The San Diego Chargers travel to the East Coast again (the team’s fifth trip to the east this season: Philadelphia, Nashville, Jacksonville, Washington D.C.) when they face the Miami Dolphins Sunday afternoon.
A casual observer may only think about the recent off-field scandal revolving around the Dolphins' offensive line, but there is more to the Miami team than a locker room soap opera.
This is a game San Diego (4-5) must win if the team wants to keep playoff hopes alive. Meanwhile, Miami (4-5) needs a win to get some positive media attention.
The Dolphins will try to take advantage of San Diego’s porous secondary. Ryan Tannehill is completing 61 percent of his passes (202 of 331 attempts) for 2,206 yards and 13 touchdowns.
While an average of just less than 217 yards per game is not that scary, the Chargers are allowing just a shade less than 280 passing yards per contest. Opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers have been having career games against the Bolts. Six wide receivers have eclipsed the century mark in passing yards when facing the San Diego secondary, and six quarterbacks have thrown for more than 290 yards against the Bolts.
Tannehill’s best game came in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts when he completed 23 of 34 passes for 319 yards and one touchdown. Miami won that game, 24-20.
The Dolphins made a big splash in the offseason, throwing big money at wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace has not lived up to his $76 million contract, but he could silence the naysayers going up against Derek Cox or Shareece Wright. Wallace has nice size (6’0”, 195 lbs) but is known for his speed. The Chargers had difficulty containing another speed receiver, allowing Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson to amass 193 receiving yards. Jackson continually beat Cox deep and could have had more yards except for penalties wiping away big gains.
Wallace may be the big name and big contract, but Brian Hartline is the team’s leading receiver. Hartline has 43 receptions for 543 yards and two touchdowns. Versatile tight end Charles Clay lines up in the backfield or on the line of scrimmage. His three touchdown catches are tied for the team lead with receiver Brandon Gibson.
Miami’s run game is weak. The team averages 85 rushing yards per game. Only seven teams in the NFL rush for less per game than the Dolphins. The team’s top runner is Lamar Miller, a speedy product out of the University of Miami. Miller has 450 rushing yards on 100 carries and two rushing touchdowns.
Miami’s run game is a lot of inside zone schemes with some outside sweeps thrown in to catch the defense by surprise. The main way to defeat zone blocking and running schemes is gap integrity and penetration. What that means is the defensive front needs to maintain control of the space between blockers—the gaps—and also gain yardage into the backfield, thus penetrate. Maintaining control of the gaps erases any cutbacks the running back may have in mind, while penetration makes the running back commit to a running angle immediately.
San Diego will want to counter with its own passing attack. Philip Rivers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season and should be able to put up big numbers. Miami cornerback Brent Grimes is having a great year and will probably be matched up against rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, leaving Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown covered by Nolan Carroll or Jimmy Wilson.
While Grimes on Allen probably favors Miami, Royal and Brown on Wilson and Carroll is a positive for the Chargers. Regular starting cornerback Dimitri Patterson leads the Dolphins with four interceptions but is out with a groin injury.
Miami could decide to put safety Reshad Jones on the third receiver, but that would leave a linebacker alone on San Diego’s tight ends and running backs. The Dolphins linebackers are not great at pass coverage, so tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green and running back Danny Woodhead could have big receiving days.
Miami favors man-to-man coverage with a single safety over the top. San Diego’s young wide receivers run very nice routes, which is an asset when you have one defender to beat and don’t have to worry about a linebacker dropping into a coverage sandwiching you once you touch the ball.
The man-to-man defense also allows the Dolphins to blitz. Miami is one of the better teams in the NFL at rushing the passer. The team has 27 sacks this season, tied for 11th most in the NFL. It is a well-balanced attack as Cameron Wake leads the team with 5.5 sacks, but Olivier Vernon is right behind him with 4.5 sacks. Wake and Vernon are disruptive from the edge spots along the defensive line, but Jared Odrick has 3.5 sacks from his interior defensive tackle position.
A lot of the success for San Diego will hang on the health of the big hogs up front. The injuries are mounting for the Chargers’ offensive line. Left tackle King Dunlap left the Denver game with a neck injury. He has two concussions already this season, and there was fear he suffered his third. His status for Sunday is uncertain, but according to Chargers.com, he did not participate in practice Wednesday and Thursday.
Michael Gehlken with U-T San Diego reported rookie D.J. Fluker practiced at left tackle and Jeromey Clary practiced at right tackle.
While Philip Rivers’ blindside (and frontside) protection is cause for concern, a bigger worry should be at center. Nick Hardwick is quietly having a fantastic year. He is the only person on the roster to play every offensive snap this season. Or at least he was until he had to leave in the second half of the Denver game with a stinger.
Hardwick sat out the first two practices of the week with Dunlap according to Chargers.com. If he is unable to play Sunday, backup Rich Ohrnberger will take his place. Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks will be licking his chops if Ohrnberger is the starting center.
Miami’s starting defensive against the Chargers’ starting offensive line would be a fair matchup San Diego fans would welcome. But Miami’s starters against a mishmash offensive line tilts heavily into the Dolphins’ favor, and that is bad news for both the running and passing game for San Diego.