When the Vikings see the Miami Dolphins, they see a team similar to themselves at this stage of the 2014 season. Both teams are hovering around .500 with a young quarterback running the offense and an underrated defense that has carried the team during the good times of the season. Both teams have seen injuries to key players alter the course of their 2014 season, but both are battling down the stretch to come away from the season with something positive.
Miami has spent more than a decade trying to replace Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. They’ve tried to fill that role through the draft, free agency and trades, but never found the right fit for the organization that could truly be viewed as the face of the franchise. That might have changed, as third-year QB Ryan Tannehill has taken over the reins of the offense and made it his own.
Like Teddy Bridgewater, Tannehill had his share of struggles when he was immediately thrown into the deep water as the starter on the opener of his rookie season. He has started all 46 games the team has played since and his production has gone up consistently each year – in yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns. A quarterback blessed with arm strength and speed, he is a dual threat who can beat opponents in a variety of ways and make the plays necessary to win games. His strengths are becoming more obvious and his weaknesses are becoming fewer all the time.
The problem is that he doesn’t have a dynamic supporting cast on offense. The hope had been that former Denver Bronco Knowshon Moreno would give the Dolphins a more formidable running game. Signed in free agency in the offseason, Moreno was coming off a career year and was looking for a fresh start in Miami. But he went down to season-ending injury early on, forcing Miami to fall back on the usual suspects – Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. Neither of them has been able to take the starting job and run with it because both of them have been injury-prone and unable to carry a full featured back workload. Miller leads the team with 178 carries for 829 yards (an impressive 4.7-yard average) and six touchdowns as the primary back in the Dolphins backfield, while Thomas has chipped in just 43 carries as the primary backup. Teams that have beaten Miami have been able to shut down the run and, while it isn’t easy to corral Miller, that will be a top priority for the Vikings run defense to make Tannehill and the offense one-dimensional.
The Dolphins don’t have a great receiver corps, but they have players with well-defined roles who play within the context of the system. Mike Wallace is the big-play receiver with 62 catches for 804 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. A blazing speedster, he is most dangerous in the open field. The Dolphins routinely take four or five deep shots to Wallace, so keeping him from getting deep downfield will be a defensive priority for the Vikings. Rookie Jarvis Landry has made a big impact as a possession receiver. He leads the team with 71 receptions, good for 672 yards and five TDs. Miami has a couple other veteran receivers that see a lot of use. Wide receiver Brian Hartline isn’t flashy but moves the chains, and tight end Charles Clay isn’t having as big a season as he did in 2013 but has 47 catches for 446 yards. As a group, they all have roles to play and have made the most out of their opportunities.
The key for the Vikings will be to win the battle along the offensive line. After last year’s bullying scandal, Miami had to retool its O-line on the fly. One of the key ingredients to that change was signing offensive tackle Branden Albert away from the Chiefs. But he went down to injury, leaving a void that hasn’t fully been replaced. Yet with Pro Bowl guard Mike Pouncey leading the way, the Dolphins have found a way to control the line of scrimmage and not be the embarrassing swinging gate they were last year when Tannehill was routinely taking a beating.
Much like the Vikings, the strength of the Dolphins has been the play of its defense. Up front, defensive end Cameron Wake is one of the most underrated all-around players in the league. A ferocious pass rusher, he leads the team with 9.5 sacks and is used in a variety of ways – playing both end positions and dropping into coverage at times. He is a superior athlete who doesn’t give up until the whistle and is always around the ball. Joined by fellow DE Olivier Vernon and rotating defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks, the Dolphins have an active front line that will pose a lot of problems for the Vikings makeshift O-line.
The back end of the defense is made up primarily of young players who have suited themselves to roles within the defense. Middle linebacker Koa Misi is a big hitter who clogs running lanes and outside linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Jelani Jenkins don’t have elite speed, but use good technique to be stout in coverage and run support.
Miami went outside the organization to improve themselves in the secondary. They made a point to re-sign Brent Grimes to a long-term contract and acquired former Titans and Rams trash talker Cortland Finnegan to be their starting cornerbacks. Grimes is a very good cover man and Finnegan has his moments, but they are both risk-takers who can get scorched when caught out of position or sneaking a peak into the backfield. The Dolphins have a couple of young veterans at safety in fifth-year man Jimmy Wilson and fourth-year pro Reshad Jones. Wilson is a big hitter with sideline coverage speed who had to replace Louis Delmas when he went down to season-ending injury, and Jones has the size to take on tight ends and help in run support. This is an underrated group that, while not always in the right position, make enough plays to give the Dolphins the fourth-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
In many ways, looking at Miami is almost like looking in a mirror for the Vikings. They have many of the same strengths and weaknesses and have seen their team altered by both injury and scandal. Going into South Beach won’t be an easy place to win, but both teams are fighting to make the most of their 2014 seasons and fans will likely be treated to a good game played by teams that haven’t shut it down or are just mailing it in.
Vikings, Dolphins have some similarities
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