When the 2006 NFL schedules were first released last spring, many pointed to Nov. 19 as a big game on the Vikings' schedule. It was expected to be the first return matchup of former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper against his old team and, considering that both teams finished the 2005 season with the best records in their respective conferences over the final two months of the season, that it could be a matchup of teams fighting for playoff spots.
Six months later, the Vikings-Dolphins matchup Sunday won't include Culpepper and is likely more a battle of playoff survival than anything else. While the Vikings have lost three straight and turned a 4-2 record into a 4-5 record, Miami is at 3-6 but has won its last two games against the Bears and Chiefs to regain some respectability. Both teams have struggled offensively and been exploited through the air, making this a matchup of similar strengths and weaknesses.
With Culpepper sidelined, the reigns of the offense have been turned over to Joey Harrington. A former first-round pick of the Lions, Harrington is no stranger to Vikings fans. He has consistently struggled against Minnesota. In six career starts, he has thrown just seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He has been forced into making bad passes by defensive pressure and, when Harrington gets happy feet, bad things happen. If given time, he can be an effective passer, but, as his 65.7 passer rating will attest, he is not a dynamic quarterback that can routinely dominate games. In his five starts, he has thrown nine interceptions and, for a team in need of turnovers to win, the Vikings will look to continue that trend.
The Dolphins' running game has been much different with Ricky Williams lost for the season due to a one-year suspension from the league for substance abuse. Second-year pro Ronnie Brown has been asked to be Mr. Everything in the backfield, much like Chester Taylor. Averaging 20 carries and 79 yards a game on the ground, Brown is also the fourth-leading receiver on the Dolphins with 28 catches. He has a good combination of speed and power, which is why he was taken at the top of the 2005 draft. But, he wore down last year due to overwork early and is currently slowed with a groin pull. Even if he's 100 percent, he will have difficulty against the Vikings' defensive front ranked first in rush defense. If he isn't 100 percent, it could be a long, painful day for Brown.
If the Vikings can bottle up Brown and force the Dolphins to pass, Harrington has plenty of weapons at his disposal. His most dynamic target is wide receiver Chris Chambers. One of the most underrated home run threats in the league, Chambers has 36 receptions for 423 yards and four touchdowns. Fellow starter Marty Booker, a former Bear who came to Miami in the trade for Adewale Ogunleye, has just 25 catches, but his 13.8-yard receiving average has been tops on the team. The most pleasant surprise for the Dolphins has been third receiver Wes Welker. Viewed as a Ricky Proehl move-the-chains type, he has done just that. While he only has one touchdown, he leads the Dolphins with 44 receptions and is on pace to catch almost 80 passes this year. He has great hands and can make the big catch to keep drives alive. Another key player in the passing offense is tight end Randy McMichael. He's caught 37 passes for 391 yards and has the most receptions of any Dolphin (27) in the five games in which Harrington has started. Special attention will need to be placed on stopping him.
One of the primary reasons the Dolphins are 3-6 instead of 6-3 is due to an unsettled offensive line. When the Dolphins came into training camp, L.J. Shelton was slated at left tackle and Rex Hadnot was supposed to be at right guard. Instead, Damion McIntosh has been moved to left tackle, Shelton moved to right guard and Hadnot moved to center. They join right tackle Vernon Carey – the only player to remain at the position he was scheduled to play at the start of the year – and injury replacement Kendyl Jacox. This shuffling has resulted in inconsistent play and allowed seven of Miami's nine opponents to hold their offense to 17 points or less. If the Vikings can win this battle up front, it's hard to imagine that the Dolphins will do much better than that this week.
The Dolphins defense has been a strong point of the team for several years, despite having few identifiable faces up front. On the defensive line, the main man is defensive end Jason Taylor. While possessing the strength to play a conventional 4-3 DE and the ability to serve as a standup pass-rushing linebacker, Taylor leads the team with eight sacks. On the other side, veteran Kevin Carter has been steady, but isn't the dominant every-down player he once was. In the middle, the Vikings catch a break with Keith Traylor being sidelined. With former Packer Vonnie Holliday at one tackle, the Dolphins will have to choose between seventh-round rookie Fred Evans or aging veteran Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson for the starting spot. Evans has been No. 2 on the depth chart all season at nose tackle, but with his experience Wilkinson might get the nod. Either way, this is a group that is severely weakened with the loss of Traylor and, if the Vikings can neutralize Taylor, this could be a group that is capable of being pushed around.
The linebacker corps is led, as always, by Zach Thomas. A six-time Pro Bowler, Thomas is starting to show some of the signs of aging, but is still a violent playmaker that leads the defense by example. He is flanked by a pair of younger, active outside linebackers in Channing Crowder and Donnie Spragan. Crowder started 13 games as a rookie and spent a couple of game at middle linebacker when Thomas went down with injuries. He is a big hitter who can chase down plays and hold up well in coverage. Spragan isn't a top-end athlete, but he has great instincts and knows his role well. It is difficult to overwhelm this group and they will be a thorn in the Vikings offense all day.
The secondary is a different story. This group has been burned often this year. Of the 16 touchdowns Miami's defense has allowed, 13 have come through the air and most of them over the top. The Dolphins went to free agency to cure their problems, but with mixed results. Cornerbacks Andre Goodman and Will Allen – both offseason free agent acquisitions – have combined for just one interception. The same is true for starting safeties Renaldo Hill, another free agent signee, and Yeremiah Bell, a sixth-round draft pick in 2003. The insertion of Bell into the starting lineup has helped, but the Dolphins simply don't make the big plays in the secondary that kill drives and change games, which is something the conservative Vikings offense will have to investigate.
Had this game been played two weeks ago, most observers would have said the Vikings should be prohibitive favorites. But, coming off wins over the 7-0 Bears and 5-3 Chiefs, suddenly people are looking at Miami a little differently and seeing the Vikings as the underdogs. However, this is a team that can be beaten on both sides of the ball, and the Vikings have a chance to go south Florida and steal a win to keep their playoff hopes very much alive.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Joey Harrington vs. the Vikings defensive line— In NFL circles, teams will talk about "having someone's number." The Patriots have made Peyton Manning look human. During his long career, Cris Carter went 10 games without scoring a touchdown at Soldier Field. So it is with Joey Harrington and the Vikings, which makes his battle with the Vikings defensive line the Matchup to Watch this week.
In his career, Harrington has started six games against the Vikings. He has lost them all. He has never had a game without an interception and four games with two or more picks. No team has intercepted Harrington more often or more times per start than the Vikings. Why? Because the Vikings have been able to scheme Harrington and bring defensive pressure to force bad throws. With a Cover-2 defense that doesn't always incorporate the blitz, it will be the job of the Vikings defensive line to harass Harrington and force him into making the mistakes than can turn a close game in the Vikings' favor.
For Kevin and Pat Williams, the responsibility will be to collapse the middle of the pocket to get Harrington on the move. When forced to shift around in the pocket, Harrington has always lost accuracy and been known to launch passes into dangerous spots. The job of Kenechi Udeze, Darrion Scott and Ray Edwards will be to swoop in from the ends and either bring Harrington down or, at the very least, put a body on him. Harrington frustrated Lions fans with "happy feet" when pressured and few teams could fluster him more than the Vikings.
Unlike players like Tom Brady, who was given too much time, or Brett Favre, who is still the master of buying an extra second or two in the pocket by sliding laterally, Harrington is more of a pure drop-back passer who will take hits in order to deliver passes. As they've done many times before, if the Vikings can put the heat on Harrington and continue the trend of forcing mistakes, his career record against the Vikes could slip to 0-7 – making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
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