The Vikings have dug themselves a hole with a Week 1 loss, but there isn't a panic in place. Losing on the road in Week 1 was commonplace. Of the 12 playoffs teams from 2009, seven of them lost in Week 1 – the Vikings, Jets, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles – and five of them lost on the road. Only four teams won on the road in Week 1 and one of them was the Vikings' Week 2 opponent – the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins beat the suspect Buffalo Bills 15-10, the last two points being scored on an intentional safety to get a chance for an onside kick, which was ridiculously executed when it was attempted from a punt formation and the Dolphins called a fair catch which couldn't be challenged by the Bills. It wasn't an artistic success, but any road win was a good road win in Week 1.
The Dolphins are a team in flux and nowhere is that more visible than at quarterback. In the decade since Dan Marino retired, the Dolphins have had a revolving door of pedestrian quarterbacks – Jay Fiedler, Damon Huard, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck and Chad Pennington. Not exactly a field of dreams. The hope is that the team has finally found stability with third-year pro Chad Henne. He took over early last season and, while not spectacular, was solid – completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,878 yards with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has a rocket arm, but struggled late in the season – throwing 10 of his 14 interceptions in the final six games. He wasn't spectacular in Week 1, completing 12 of 34 passes for 182 yards with zero touchdowns or interceptions, but he was a solid caretaker of the offense, which, in just his third season and first full season as the unquestioned starter, is what is expected of him. It will be tantamount for the Vikings to pressure Henne and force him to throw when he isn't ready. He was more than willing to check down to short routes in Week 1, despite 14 of his 21 completions going to his wide receivers – 14 passes gained just 104 yards. If pressured, he can be forced into turnovers, which Buffalo failed to do.
The best part of the Miami offense is its backfield. The tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams proved to be a dynamic duo that finds a way to mutually co-exist to hammer opponents on the ground. Brown was on his way to a huge season when he went down at midseason last year. In eight-plus games, he rushed 147 times for 648 yards and eight touchdowns. When he went down, Williams took over and finished the year with 241 carries for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. They blend together extremely well and, despite the addition of Brandon Marshall, remain the focal point of the Miami offense. They showed their ability to work together as a two-headed featured back in Week 1. Brown carried 13 times for 65 yards, bouncing runs to the outside and using his speed and cutback ability and caught two passes for 20 yards, while Williams took 18 carries primarily between the tackles for 63 yards. Their styles complement one another, but they are coming up against one of the league's best run defenses. The Dolphins have numerous specialty backs on the roster – fullback Lousaka Polite, kick returner Patrick Cobbs and special teamer Lex Hillard – but look for a steady dose of Brown and Williams. Until the Vikings consistently shut them down, they will be force fed.
The Dolphins struggled offensively last year because they didn't have a game-changing wide receiver. They made do with guys like Greg Camarillo, Ted Ginn and Davone Bess. That all changed when Miami shipped a pair of second-round draft picks to the Denver Broncos for Brandon Marshall. In three full seasons as a starter, he caught more than 100 passes and, despite being blanketed by the Bills all day in Week 1, he still caught eight passes (even though they gained just 53 yards). Henne forced the ball to Marshall, typically when he had a size mismatch. While he didn't break a long one, he is dangerous and it's safe to assume the Dolphins will dial up at least a couple of deep balls for Marshall. When he gets taken away, the Dolphins have a pair of young up-and-coming receivers in Brian Hartline and Bess. Hartline won the starting job in his second season and, while he doesn't have blazing speed, he runs great routes and gets into seams in the zone. Bess is a poor man's Wes Welker in the slot who led the team with 76 catches last year. Bess caught six passes in Week 1 and was used in the slot for quick-hitting routes that earned him kudos last year. Anthony Fasano is a solid blocker and part-time receiver who can't be ignored, but should be able to be adequately covered by Ben Leber or Chad Greenway in coverage.
The Dolphins have built their offense from the ground up and the foundation begins with bookend tackles. Jake Long is entering just his third season, but he is already a two-time Pro Bowler at left tackle, an almost unprecedented feat. On the right side is Vernon Carey. Both of them have become dominant run blockers and pass protectors. The middle is a little more muddled. Following the draft, the plan was to have Nate Garner and Donald Thomas at guard and Jake Grove at center. Four months later, none of them were on the roster. Sixth-year pro Joe Berger, who served as Grove's backup, has taken over at center and fiery, hyperactive Richie Incognito and third-round rookie John Jerry are starting at the guards. This could be the critical matchup of the game from the Vikings' defensive standpoint. The three linemen will be asked to handle the Williams Wall and open holes for the running game. Given their lack of work together as a unit, the Vikings may be able to exploit this advantage to take away the bread-and-butter of the Dolphins offense. Pat Williams and Kevin Williams could both have disruptive days abusing the rookie and the part-time starters in the middle.
