This is the definition of the “trap game,” a game which can be easily overlooked as a total walkover win for the better team, which results in a devastating upset.
On paper, the Miami Dolphins are a joke: A 3-8 record, a 24th-ranked pass defense, a 23rd-ranked pass offense and a quarterback in Matt Moore with a career completion rate of 59 percent.
So why are the Dolphins a three-point favorite to win today? Because Miami is not as bad as it looks on paper.
Since a 24-6 whooping by the Jets in Week 6, the Dolphins have been as competitive as any team in the NFL. They’ve gone 3-3 since the Jets game, and the Dolphins lost those three games by a total of seven points. The three games they’ve won have been routs, as the ‘Fins outscored their opponents 86-20. A break here or there, and the Dolphins could be 6-5; I guess there is a reason Tony Sparano hasn’t been fired yet.
Traveling cross-country to play a 1 p.m. game is never easy, and the Raiders have had plenty of distraction this week due to Rolando McClain’s arrest for alleged assault. They’re going to have to play a focused, smart game to beat the scrappy Dolphins; let’s break down how they can do it.
If you’re gonna start early, then start early
Often when a team travels coast to coast, players come out sluggish and start slow. The Raiders can’t afford to do that, because if they fall behind, it will limit their opportunity to use the run game. They’re already going to have a tough time rushing anyway, because the Dolphins boast the league’s seventh-best run defense and allow a paltry 3.7 yards per carry.
The Raiders struggled to get touchdowns on the board against Chicago, and their injury-riddled receiver corps may have contributed to that problem. When you can’t stretch the field as coach Hue Jackson likes to do, that causes problems.
But Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey have been starters for this team before, and they’re going to have to make big catches downfield to give Michael Bush some running room.
Oakland must use Murphy and Heyward-Bey, as well as mammoth tight end Kevin Boss, to get some points up early in the game. The Dolphins will be expecting a lot of running, so mixing in deep passes in the first quarter should catch them off guard and lead to early success for the offense.
Keep making big plays on defense
It’s hard to tell a team to get turnovers, because the offense has to make mistakes in order for that to happen—luckily for the Raiders, Moore likes to give up the football. In the eight games he’s played this year, Moore has nine fumbles and five interceptions.
The Dolphins in general don’t take care of the ball, with a minus-5 turnover margin on the season.
Miami has also surrendered the most sacks in the AFC (34), which plays into one of Oakland’s greatest strengths. The Raider defensive line might be the league’s best, and in the spirit of what Al Davis once ordered: the quarterback goes down, and he goes down hard.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan has been inconsistent with his blitzes all season, and late in the Chicago game, the Raiders were sending only four pass-rushers on most downs; this won’t do against Miami. The Raiders have to be relentless in their blitzing, taking advantage of the Dolphins’ porous offensive line.
Don’t rely on your special teams to save you
Everyone was very impressed with the performance of Oakland’s special teams last week, and rightfully so. Despite my pleas not to, Shane Lechler punted to Devin Hester multiple times, and the most dynamic kick-returner in the game had little to show for it. That tends to happen when the punter hits 80-yard kicks.
Sebastian Janikowski continued his career year, going six-for-six in a kicking performance David Beckham would be impressed with. In a year where he’s already tied an NFL record for the longest kick in history, SeaBass has made 92 percent of his kicks, including an impressive 13 of 15 from 40-plus yards.
But just because the Raiders have the best special teams in the NFL doesn’t mean they should rely on them.
Field goals were just barely good enough against Caleb Hanie, but Moore is a much better quarterback. If the Raiders don’t punch it in the end zone and settle for field goals instead, they will be leaving Miami with a loss.
The Dolphins also have a dangerous punt returner in Davone Bess, who has one of the best punt return averages in the NFL. In a game where the Raider defense should have success, Oakland can’t afford to let Bess make big returns to set up good field position, or worse, score a touchdown himself.