Know Your Enemy
Alright, Broncos Country. Time to move on from the licking of wounds, and prepare to inflict some on this week's opposition. The (6-4) Miami Dolphins are coming to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the (7-3) Denver Broncos.
Some might suppose that the Broncos are down and that the time is now to kick them, while they're low. Teams who underestimate the Broncos in this moment, however, will rue that decision. It is my belief that although the Dolphins have a winning record, they have no idea what they're walking into on Sunday.
They're walking into a buzz saw. The Broncos are coming off one of their worst losses in the Peyton Manning era; true. But accordingly, they are going to come out swinging, as they seek to exorcise the demons that have haunted them all week, and cleanse themselves of the stench of bitter disappointment.
Like the St. Louis Rams, the Dolphins are a talented young team, and not one to be overlooked, or taken lightly. They are led by a resurgent young quarterback and ferocious defensive line.
For the first time in a long time, the Dolphins are legitimately in the playoff hunt. They're only 1.5 games behind for 1st place in the AFC East. They're highly motivated. But so are the Broncos. Let's get to it.
The first draft choice of the Joe Philbin regime was one Ryan Tannehill; quarterback, Texas A & M. He was selected with the 8th pick in the 1st round of the 2012 draft; the first QB since Dan Marino to be taken by the Dolphins in the opening round.
He was a part of that remarkable QB class of 2012, which rivaled the 1983 draft, including Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. The jury is still out on a lot of these young signal callers, including Tannehill.
But Luck and Wilson have already accomplished much in their young careers; an all too painful truth for the members of Broncos Country. Tannehill has the potential to be the long-term answer at QB for the Dolphins, but the road thus far has been rocky.
As a starter, Tannehill sits right at .500 (21-21). At times, he has flashed tremendous ability on the field, at other times, he's failed miserably. This is typical of the learning curve of a young NFL QB.
Unlike Luck and Wilson, who can put their team on their back, and influence their teammates to play above and beyond their talent level; the mark of a true franchise QB, Tannehill has yet to develop that trait.
In fact, going into week 4 of this season, Philbin was unwilling to even name Tannehill the starter. Would he start Tannehill, or would it be Matt Moore? Fortunately, he chose to stick with the QB with whom he shares a fate, and what resulted was a blowout win over the Oakland Raiders in London, which catapulted the Dolphins into a momentous reversal of fortunes, and a 3-game winning streak.
Tannehill has been the unquestioned starter ever since. On the season, he has gone 231/353 for 2,354 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, which has earned him a quarterback rating (QBR) of 92.2, a career high. He's been efficient.
Although he's no Cam Newton, Tannehill is a dual-threat, as shown by his 261 rushing yards, second on the team. Much has been made of his history as a former collegiate wide receiver, before he was converted back to QB. He's deceptively athletic.
On the season, he has earned a +2.6 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, ranking him 12th among all NFL quarterbacks. Tannehill is a pocket passer, but the Broncos front seven will have to stay disciplined and limit his ability to gash them on the ground, especially on 3rd down.
He has led the Dolphins to be the 17th ranked offense in the league. Although that's middle of the pack, they are the 7th ranked rushing offense. In passing, they are ranked 22nd.
Not long after the Broncos chose to let Knowshon Moreno walk, he signed a 1-year $3M deal with the Dolphins. He was brought in to be the stable veteran, behind the team's young running back stable, led primarily by Lamar Miller. Like his time in Denver, however, it didn't take long for him to rise up the depth chart, despite some nagging injuries in training camp.
Against the New England Patriots in week 1, Moreno saw 49 snaps, compared to Miller's 26. However, Moreno dislocated his elbow the next week, sidelining him for several weeks. Alas, he couldn't catch a break, as he tore his ACL in week 6, in his first week back in action, and was placed on injured reserve.
In Moreno's absence, Miller has risen to the occasion, rushing for 614 yards and 5 TDs, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He is a former Miami Hurricane, in the mold of Clinton Portis. Once he makes his cut, he gets downhill in a hurry.
The Broncos took a step backwards in defending the run last week, surrendering 131 yards, but they'll look to get back on track at home vs the Dolphins. I like their chances, as the Dolphins offensive line has been bitten by the injury bug and has struggled with consistency.
Their highest rated lineman, according to PFF, is left tackle, Branden Albert (+17.5), but he tore his ACL and is lost for the season. In his place, they moved the rookie, Ju'Wuan James (-10.2), over from right tackle to left. He has allowed 2 sacks, 9 QB hits and 20 hurries thus far, most of which came from his time at RT.
Inside, the Dolphins feature Daryn Colledge (-10.9) at left guard, Samson Satele (-2.7) at center and Mike Pouncey (-11.5) at right guard. As you can see, none of them have graded out positively overall, which reflects how effective they've been thus far. They'll face a stiff task in blocking guys like Terrance Knighton, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, who have all graded out positively in run defense.
In particular, Von Miller should have a productive day. Dallas Thomas (-20.2), the Dolphins RT, was the primary culprit in Mario Williams notching 3.5 sacks last week. Williams is an animal. But Miller is a beast.
One of the reasons that Tannehill has blossomed this season is because of the quality of his weapons at the skill positions. Led by receiver, Mike Wallace, this group has truly become one of the best young WR units in the NFL. They aren't producing at a prolific level quite yet, but each game, they make crucial plays for their young gunslinger.
