The Miami Dolphins proved they could do more than beat one of the league’s bottom feeders in Week 2, going on the road and topping a playoff-caliber Indianapolis Colts team.
But in Week 3 — the home opener for Miami and an opportunity for the franchise’s first 3-0 start since 2002 — the Dolphins can emerge as a true contender with a win over a legitimate Super Bowl hopeful.
The Atlanta Falcons are dealing with several injuries, but the players that really make them tick will be in the lineup. One of the league’s most explosive passing games, led by the quarterback Miami passed on with the first-overall pick in 2008, come to town.
How do both teams match up? Let’s see who has the edge:
Dolphins pass defense vs. Falcons passing attack
Three of the Dolphins’ injured cornerbacks — Dimitri Patterson, Will Davis and Jamar Taylor — all practiced on Tuesday in Davie. And while that is very encouraging for Miami’s prospects of beating the pass happy Falcons, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are so potent it may not matter.
The Dolphins do get somewhat of a break with Roddy White, who only played 53.1 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last week vs. the Rams, as he continues to nurse an ankle injury. But he is still a big-play threat, who must be accounted for.
Julio Jones, meanwhile, was supposedly dealing with an injury as well, but put to rest any doubts about his effectiveness with 11 catches, 182 yards and a touchdown this past Sunday. Jones will be an extremely difficult cover for Dimitri Patterson (assuming he plays) and Nolan Carroll, as the star wideout typically lines up on the left side of Atlanta’s offensive formation.
That brings us to stud tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is still one of the league’s most productive tight ends at 37 years old. He hasn’t exactly started the year with a boom, catching only 7 balls for 69 yards and one score, but the Dolphins have struggled to cover tight ends through two weeks.
Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron produced 108 receiving yards in Week 1 and Indianapolis was without their top receiving tight end, Dwayne Allen, in Week 2, but that didn’t stop Coby Fleener from putting up 69 yards and a touchdown. The Dolphins must find a way to limit Gonzalez’s impact on Sunday’s game.
The one advantage the Dolphins have this week from a pass defense perspective, is their pass rush. Falcons left tackle Sam Baker has really struggled through two weeks, conceding eight hurries and grading out as the league’s 68th ranked tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
Right tackle Lamar Holmes hasn’t fared much better, ranking 63rd, and will face All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake, who will be looking for a bounce-back performance after being contained against the Colts.
The Dolphins had similarly favorable matchups last week, however, and didn’t exploit them like they should have. But it does help that Matt Ryan isn’t the mobile passer Andrew Luck is.
Dolphins rushing attack vs. Falcons run defense
Miami’s running game came to life in Indianapolis, led by Lamar Miller averaging 4.9 yards per carry and scoring his first touchdown of the season.
But I felt the Dolphins should have ran the ball more given that success and to keep a Colts pass rush, that was getting to Ryan Tannehill often, at bay. It also didn’t help that Miller — the Dolphins’ most capable runner — was spelled by Daniel Thomas for more than half of the team’s offensive snaps for pass protection purposes.
As the season progresses, I think establishing a more consistent running game will be beneficial to Tannehill and his offensive line, but on Sunday, the Dolphins will face a fairly stingy group up front. The Falcons currently rank ninth against the run after giving up only 2.7 yards per carry in Week 1 and 3.8 in Week 2.
The loss of Sean Weatherspoon at linebacker could limit Atlanta’s ability to stuff opposing ball carriers, but they shouldn’t be hurting too much without him this week.
The Dolphins must keep Atlanta honest by giving Miller and Thomas their touches, but I’m expecting another pass early, pass often attack on Sunday.
Dolphins run defense vs. Falcons rushing attack
The Dolphins’ run defense didn’t dominate the Colts like I expected them to last week, as they struggled to set the edge at times and their nickel defense was exposed as less capable against the run than their base 4-3.
But they still own the league’s 13th best run defense and should be able to improve that rank on Sunday vs. the Falcons’ 26th running game.
Atlanta will be without running back Steven Jackson, who has already been ruled out with a thigh injury, and must rely on Jacquizz Rodgers, who has 13 carries for 16 yards this season, and Jason Snelling, who hasn’t averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in a season since 2009, to carry the load.
Defensive tackle Paul Soliai, who is arguably the Dolphins’ most stout run defender, will likely sit out this game with a knee injury. His presence will be missed if he’s not back in the lineup against future opponents, but not this week. Not against this running game, which will almost assuredly struggle to generate yards vs. Miami’s front seven.
Dolphins passing attack vs. Falcons pass defense
The Falcons’ secondary was torched by Drew Brees and Sam Bradford in Weeks 1 and 2, which has contributed to the fourth-worst pass defense in the entire NFL.
It didn’t help that Asante Samuel missed the opener and was pulled early last week with a quad injury. Samuel’s availability for Week 3 is uncertain, but if he’s a no-go or even if he’s not 100 percent, wide receiver Brian Hartline could be poised for big production.
On the other side of the field, the Falcons are starting rookie Desmond Trufant. Trufant definitely has talent and could surface as a shutdown corner at some point in his career, but he projects to cover Mike Wallace on Sunday. In his third career game. That spells mismatch for the Dolphins, who will certainly make building off of Wallace’s 115-yard outing in Indianapolis a priority.
Perhaps even more beneficial to Miami, their struggling offensive line will face a Falcons pass rush that has been borderline non-existent through two weeks. By comparison, the Dolphins have sacked the quarterback nine times to the Falcons’ two, which is tied for second fewest in the league.
Defensive end Kroy Biermann was placed on IR this week, meaning Jonathan Massaquoi, who has zero career sacks, will likely attempt to provide a rush against former Falcon Tyson Clabo. On the other side of the field, Jonathan Martin could struggle with Osi Umenyiora, who has yet to get to the quarterback for Atlanta but returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown last week vs. the Rams.
Overall, though, Ryan Tannehill should have the most time in the pocket he’s had this young season. And with mismatches in the Falcons’ secondary to exploit, he should have another huge day throwing the football.
This could be the game that officially puts Tannehill on the map as one of the league’s brightest young stars.
How about Miami’s rookie kicker, Caleb Sturgis? I’m not sure the Dolphins beat the Colts on Sunday if Sturgis doesn’t make that 54-yard kick before the half, which regained some momentum after Luck marched Indy back from a 11-point deficit. Sturgis has made all four of his field goal attempts so far.
Punter Brandon Fields wasn’t himself this past Sunday, averaging only 41.6 yards per punt. I’m expecting him to bounce back at home this week, though. Meanwhile, Marcus Thigpen remains a threat as a returner and the Dolphins’ coverage units have been solid.
The Falcons own a solid kicker and punter in Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher, but neither are spectacular. Atlanta has been sound in punt and kick coverage this season, but they’ve yet to produce any big returns.