Vikings-Dolphins Game Plan

Three weeks ago, the Vikings looked like easy favorites in this game, but as their pass defense has been exposed and their pass offense continues its struggles, the Dolphins have become more efficient on offense with a commitment to the running game. Find out the key matchups to watch and the injuries that could affect this game.

VIKINGS

Three weeks ago, this game appeared to be part of a relatively easy four-game stretch for the Vikings. Minnesota was 4-2 at that time and Miami was reeling at 1-6.

Since then, the Vikings have dropped two in a row, the Dolphins have pulled off back-to-back wins and Brad Childress' team will enter Dolphin Stadium as an underdog.

And that's just the way it should be.

The Vikings offense, painful to watch for much of this season, will be facing the NFL's second-ranked defense. Miami is fourth in the league in stopping the pass, so it's unlikely the Vikings will get on track in Florida.

If Minnesota is going to have any success, it likely will come on the ground. Miami has the NFL's 12th-ranked defense against the run, giving up an average of 99.8 yards per game. The Vikings are averaging 107.3 yards rushing.

Quarterback Brad Johnson and the Vikings will see Miami stack the box and unless Childress attempts to loosen things up, establishing the pass and run could be equally as difficult.

The Vikings defense remains No. 1 in the league against the run but opponents have shown that passing against this unit is possible and at times too easy. Minnesota is 26th in the league after last week's debacle against Green Bay.

The issue is whether quarterback Joey Harrington can have the same type of success that Brett Favre did. It's unlikely that will happen, but Harrington is likely to take some shots through the air and force the Vikings to prove they are capable of stopping the pass.

DOLPHINS

It's no coincidence that Miami's two-game winning streak has coincided with Ronnie Brown becoming a more focal part of the offense. But the running back is nursing a groin injury and may struggle getting on track against the NFL's top-ranked run defense, especially with Kendyl Jacox replacing the injured Jeno James (knee) at left guard. That would put pressure on up-and-down Dolphins quarterback Joey Harrington to carry the offensive load against one of the NFL's leakiest secondaries.

"Our philosophy, and we've shown that in the last couple of games, is we need to stay balanced," Harrington said. "We've had games where we put up 400 yards passing but we didn't win, so we're definitely going to need to have a balanced attack to win games."

Defensively, the Dolphins should be fine if they can corral running back Chester Taylor, who ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing with 783 yards. Minnesota's anemic pass offense, especially at wide receiver, is the main reason why the Vikings have scored only nine touchdowns in nine games.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

  • Vikings LT Bryant McKinnie has not been playing his best of late, so he will need to bring his game up a notch going against Dolphins DRE Jason Taylor. Taylor is among the NFL leaders with eight sacks this season and also has an interception. McKinnie, who attended the University of Miami, will have to guard against Taylor's many moves and excellent acceleration.

  • Vikings CBs Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot will both be matched up at times against Dolphins WR Chris Chambers. The speedy Chambers has four touchdown catches among his 36 receptions this season. The Vikings didn't have much success stopping the Packers' Donald Driver last Sunday but that came with Smoot away from the team because of a family tragedy. His return should help. Rookie Cedric Griffin also could end up on Chambers at times when he's playing corner in the nickel defense.

  • Vikings C Matt Birk and OGs Artis Hicks and Steve Hutchinson will have to be alert for MLB Zach Thomas. Thomas only has one sack this season but the Packers had great success sending their linebackers on blitzes and the Dolphins could try to take a page from that playbook. Making matters worse is that Vikings fullback Tony Richardson has been lost for the season because of a broken forearm. That takes a good blocker out of the equation.

  • Dolphins LG Kendyl Jacox, who is expected to replace the injured Jeno James (knee) at left guard, vs. Vikings RDT Kevin Williams, who has more sacks (31) than any other NFL defensive tackle since 2003: Jacox's relief performance for three quarters against Kansas City marked the second time this season he played well in a relief role replacing an injured guard. But the 6-2, 325-pound Jacox was overmatched in his only start of the season against Tennessee, leading to the shuffling that ultimately landed L.J. Shelton at right guard. Jacox could have similar struggles against the 6-5, 304-pound Williams, who has regained the form that made him a Pro Bowl performer in 2004. Williams' five sacks is tied for the NFL lead among defensive tackles and is active against the run as evidenced by his ranking second on the Vikings in tackles with 58.

  • Dolphins punt returner Wes Welker, who has notched at least one punt return of 10-plus yards in six of the past seven games, vs. Minnesota's special teams, which had two major gaffes in last Sunday's 23-17 loss to Green Bay: Judging by his recent performances, Welker could be on the verge of being the first Dolphins player to return a punt for a touchdown since Jeff Ogden in October 2000. Against Green Bay, the Vikings had a kickoff return for a touchdown and recovered onsides kick negated by penalties on reserve running back Artose Pinner. Minnesota's problems are further compounded by the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jason Glenn, a former Dolphins linebacker (2005) who was Minnesota's second-leading special teams tackler with eight.

    INJURY IMPACT

    The Vikings could get back middle linebacker Napoleon Harris (dislocated left wrist) and receiver Marcus Robinson (lower back) against the Dolphins. Harris has missed two games and while Dontarrious Thomas had been respectable playing in the middle, he does not play at the same speed as Harris. Harris gives the Vikings a better chance to use more blitz packages. Robinson, meanwhile, has missed four games this season but still has a team-leading three touchdown catches. Quarterback Brad Johnson simply seems to be at his most comfortable when throwing the ball to Robinson. The loss of fullback Tony Richardson, out for the season because of a broken right forearm, certainly won't help a rushing game that is ranked ninth in the NFC. Richardson had served as the lead blocker for Chester Taylor. Taylor remains on the injury report for a second consecutive week with a calf problem and it's clear he's getting worn down.

    QB Daunte Culpepper was officially declared out for Sunday's game against Minnesota as he continues rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee. It appeared Culpepper did more in practice Wednesday than in previous weeks, but he admitted his season might be done with a sharp pain still persisting in his knee. Guard Jeno James is expected to miss the game.


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