The last time the Miami Dolphins opened a season 3-0, Dave Wannstedt was the head coach, Jay Fiedler was the starting quarterback, Ricky Williams was the running back and Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor were the leaders on defense.
To make a long story short, it’s been awhile. 2002 to be exact.
But 3-0 is a feat the Dolphins can accomplish again this coming Sunday at Sun Life Stadium. It certainly won’t be easy. The Falcons, while injury-riddled, boast one of the league’s most explosive passing attacks and could expose a hobbled Dolphins secondary.
Meet the following five keys, though, and Miami will have a great chance to remain undefeated:
1. Provide consistent pressure with front four
Like the quarterback Miami faced in Week 2 — Andrew Luck — Matt Ryan has the ability to make defenses pay for bringing extra defenders, which is something defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle loves to do with this remolded linebacker corps.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan owns a 132.6 passer rating against the blitz this season. Although two games is a small sample size and his previous opponents didn’t have Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler providing heat, it’s clear Ryan has the awareness and weapons to burn the Dolphins in said situations.
But that’s not the only reason why Miami should make pressuring Ryan with only the defensive line a priority. First off, the Falcons have many weapons the Dolphins’ defense must account for, including tight end Tony Gonzalez, who will be a difficult cover for Miami’s linebackers and safeties. Dropping as many back in coverage as possible should help neutralize Gonzalez. More on that later.
Secondly, the Dolphins shouldn’t have to blitz to pressure Ryan. The Falcons’ tackles are bad enough that pressuring from the edge should be relatively easy to accomplish.
Left tackle Sam Baker, who might not play after missing practice time this week, is currently the worst rated tackle in football, according to Pro Football Focus. If Olivier Vernon doesn’t have an impact against Baker, it will officially be time to think about replacing him in the starting lineup with Derrick Shelby or Dion Jordan, who both need to see an increase in pass-rushing snaps this week.
On the other side of the field, Cameron Wake will look to bounce back after an unimpressive performance in Indianapolis with a big game versus right tackle Lamar Holmes, who only grades out five spots ahead of Baker in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. Wake has the potential to dominate the Falcons like he did the Browns in Week 1.
If the Dolphins can consistently produce pressure despite dropping seven players in coverage, their defense should match up just fine against this potent passing attack.
2. Expose Atlanta’s young cornerbacks
With Asante Samuel, who has missed every day of practice this week, potentially out of the lineup for the Falcons, rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will have much on their plate this Sunday in Miami. White Trufant and veteran Robert McClain will likely start the game, Alford will have a large role in passing situations for Mike Nolan’s defense.
Trufant has played well in his first two career games, but the Dolphins’ receivers have the ability to test him. Alford displayed some nice ball skills in the preseason and already has one interception in the real games, but he’s susceptible to getting beat in coverage, much like Dolphins rookie Will Davis.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill should pick on Trufant and Alford with Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline throughout Sunday’s game. To make matters worse for Atlanta’s secondary, Tannehill should have the time to do so.
The Falcons have produced the second-fewest sacks in the entire NFL through two weeks, and that was before they lost defensive end Kroy Biermann for the season.
If Tannehill finally gets sufficient time in the pocket after being sacked a whopping nine times in Weeks 1 and 2 combined, there will be no excuse for not lighting up the Falcons’ young secondary, which happens to be ranked 29th against the pass at the moment, for another prolific effort.
3. Contain Tony Gonzalez
The Dolphins have seemingly struggled to cover tight ends for the better part of the new millennium. And their new linebackers haven’t exactly been a solution to the issue this season.
In Week 1, Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron caught nine balls for 108 yards and a score against the Dolphins. Last Sunday, despite missing their No. 1 receiving tight end, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener managed to provide the Colts’ offense with 69 yards and a touchdown. Not to mention, Fleener was an illegal shift by Reggie Wayne from a second touchdown grab.
If Cameron and Fleener can torch the Dolphins’ defense, just imagine what future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez will do. Gonzalez hasn’t caught more than four passes or exceeded 36 yards in a game this young season, but that just means he’s due for a big game. And his matchup this week suggests he’ll have one.
A huge key for Miami, as previously mentioned, will be to provide pressure with the front four. That way the Dolphins’ linebackers and safeties can focus on dropping back to contain one of the toughest covers they’ll have this season.
4. Contain Julio Jones
Julio Jones is a budding superstar at receiver for the Falcons, who likely won’t be stopped but must be contained. Despite being questionable for last week’s game, Jones dressed, played and obliterated the Rams’ secondary for nearly 200 yards and a touchdown.
The Rams employed single coverage on Jones for many of his big receptions and chose to double the hobbled Roddy White, which is a strategy Miami would be foolish to duplicate. The Dolphins must double-team Jones for the majority of Sunday’s game and force White (if he plays) to beat them on a bum ankle.
Even if covered by two, Jones poses matchup problems for Miami’s secondary. Jones lines up on both sides of the field for the Falcons and the Dolphins haven’t flipped their cornerbacks thus far. If that remains the case this Sunday, Jones will likely be covered by Nolan Carroll on many snaps.
Carroll has improved this season, but he’s yet to face an imposing force like Jones. It’s a matchup that certainly favors the Falcons, which makes key No. 1 even more crucial.
5. A true home-field advantage
This isn’t on the Dolphins. Well, technically, it can be attributed to their 2-0 start and can be maintained by starting fast and playing well on Sunday. But this is primarily on the South Florida fans, who have reportedly helped make this home opener close to a true sellout.
As of Wednesday, the Dolphins had already sold 13,500 more tickets than last year’s home opener, which only 53,823 attended — the fewest for a home opener since 1982.
The Dolphins only had one true sellout last season, which came in Week 13 versus the Patriots. And high volume of Patriots fans helped achieve that feat.
Could the team’s hot start yield a raucous crowd on Sunday? It would certainly help the Dolphins prospects of beating the Falcons, as the franchise has been lacking a true home-field advantage for years.