The Dolphins will be the first of several games the Vikings will play facing a 3-4 defense this season. However, Miami's 3-4 has suffered a devastating early blow that will test the depth of both the front line and the linebacker spots.
On the defensive line, the Dolphins are already without Jason Ferguson, who was suspended the first eight games of the season for another failure of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, and will be without DE Jared Odrick, their first-round draft pick who, by all accounts, had a solid preseason. He suffered an ankle injury and has been ruled out for Sunday. He was supposed to start opposite third-year pro Phillip Merling, but Merling is on the reserve/non-football injury list after suffering an Achilles injury. With both of them out, depth is thin. Barring a roster move, the Dolphins may have just three defensive ends active – starting left end Kendall Langford and backups Tony McDaniel and Robert Rose. McDaniel is a fifth-year reserve who played in only one game last year and Rose is an undrafted rookie claimed off waivers from Seattle. How the Dolphins plan to handle getting a frontline stop against the Vikings running game will be difficult. Langford will have to have a huge game. With such a lack of depth, nose tackle Randy Starks may be asked to play every down and fourth-year backup Paul Soliai may be forced into the DE rotation. This could be a significant problem for Miami in trying to slow down the Vikings running game.
With the front line crippled and shorthanded, the linebacker corps will be asked to step up to provide a pass rush. The team suffered another blow in Week 1, as starter Channing Crowder was sidelined with a groin injury that will keep him out of Sunday's game. He and free-agent signee Karlos Dansby will be one of the most formidable inside linebacker combos in the league. But with Crowder out and Dansby new to the defense, this could become something of a short-term liability. On the outside, second-round rookie Koa Misi is raw but has the time-honored scouting cliché of the "non-stop motor" that will allow him to make plays, but, for Sunday's game, Brett Favre will love nothing more than to look the rookie out of position. On the weak side, the Dolphins start Cameron Wake, who came to the team last year from the CFL. Depth has been thinned a bit with an illness that has kept fourth-year backup Ikaika Alama-Francis out of the lineup, opening playing time for fellow fourth-year Quentin Moses, who has been a career disappointment after being a heralded college talent out of Georgia. If the Dolphins are at full strength, this can be an imposing group – all three of their sacks in Week 1 came from their linebackers. But, with a rookie on the strongside and Crowder being replaced by either Cowboys castoff Bobby Carpenter or career backup Tim Dobbins, this isn't a unit that is hitting on all cylinders.
The Dolphins have a solid core of cornerbacks led by youngsters Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. While they aren't as strong as what the Vikings faced against the Saints, they are learning quickly. Both started as rookies and, while fifth-year man Jason Allen got the start in Week 1, Smith is seen as the future – a 6-3 corner with cover skills. Former Viking Benny Sapp is learning a new system, but, seeing as the Dolphins parted with Greg Camarillo to get him, it seems clear they have a plan for him in the secondary as their nickel back. While Davis and Smith are viewed as the future, seventh-year safety Yeremiah Bell is the leader of the secondary. An old-school safety, he is adept at delivering the big hit over the middle and keeping receivers nervous. He isn't a playmaker because he seems more focused on delivering the highlight film hit and has dropped too many interception opportunities. Chris Clemons has elite speed to help over the top on deep routes, but isn't overly physical. As a result, he will share time with Tyrone Culver, who is much more dependable in run support. This is a group that is growing together and, by the end of the season, could be formidable.
The Dolphins are an organization that has risen from the ashes of a 1-15 season in 2007 to amassing talent on both sides of the ball. They appear to be a clear step behind the Patriots and Jets in the division, but they are a dangerous team that can control the ball on offense and make big plays on defense. Given the number of new players starting Sunday on both sides of the ball, the Vikings may be fortunate to be catching them early. If they can stay healthy, by year's end Miami may be a team to contend with, but, for the Vikings purposes, they are team that looks to be exploitable on both sides of the ball.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Catching Dolphins at right time?
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