Seahawks vs. Dolphins: 10 Keys to the Game for Miami

Scott AltmanCorrespondent INovember 23, 2012

Seahawks vs. Dolphins: 10 Keys to the Game for Miami

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    When the Dolphins and Seahawks meet in Miami on Sunday, all eyes will be on rookie quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson. 

    Entering training camp, Tannehill was perceived as a raw, inexperienced quarterback stuck behind two quality veterans. Wilson, meanwhile, was perceived as a physically limited quarterback stuck behind a big-money free-agent signing (Matt Flynn). 

    However, both clawed up their way up the depth chart and never looked back. Tannehill and Wilson have proven to be skilled and poised beyond their years, and, more impressively, have defied all odds to keep their teams alive in the playoff hunt. 

    Although Miami's playoff hopes are fading after a three-game losing streak, Seattle currently holds one of the NFC Wild-Card slots.

    So, the Dolphins' season is essentially on the line this Sunday. 

    How can Tannehill outshine his fellow rookie and keep Miami's playoff hopes alive?

    Here are 10 keys. 

10. Make Russell Wilson Beat You

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    The Seahawks average 255 passing yards per game. That's dead last in the NFL

    So, it almost goes without saying: take away the run and make Russell Wilson win the game. 

    That's Easier said than done, of course. 

    Wilson doesn't post spectacular numbers, but he doesn't make many mistakes either. He has thrown only two interceptions in the last five weeks and has finished only three games with a quarterback rating below 80. 

    In order to shut down Wilson, the Dolphins can't let him scramble. On average, he takes 3.19 seconds to throw or scramble past the line of scrimmage, which is the most among all NFL quarterbacks (per Pro Football Focus). Wilson is extremely aware in the pocket and able to buy himself time. It's vital that Cam Wake, Jared Odrick and Miami's linebackers seal the edge and force him to connect with a pedestrian wide-receiver corps. 

9. Establish the Run

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    Dolphins' average rushing yards per game in their first five games: 129.6

    Dolphins' average rushing yards per game in their last five games: 66.2

    What went wrong?

    Well, Reggie Bush is a fraction of the player he was at the beginning of the season, the offensive line is getting dominated in the trenches and defenses are putting more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to carry this offense. 

    The Seahawks have the NFL's 12th-ranked run defense, so this will be no easy task. 

    However, the Dolphins do have three very talented backs capable of thriving against any defense. They just need Mike Sherman to commit to establishing the run.

    Miami has so much talent and explosiveness in its backfield—far more than in its wide receiver corps, anyway. Although Sherman and Joe Philbin may want a pass-happy offense in the future, this team's personnel demands a run-first philosophy. 

    The Seahawks also have the league's third-ranked pass defense, which is a rather terrifying matchup for Ryan Tannehill and a sputtering Dolphins passing game. If Miami can't establish the run, it'll have serious problems putting points on the board. 

8. Run It Straight Up the Gut

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    If the Dolphins indeed commit to establishing the run, they should also commit to pounding it straight up the gut. 

    That's where Seattle is most vulnerable. 

    When the Seahawks faced the 49ers in Week 7, Frank Gore rushed for 95 yards on the six carries he took into the "A" gaps—on either side of the center. Similarly, Mikel Leshoure rushed for 25 yards on three carries and Adrian Peterson rushed for 27 yards on three carries in the same gaps. 

    Moreover, Jason Jones and Alan Branch rank 59th and 64th, respectively, among 4-3 defensive tackles against the run. Defensive ends Red Bryant, Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons rank 44th, 55th and 63rd among 4-3 defensive ends in the same category (per Pro Football Focus). 

    It just so happens the Dolphins have the NFL's second-rated center and rush more effectively up the middle than anywhere else.  

    Daniel Thomas is Miami's most physical back, so this could be his time to shine. However, Reggie Bush has also run very efficiently between the tackles. Whoever it is, the Dolphins should make a concerted effort to expose one of the only weaknesses on this Seattle defense. 

7. Stack the Box and Expose Seattle's Subpar Run-Blocking

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    As I discussed earlier, taking away Marshawn Lynch and Seattle's rushing attack will put pressure on Russell Wilson to carry his offense and win the game. 

    This is what the Dolphins want to happen. 

    So, how do they make it reality?

    Stack the box. 

    This is riskier than it might seem. Although the Seahawks' passing game does rank dead last in the NFL, they still have Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. These names might not intimidate most secondaries, but the Dolphins' secondary has already yielded huge games to the likes of Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton and Brandon Gibson. 

    In order to ease the burden on its secondary, Miami's defensive front needs to expose Seattle's suspect run blocking. Only Russell Okung and Max Unger have earned positive run-blocking grades from Pro Football Focus. 

6. Bring Down Marshawn Lynch at First Contact or Pay for It Later

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    If you're wondering how the Seahawks can have the NFL's seventh-ranked rushing offense with suspect run blocking, here's your answer: Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. 

    No player runs with more fire and ferociousness than Lynch.

