make Your Field Goals, Dan Carpenter
By no means is Dan Carpenter solely responsible for the Dolphins' Week 3 and Week 4 losses, but he certainly shoulders a great deal of the blame.
Carpenter missed a pair of potential game-winning field goals in Week 3—including one in overtime—and followed that up by shanking a 51-yard attempt in Week 4.
Had he converted those field goal tries, the Dolphins could be sitting atop the AFC East with a 3-1 record.
Again, Carpenter isn't responsible for those losses—the Dolphins as a whole are—but his misfires have cost the team dearly. He needs to justify his $2.5 million salary and provide a consistent and reliable kicker that doesn't crack under pressure.