John Crist: It looks like Chad Henne and Chad Pennington are both out for the year, meaning Tyler Thigpen will be getting his first start in a Dolphins uniform. Henne and Pennington are classic drop-back quarterbacks and don't bring a lot of mobility to the table, but Thigpen is a pretty good athlete in the pocket. How do you see the coaching staff amending the game plan?
Alain Poupart: As of late Monday afternoon, there was no definitive word that Henne would be out for the year, although it's a pretty good assumption he won't play against the Bears. Thigpen's athletic ability does present some interesting options for the Dolphins offense, but that must be tempered by the fact that an injury to Thigpen would put Miami in the unenviable position of playing with a quarterback who has been with the team for four days.
It certainly would make sense that at some point the Dolphins would incorporate more rollouts and naked bootlegs into the offense. It's just difficult to see that happening right away, because keeping Thigpen healthy at this point is more important than taking advantage of his running skills. Those will have to be used strictly for the time being as a means to avoid pressure and try to make something happen when his pass protection breaks down.
JC: The Ronnie Brown-Ricky Williams duo has been good but not great this season, as the veterans are averaging a combined 93.7 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. I'm assuming Miami has gone away from the Wildcat to some degree, as it was nothing more than a passing fad. Also, how good has former Bear Lousaka Polite been as a lead blocker?
AP: The Wildcat hasn't been used as often this season, but not much because it was a passing fad but rather because it wasn't successful early on, and also because the need for it isn't as great now that the Dolphins have a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver with Brandon Marshall. When Henne followed Pennington in going down with an injury, the Dolphins reverted to the Wildcat late in the third quarter because they didn't know how badly Henne was hurt at the time and didn't want to eliminate the possibility of him returning to the game by using Thigpen before the fourth quarter. And, in that instance, the Wildcat produced fabulous results. The Dolphins running game had nothing up to that point against Tennessee, but on back-to-back handoffs from Brown, Williams found a huge hole and ripped off gains of 14 and 23 yards.
The two running backs are having so-so seasons, which isn't good news for them considering both are in the last year of their contract. Of the two, Williams actually has had the much better results, especially of late. As for Polite, he's very solid as a blocker, but he's made his name in Miami with his ability to convert third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 situations. Polite is 7-for-8 in such situations in 2010 after going a perfect 16-for-16 last year.
JC: Marshall has been every bit as good as advertised, and he's on pace for 98 catches and 1,159 yards receiving in what tends to be a run-first offense. Still, has the big trade had a positive impact on the rest of the receiving corps? Have the likes of Davone Bess, Brian Hartline and Anthony Fasano truly benefited from Marshall's presence alone?
AP: That's a very good question because the passing game has been a source of frustration for much of the season here in Miami. Marshall has put good reception numbers, but he has fallen short of expectations so far in terms of yards after the catch, and he's also got only one touchdown catch in nine games. Bess is on pace to catch 85 passes this season, and it's logical to think he's benefited from Marshall, but Bess is a guy who has always found a way to get open. Hartline and Fasano both have had their moments, but not on a consistent basis.
The big complaint about the passing game has been a reluctance to throw deep and take advantage of Marshall's ability to out-jump defenders for contested balls. It also struck many as odd that Henne went to Hartline on an alley-oop near the goal line against Tennessee when Marshall was single-covered on the other side. The bottom line is that, yes, Marshall has helped, but he won't be a monster difference maker until the quarterback play becomes more consistent.
JC: What did everyone miss when it was time to break down Cameron Wake coming out of Penn State in 2005? Originally an undrafted free agent, he had to go tear it up in the CFL for two years before getting a legit shot in the NFL, and now he has nine sacks for the Dolphins this season in nine games. Is he strictly a speed rusher off the edge, or does he play the run?
AP: Wake remains a work in progress when it comes to being an all-around linebacker, but he's making more and more plays in coverage and against the run every week, although he's now nursing a hip injury that has his availability for Thursday night's game in question. There's no question, however, that his forte is as a pass rusher, but he's more than just a speed guy who beats tackles off the edge. Wake is a relentless rusher who never gives up on a play and sometimes will use two or three different moves before he reaches the quarterback.
As to the $64,000 question, Wake himself can't really answer why he went undrafted out of Penn State and why it took five years before he got a shot in the NFL. Maybe it was just a matter of how he was used. After all, it took the British Columbia Lions of the CFL to stick Wake at defensive end and let him rush the passer after both Penn State and the Giants played him as a 4-3 linebacker. Bottom line: He's now clearly established as a bona fide pass-rushing star.
JC: The Dolphins are in a tough division, as both the Jets and Patriots are Super Bowl contenders, but their schedule is manageable the rest of the way. After the Bears, there are matchups with the Raiders, Browns, Bills and Lions, and then they get New York and New England again on the road. Could Thursday's game be a springboard to a second-half run?
AP: The folks in Miami certainly would like to think so, but it's difficult to be too enthusiastic with the uncertainty because of all the injuries the team is dealing with at the moment. For sure, the Dolphins need Thursday's game to set themselves up for a playoff push, but there's still a long road to travel because the Dolphins already have lost to playoff contenders Pittsburgh, Baltimore, the Jets and New England, putting themselves behind the 8-ball when it comes to tiebreakers. Through the first nine games, the defense certainly has looked playoff-caliber, much to the surprise of a lot of observers who thought it would be the weak link on this team. It's the offense that has to come around for the Dolphins to reach the postseason, and things sure look iffy given Henne's injury and a running game that's been pretty ineffective most of the season.
Finally, there's the late-season schedule, which doesn't seem quite as easy anymore now that the Raiders look like a football team again and the Browns have shown they can compete with and beat heavyweights like the Patriots, Saints and Jets.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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