Jarvis Landry, a rookie 2nd round pick, has really come on strong of late, catching 17 balls for 145 yards and 2 TDs over the last 3 games. He has the ability to take a screen to the house. As time goes on, the Dolphins are figuring out ways to get the ball into his hands more frequently.
Traditionally, the Broncos have struggled to contain opposing tight ends, which is cause for concern, because the Dolphins have a very good one. Charles Clay has gained more than 1,000 yards and 8 TDs, over the last 26 games. He and Tannehill have a great chemistry.
Clay has been targeted 10 times in the redzone this season, which shows how the Dolphins value him on offense. The only TEs who've been targeted more in the redzone are Julius Thomas, Antonio Gates, Martellus Bennett, Larry Donnell, and Jimmy Graham. That's some elite company. The Dolphins like to use him in the flat, in particular. T.J. Ward and Brandon Marshall will have to be in Clay's hip pocket all day long.
As good as Tannehill has been thus far, the Dolphins defense is the primary reason they are above .500 and in the hunt for the playoffs. Going into this week, they are the NFL's 2nd ranked defense, based on total yards.
They're good in all aspects on defense, but where they really shine is in defending the pass. With 30 sacks, they're great at getting after the QB. Cameron Wake leads the team with 8.5, which has helped earn him a +28.8 cumulative grade via PFF. With that grade, he ranks 1st among all 4-3 defensive ends. Ryan Clady, and whomever the Broncos have playing right tackle, will have their hands full on Sunday.
Inside, the Dolphins feature a 3-headed monster rotation, with Randy Starks (+7.6), Jared Odrick (+11.6) and Earl Mitchell (+9.5). They have combined for 5.5 sacks and have not only helped to push the pocket inside, but also limit teams to an average of 94.5 rushing yards per game.
The Rams gave NFL teams the formula for strangling Manning and the potent Broncos offense. Create consistent pressure with just 4 rushers, and spice it up with blitzes through the A-gap and the occasional stunt. The Dolphins are a team who can similarly measure up.
However, something tells me the Broncos will be ready for it on Sunday. They might not have their starting offensive line figured out just yet, but Manning is the best in the league at diagnosing the defense pre-snap. There's no question that the big boys up front are going to have to pull their weight on Sunday though.
At linebacker, the Dolphins have a solid starting unit, all of whom have graded out in the positive via PFF. Jelani Jenkins (+12.5) leads the team with 53 combined tackles. He's also added 2.5 sacks to his 2014 resume. As their weakside linebacker, he's great at diagnosing and making plays on the edge.
Koa Misi (+5.3) and Phillip Wheeler (6.5) round out the unit and have combined for 45 tackles. They're disciplined, downhill thumpers, but aren't the best coverage linebackers in the game. The Broncos should be able to gash them underneath, but the health of Julius Thomas (ankle) and Emmanuel Sanders (concussion) is in question.
The stingy Dolphins secondary has perfectly complimented their defensive line. Each unit feeds off the others' energy and production. The man in the defensive backfield is none other than Brent Grimes. Remind me again why the Atlanta Falcons let him walk?
Grimes has been an animal in 2014. He's 2nd on the team in tackles (36) and with with 5 INTs on the year, is currently 2nd in the NFL, behind only Cleveland's Tashaun Gipson (6). It's not often that a team's 2nd most productive tackler is a cornerback, but it is very telling in Grimes' case.
He's a scrappy, physical CB. At 5'10, 190lbs, he's not the biggest CB in the league, but he plays like he's 6'3, 200lbs. However, when the Dolphins lost to the Green Bay Packers in week 6, Grimes was targeted 13 times in coverage by Aaron Rodgers, relinquishing 8 receptions for 98 yards.
The Packers are the closest thing the Dolphins have seen to the Denver Broncos. The Broncos offensive line has performed much better at home this year. If they can give Manning 3 seconds in the pocket to make his reads and throws, the Dolphins secondary will have a long day.
The only defensive starter for the Dolphins who doesn't have a positive cumulative grade via PFF, is CB, Cortland Finnegan (-3.1). Like Grimes, Finnegan is a physical scrapper, who likes to get into the heads of the opposing receivers, but he can be exploited. He's nowhere near the athlete that Grimes is. At 30 years old, he's not as explosive as he once was.
However, Finnegan is nursing an ankle injury and hasn't practiced this week. If he's a no-go on Sunday, the Dolphins 2013 2nd round pick, Jamar Taylor, will get the nod. In 211 snaps thus far, he has earned a cumulative grade of +3.3.
The farther back you go into the Dolphins defense, it seems the more talented they become. Their safety tandem of Reshad Jones (+10.6) and Louis Delmas (+1.9) is one of the league's best. Jones, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with. He has 35 tackles and 2 INTs on the season and can be disruptive in run support and defending the pass.
This week will be the Dolphins first game in cold weather. And it'll be on the road. As good as this defensive unit is, they have yet to be challenged like the Broncos surely will this week.
Manning will be on a mission to atone for is recent transgressions, and he'll have his home crowd at his back. You can bet that the Broncos coaching staff is not going to make the mistake of overlooking another team. Statistic of note: the Broncos are 6-0 coming out of a loss, in their last 6 regular season losses.
Broncos 30 Dolphins 23
As usual, Brandon Perna has his own take on how this game will unfold, as seen in the video below.