    According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-most rushing yards after contact (583) in the NFL and averages just a hair under three yards after contact per attempt. Lynch's ability to shed tackles compensates for Seattle's run-blocking shortcomings. 

    The Dolphins defense has 59 missed tackles this season, but there's no room for error against Lynch. He's a threat to take any run—no matter how inescapable it initially looks—to the house. It's imperative Miami defenders fly to the football and prevent Beast Mode from going into Beast Mode. 

5. Don't Forget About Golden Tate

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    It took him two-and-a-half years, but it looks like former second-round pick Golden Tate is finally hitting his stride. 

    In his first two NFL seasons, Tate caught a modest 56 passes for 609 yards and three touchdowns. This year, he's on pace to register 42 receptions for 534 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tate has come on in the last three weeks, reeling in 13 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns.  

    Because Sean Smith will most likely shadow Sidney Rice, Tate will have the opportunity to face off against Nolan Carroll. I say "opportunity" because Carroll is coming off an ugly performance against the Buffalo Bills during which he was penalized four times. 

    Another reason to beware of Tate: the Dolphins have been burned by no-name wideouts all season, including Andre Roberts, T.Y. Hilton, Donnie Avery, Brandon Gibson and Chris Givens.

    So, while you'll hear plenty of talk about Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Sidney Rice, don't forget about Tate. He just might be the X-factor for Seattle's offense on Sunday. 

4. Let Ryan Tannehill Take Some Shots Downfield

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    The Dolphins may not have any explosive vertical threats, but is there any reason to keep Ryan Tannehill so shackled?

    Only 13 percent of Tannehill's 308 pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Even in Miami's 37-3 blowout loss to Tennessee two weeks ago, he attempted only two such passes. 

    It's impossible to distinguish how much of this deep-ball reluctance falls on Mike Sherman and how much falls on Tannehill. 

    Either way, could it hurt to start taking more shots downfield? Maybe give Marlon Moore and Rishard Matthews a chance to showcase their speed?

    Sunday's matchup against a massive, physical Seahawks secondary may not seem like the most opportune time to start testing this offense's limitations. But, then again, the Dolphins' passing game has been stagnant for weeks.

    Why not throw Seattle some curveballs?

3. Rediscover That Dominant Third-Down Defense

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    Up until Week 9, the Dolphins had the NFL's best third-down defense. 

    Miami allowed opposing teams to convert only 30 percent of their third-down attempts before that loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In the last three weeks, however, the Dolphins are yielding first downs on 37 percent of third downs. 

    For some inexplicable reason, the Dolphins' third-down defense has regressed from elite to mediocre. 

    Whether its execution, fatigue, bad play-calling, or a combination of the three, this is a problem that needs to be rectified. By allowing offenses to regularly convert third downs, the Dolphins are obviously making it easier for their opponents to score—but that's only part of the problem. 

    By extending drives, offenses can tire Miami's defense mentally and physically. 

    The Seahawks have converted only 33.3 percent of their third-down conversion attempts, which is the seventh-worst rate in the NFL. If there was ever a week for the Dolphins' defense to get its third-down mojo back, this is it. 

2. Dan Carpenter...Make Your Fields Goals

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    Dan Carpenter cost the Dolphins a win in Week 3, missed another crucial field goal in Week 4 and nearly cost the team another win in Week 5.

    After that brutal three-week stretch, Carpenter converted on seven consecutive tries. That streak was snapped last week when he banged a 50-yard attempt off the right upright late in the third quarter. For some reason, Carpenter hasn't caught any slack for missing that field goal, even though it would've changed the landscape of the game. 

    If he makes it, the Dolphins don't have to score a touchdown to win late in the fourth quarter. Instead, Ryan Tannehill only has to get Miami into field-goal range to set up a potential game-winning try for Carpenter.  

    After four years of quality and consistent play, Carpenter deserves the benefit of the doubt. But he's not providing the clutch and consistent play a kicker making $2.5 million should. 

    Sunday's game figures to be a low-scoring, defensive duel. 

    Carpenter needs to deliver when called upon from here on out. 

1. Get Some Help from the Home Crowd

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    The Dolphins' last "home" game was an historically ugly 37-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans. 

    But, really, it's a stretch to call that a home game. 

    Sure, the game was played in Miami, but that was the extent of the Dolphins' advantage.

    As the photo above shows, the stadium was empty. 

    Home-field advantage is diminished when there's no crowd to rattle and disrupt the opposing team. The Dolphins came out flat in that game, and without a crowd injecting life and energy into the stadium, the team had nothing to feed off or rally around.

    This week, the Seahawks will travel roughly 3,000 miles from Seattle to Miami. That's a taxing trip, one that would be made much more unpleasant by a rowdy crowd.

    With beautiful weather outside, the Miami Heat in the midst of a dynastic run,and an overall lack of appeal from this Dolphins team, it's easy to see why these games draw so few fans.

    Still, this is a young team that's still alive in the playoff hunt. This is inexcusable, Miami.

    The Dolphins will likely finish with the worst home attendance as a percentage of capacity. Fins on the way to a 70% sold number.

    — darren rovell (@darrenrovell) November 16, 2012