4 Burning Questions the Dolphins Must Answer in Week 3
After handing the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts a home loss in Week 2, the Miami Dolphins are feeling pretty good at 2-0. Indeed, one look at Matt Miller of B/R's NFL power rankings and you'll see that the Dolphins are making waves with their strong opening.
Ryan Tannehill continues to mature and hone his game, resulting in two strong games to open up the season. Mike Wallace got in the action against Indy, racking up sizable numbers (nine catches, 115 yards, one touchdown). And Brent Grimes snatched a crucial interception midway through the fourth quarter, thwarting the Colts' chance to take the lead.
Miami appears to be a vastly improved team than the bumbling squads we're used to seeing over the past decade. However, the Dolphins are not without questions. There still remains a few issues that must be shored up if Miami is going to make the playoffs this year, let alone knock New England off the AFC East throne.
Not to turn the attention away from the good things Miami has done so far (and make no mistake, there have been many), but let's focus on what the Dolphins need to answer.
Here are four burning questions the Dolphins need to answer in their Week 3 contest against the Atlanta Falcons.
Can Miami's Running Game Continue to Improve?
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After gaining only 20 yards rushing in Week 1 against Cleveland, there was a lot of head scratching regarding the Dolphins' running game. Lamar Miller was supposed to have a breakout season, not start the year with three yards on 10 carries. Fellow running back Daniel Thomas was no better, gaining just 14 yards on eight carries.
However, when facing a weaker defensive front in Week 2, the Dolphins' running game came alive. Miller broke off 69 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Thomas picked up 30 on eight runs. Even Charles Clay got involved with a one-yard touchdown run.
While Ryan Tannehill and his receivers are showing that they can do enough to win games on their own, Miami will need to supplement that with a strong running game as it gets into the thick of its schedule. That begins this weekend with Atlanta.
The Falcons enter Week 3 with a run defense grade of 7.9 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). They held New Orleans to 78 yards rushing in Week 1 and the St. Louis Rams to 69 in Week 2. With a stout defensive line and defensive backs that can make plays against the run, the Falcons should pose more of a threat to running game than the Colts did.
The Dolphins will likely have to commit to running the ball more than they did against Indy to find success this week. Miami stopped running the ball too many times when it was going well in Week 2. While they ultimately didn't pay for it, they will benefit from a more balanced attack against Atlanta.
How good can Miami's running attack be? It looked much better this past weekend, but we'll get a better idea if they're able to keep it up against the Falcons.
Will the Offensive Line Improve?
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Many people thought Jonathan Martin would be the Dolphins' downfall on offense. After a less than spectacular showing at the end of 2012, Martin didn't have many believers in his corner coming into Week 1.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), though, he has started the season rather well. His run-blocking was weak against Cleveland (-2.4) and his pass-blocking was only slightly better (-0.4). But he improved in Week 2, scoring a 1.2 overall grade .
Instead, the problems have come elsewhere. The biggest offender has been Tyson Clabo, who the Dolphins signed after he was released by Atlanta earlier this year. He has allowed three sacks, including two against the Colts. Clabo currently holds a -3.1 overall grade from PFF.
The backfield also has struggled in blocking. Despite talks that his blocking ability improved in the offseason, Lamar Miller grades out at -1.9 in pass-blocking. Daniel Thomas has been better, currently sitting at a flat 0.0, although he did give up a huge sack against the Colts.
Ryan Tannehill has been great despite being sacked nine times through two games. His ability to persevere in the face of near constant pressure is promising, but the Dolphins can ill afford to let their quarterback take a beating as the season progresses.
For the record, Atlanta doesn't bring the most intimidating pass rush. After two games, they hold a -4.5 pass-rushing grade. If Miami doesn't do a better job of protecting Tannehill this week against a manageable rush, it could be a devastating sign of things to come.
Who Will Emerge as Miami's No. 2 Corner?
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Miami did a lot to improve its offense this offseason, but it did equally as much to make an already dangerous defense even deadlier. The biggest of those additions was corner Brent Grimes, who has shown that he harbors no remnants of the Achilles injury he suffered in 2012.
Since training camp, Grimes has been the firm No. 1 corner for the Fins, and Miami would be crazy not to re-sign him to a longer deal once his one-year contract expires after this season.
However, the question still remains as to who Miami's No. 2 man will be. Dimitri Patterson beat out Richard Marshall for the job in the preseason, and he had a huge performance in Week 1 with two interceptions and one deflection. Patterson sat out Sunday's game against Indy with an injury, prompting Nolan Carroll to get the start.
Carroll played exceptionally well against the Colts, giving up just three catches for 41 yards despite being targeted eight times. His performance earned him a 2.0 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It's probably a safe assumption that Patterson will take the job back when he's healthy, but that still leaves the question as to who will claim the job long term.
Remember, Miami drafted two corners in this year's draft in hopes that one, if not both, would eventually become starters. Jamar Taylor, a second-round pick, has yet to see the field due to injury. He didn't look great in the preseason. The other rookie, Will Davis, also has not played in the regular season yet.
Based on what we've seen, it doesn't appear as though either of Miami's rookie corners will challenge for starting roles any time soon. That puts the onus on Patterson and Carroll this weekend when the Falcons visit Miami for the Dolphins' home opener. If one of them can have a strong game against Matt Ryan and his lethal group of receivers, they'll go a long way towards securing a starting spot long term.
Is Charles Clay the Answer at Tight End?
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The Dolphins suffered a painful blow in the preseason when tight end Dustin Keller's knee was obliterated following a questionable hit by a Houston Texans defender. It appeared as though the Dolphins' hopes of a playmaking tight end had evaporated in a matter of moments.
Charles Clay is looking to alter that appearance. Through two games he's done a magnificent job. Clay played okay in his first season with Miami in 2012, showing flashes of significant multidimensional ability, but it never came together.
In 2013, it's been a different story. Clay has 10 catches for 163 yards, including a five-catch, 109-yard game against the Colts this past weekend. He broke a huge 67-yard catch that would have gone for a touchdown had he been just a slight bit faster. Clay also added a one-yard touchdown run to his stat sheet.
What makes Clay such an interesting prospect is his versatility. The Dolphins can line him up in the backfield, at the wing position or as a traditional tight end. His athleticism allows him to get the better of linebackers in coverage, and his improving hands make him a reliable option for Ryan Tannehill.
As the Dolphins head into an important game this week against a team that knows a thing or two about deadly tight ends (Tony Gonzalez is still a monster, in case you forgot), they would certainly like to continue feeding the ball to a talented tight end of their own.
This week is a perfect chance for Clay to show that he's ready to take the next step and become a legitimate weapon in Miami's passing attack.