How to beat the stinkin' FISH

Things have certainly not worked out the way Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt had planned this season, but his team still had a good shot at being a Wild Card, and an outside shot at winning the division if the Patriots lose vs. Carolina and the Dolphins beat the Bills.

 

When Miami pounded the Colts 41-6 Dec. 10, it looked like it might win its second straight division title, but then it lost to the 49ers 21-0 and the Patriots 20-13, and greatly diminished its chances.

Still, the Dolphins have usually found ways to win, thanks in large part to the play of quarterback Jay Fiedler. Bills fans will probably never forget how Fiedler and the Dolphins came back vs. Buffalo Nov. 25 to pull out an unlikely victory at the Ralph.

But Miami's late-swoon has largely been because of injuries, none more significant than guard Mark Dixon and defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, who were placed on injured reserve Dec. 4.

 

Dolphins on offense

Just like the days of Dan Marino, the Dolphins have become a passing team this season. But this was not by design. Miami was hoping to once again ride the legs of Lamar Smith to control the clock and minimize turnovers, but the seventh-year veteran hasn't been the same runner who gained 1,139 yards on the ground in 2000.

Part of the reason Miami's ground game ranked in the lower third of the league after 11 games has been a banged-up offensive line that has been decimated by injuries. The Dolphins lost starting left tackle Brent Smith to a season-ending knee injury on the first full day of training camp and his replacement, former Bill Marcus Spriggs, suffered the same fate in the regular season opener at Tennessee. Then left guard Mark Dixon, the team's best offensive lineman, went down with a broken ankle and ligament damage in a Nov. 25 victory at Buffalo.

The offensive line has had problems creating a lot of movement at the line of scrimmage, a problem compounded by what appears to be somewhat tentative running by Smith since he fumbled twice in an October loss to the New York Jets.

Fortunately for Miami, the passing game has improved considerably over last year. The biggest reason has been the revamping of the receiving corps, which features newcomers James McKnight, Dedric Ward and rookie Chris Chambers. The new receivers have given the Dolphins some big-play ability they sorely lacked last season.

The team's leading receiver is holdover Oronde Gadsden, whose hands are as good as those of any receiver in the NFL. Quarterback Jay Fiedler, in his second year as a starter after replacing the legendary Marino, has shown the ability to hit clutch passes, but the coaching staff has been frustrated by his penchant for throwing interceptions (some of which have come at crucial times). Miami has used Ray Lucas at quarterback in short-yardage situations throughout the season, but Lucas has handed off more often than not. Still, this is clearly Fiedler's show because of the way the running game has stalled. Miami will only go as far as Fiedler can take them.

Key Matchup: Bills defensive backs vs. Dolphins wide receivers. After giving up two long touchdown passes to Chris Chambers in the first game, Buffalo's secondary will want its revenge. Miami hadn't shown that it was a long-pass kind of team up to that point, but it has the ability and needs to use it, considering Lamar Smith's magic is seemingly gone.

The way to win: Play a lot of nickel and dime defense. The running game is not as scary as it was last year, but the passing game is formidable. So Buffalo must shut that down by playing more defensive backs and making sure the receivers are blanketed.

 

Offensive player to watch

WR 84 Chris Chambers

Ht: 5-11 Wt: 210

Dolphins players and coaches have thrown around names like Michael Irvin and Randy Moss when talking about Chris Chambers, and while it's way too early to put the rookie wide receiver in that category, it's obvious Miami hit the jackpot when it drafted Chambers. The second-round pick from Wisconsin has done nothing but get better as the season has moved along and he has put on a couple of dazzling displays, such as his two-touchdown performance in a 34-27 victory at Buffalo on Nov. 25. Chambers was under-utilized at Wisconsin because of the presence of running backs Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett. But so far, he has been the best wide receiver from last year's draft. He sprained an ankle vs. the Patriots Dec. 22, but he should play vs. Buffalo.

 

Miami on defense

It is somewhat surprising that the Miami defense was still the No. 4 unit in the NFL after 14 games given the number of injuries it has had. One of the major blows was a back problem that landed defensive tackle Daryl Gardener on injured reserve. Gardener was on his way to the Pro Bowl when his back began acting up prior to a Nov. 18 game against the Jets. It is an injury that has put his career in jeopardy.

The 310-pound Gardener was the key to Miami's run defense, which has suffered in his absence. Part of the reason is that Gardener's backup, Jermaine Haley, has been playing with a cast on a thumb he broke in October. On top of that, he strained his left calf against New England Dec. 22 so he may be questionable vs. Buffalo.

The other area that was hit hard by injuries is the secondary. Cornerback Sam Madison missed three games because of a shoulder injury, but returned to the lineup, though in recent games it looked like he avoided tackling in run support. Madison also twisted an ankle vs. New England Dec. 22. Strong safety Brian Walker also missed three games after breaking his thumb. Consequently, the Dolphins, who led the NFL with 28 interceptions last season, had only eight in the first 11 games in 2001. Still, Miami was the No. 2 pass defenses in the league.

Nickel back Jamar Fletcher, the Dolphins' 2001 first-round pick, started two games during Madison's absence. He had not recorded any interceptions through 14 games.

The pass rush is led by Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor, who had seven-and-a-half sacks. Taylor matched up against John Fina in the first game and was handled well, recording just one sack. The Dolphins miss the pass-rushing prowess of Trace Armstrong who played opposite Taylor on third downs.

As always, Zach Thomas is the key to the linebacking corps, even more so now with weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers out for the rest of the year with a dislocated shoulder. Career reserve Scott Galyon, a free agent from the Giants, will start in his place. He has bad knees.

The Dolphins like the physicality of Morlon Greenwood, the starter at strongside linebacker, but he hasn't made a major impact this season.

Key Matchup: Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds vs. Dolphins cornerbacks. Moulds had two long touchdown passes in the first game, burning Patrick Surtain on a short out that went for an 80-yard score and Jamar Fletcher on a long up pattern that went for a 54-yard score. There haven't been too many of those for Moulds this year, but perhaps there can be some this game as a nice way for the Bills to go into the off-season.

The way to win: Trick plays. It's the last game of the year and the Bills have nothing to lose. The Patriots offense burned the Dolphins with trickery and Buffalo should too.

 

Defensive player to watch

LB 54 Zach Thomas

Ht: 5-11 Wt: 235

Zach Thomas is the unquestionable leader of the Miami defense. He doesn't mind saying what he thinks and he always gives 110 percent. It's that kind of fire that makes Thomas the player he is. The middle linebacker's 162 tackles entering Week 16 were 79 tackles more than anybody else on the Miami defense, although he has missed a few too many tackles in recent weeks – mostly because of Daryl Gardener's absence and the ability for offensive linemen to more easily get past the defensive tackle and occupy him. Thomas still is a sideline-to-sideline maniac, just not as effective as when he has big Daryl up front. He is still someone that the offense must account for.

 

Special teams

Olindo Mare was the top field goal kicker in the league hitting 94.4 percent of his field goal attempts after 14 games. He had only missed one kick all year – from beyond 40 yards. He hadn't attempted anything longer than 49 yards. Punter Matt Turk was ninth with a 36.9-yard net average. The Dolphins allowed a 5.3-yard average on punt returns, which was third in the NFL. On kickoffs, Mare boots them regularly inside the 10 and teams have average drive starts at the 26.6-yard line, which was fifth-best in the NFL. Chris Chambers returned kickoff and had a 22.5-yard average, which is pretty good. And Jeff Ogden returned punts and had a 10.2-yard average, which is also pretty good.


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