Thursday Night's matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bears shapes up as the ultimate challenge for Dolphins' coach Tony Sparano and his staff.
And as a former coach myself, its a challenge that I would crave yet be seriously anxious about.
A win for the Dolphins, and the team takes a 6-4 record and serious playoff aspirations into a 10-day break before facing the Oakland Raiders.
Yet to pull this off, Miami has to win a game against a good Bears team despite the following obstacles.
1. The Dolphins will be starting third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen. It's not that Thigpen can't play, although the body of his work this season is four completions out of six passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. Most people around the team seem to feel that Thigpen can be effective and perhaps even produce big play, but they are wary of his tendency to improvise and make mistakes.
The challenge for Sparano and company here is to reconcile their conservative play-calling philosophy with Thigpen's mentality as a quarterback. If they make the gameplan too vanilla for him, they take away his biggest strength.
If the coaching staff let's Thigpen do what he wants, they break a philosophy that they have built most of their offensive roster around. In short, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are more consistent runners than dynamic breakaway threats, especially these days.
None of the Dolphin receivers are the "go down-field" type, although Brandon Marshall would seem to benefit from Thigpen occasionally slinging the ball. Tight end Anthony Fasano just had a big game and signed a new contract. His continued progression will be key to Thigpen's success.
Perhaps more importantly, "Thiggy" would be best served by running a limited number of plays as he has only had a few days working with the first team. If Miami wants to install more of its offense with their new quarterback, do it after the Chicago game.
I remember how difficult it was as a coach to have my team (granted high school) learn and be comfortable with one or two new plays during an entire week, not three days.
2. What if Thigpen gets hurt? Let's face it, Thigpen likes to run and has the athletic ability to do so. If Sparano limits his ability to run he takes away a huge strength from the Coastal Carolina product.
The Dolphins just lost two quarterbacks in one game so losing one more almost seems to be a likelihood instead of a possibility at some point.
Recently-signed Patrick Ramsey is a veteran, but he can't possibly have any sense of timing with the Miami receivers based on two days of practice.
Even though I have criticized the Wildcat and still feel that its an outdated concept, it does serve a purpose here. After Thigpen—and if Chad Henne can't play—Ronnie Brown is essentially the best prepared player to run the offense right now.
The Dolphins must use the Wildcat in this game. If Thigpen goes down you could make the argument that the formation should serve as Miami's base offense depending on the score Thursday night.
3. Playing Jake Long is a risky proposition. I wouldn't want to be Tony Sparano in this situation. If you sit Long you are probably acting in the player's best interest given the reports of a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum.
I am not a medical doctor by any stretch, but the indications are that if Long plays, his shoulder can get much worse. At present, estimates put Long at a recovery time of two months if he had surgery immediately.
Former left tackle of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tony Boselli, immediately comes to mind. Boselli's career was shortened by shoulder problems and that is clearly the fear with Long, the cornerstone player of the Dolphins.
On the flip side, Tony Sparano and the staff are arguably coaching for their jobs this season. A limited Long may still be better than reserve Lydon Murtha by such a wide gap that it resembles the Grand Canyon.
General Manager Jeff Ireland is also on the spot and a playoff berth might just be necessary for several jobs to remain secure.
Yes, Thigpen is mobile, but Julius Peppers battling Murtha could seal Thigpen's fate quickly. Even though continuity of the offensive line is a huge component in success, I would slide Vernon Carey into the left tackle spot and rotate the right tackle.
4. Cameron Wake might be limited and Miami MUST create a pass rush. Some Dolphin fans have been highly critical of the offensive coaches but hesitant to question the defensive staff. Yet, there are several areas that need improvement on defense.
Right now, Cameron Wake is Miami's only legitimate pass rusher (Wake has 8.5 of the teams 23 sacks), which points to a problem with personnel, but remember one of the consistent themes of Dolphins' training camp was the success of Mike Nolan's different blitz packages.
What exactly have those fronts, stunts and blitzes provided?
Well, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler doesn't even compare to Jay Fiedler or A.J. Feeley when he starts feeling a rush. Want proof? Watch the highlights of the Giants repeatedly sacking Cutler in a 17-3 victory. Cutler sat the second half with a reported concussion, but I personally wonder if he just didn't want to go back out there and subject himself to more punishment.
Which brings us back to Nolan.
Rashad Jones blitzed effectively last week because he wasn't picked up by a blocker. The key to the Dolphins success here is not create mismatches (because other than Wake who presents one?) but no matches.
In other words, Miami needs to have unblocked defenders who can run untouched to Cutler. The key is not to blitz everybody, but have Chicago not know who are you going to send and when.
One suggestion is that the insider linebacker blitz rarely ever seems to work, especially straight up the middle.
Translation: I'm getting tired of watching Channing Crowder not even crossing the line up scrimmage. I'd abandon that strategy and overload the left or right sides of the line for starters.
Obviously, there a lot of obstacles for the Dolphins to overcome if they want to win a crucial game and give themselves, and their a fans, a clear reason for optimism during the rest of the season (and I didn't even address Miami's special teams handling Devin Hester, hint: don't kick to him).
Will they meet the challenge? The answer largely depends on the decisions of the coaching staff for this game.
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