Miami's M.O.: Stingy 'D,' Ball-Control 'O'

In a classic matchup of receiver vs. cornerback, the Vikings' Randy Moss may have an opportunity to receive one-on-one coverage against two of the league's best CBs. Being able to take advantage of those opportunities will go a long way in the Vikings' hopes of getting a win Saturday.

When the Vikings close out the home portion of their 2002 season, it will be a chance for the team to play a part in the outcome of the AFC playoff race. The Miami Dolphins are coming to town for a Saturday earlybird special, and the Vikings will have a chance not only to send the home fans home happy, but also to derail the Dolphins' division title hopes.

One of the key players for the Dolphins is QB Jay Fiedler, a former Viking who got his release when the team opted to keep Todd Bouman. First brought in to the ire of fans as the replacement for Dan Marino, they have learned to appreciate what he can do and felt how much he was missed when he was injured at midseason. Miami had a three-game losing streak in which the offense scored just 30 points, and the loss of Fiedler was to blame. He's not a Pro Bowl type player, but he minimizes mistakes and runs the game effectively. If the Vikings take him lightly, they will pay for it.

One of the reasons for Fiedler's anonymity is the incredible season put together by Ricky Williams. When he was acquired in a trade with New Orleans, the team's goals were lofty indeed — set a franchise record for rushing yards and run for 100 yards a game. He's exceeded those goals already and will be the focus of Miami's offense from here on out. Averaging almost 25 carries a game, he is the one player the Vikings will have to stop. The team also has third-down back Travis Minor and fullback Rob Konrad to contend with, but Williams is the show — pure and simple.

In the receiver corps, the Dolphins have seen a lot of improvement from various sources. Chris Chambers is the speedy go-to guy, but he is far from alone. Miami went to free agency to get James McKnight — a favorite of offensive coordinator Norv Turner — and convinced Cris Carter to come out of retirement for a chance at a Super Bowl ring. They also went to the draft to grab big tight end Randy McMichael, who is already blossoming into a major talent. Miami's weapons are diverse and can kill you several ways.

The offensive line has remained intact most of the season, with the only surprise being converted guard Mark Dixon at left tackle. He's joined by right tackle Todd Wade, guards Todd Perry and Seth McKinney (a replacement for the injured Jamie Nails), and center Tim Ruddy to give the Dolphins a mix of youth and veteran savvy that could remain together for at least the next two or three years. They have come together as a group and helped Williams be at or near the top of the rushing stats all year long.

While the offense has shown improvement, it is still the defense that has made the Dolphins a playoff contender. The team has allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing per game and had allowed just seven rushing TDs heading into last week's game with Oakland. The front four is as good as any in the AFC. Speedy Jason Taylor has averaged more than a sack a game, and first-year starter Adewale Ogunleye has developed into a solid pass rusher in his own right. Up the middle, the Dolphins have the beef with 320-pound Tim Bowens and 325-pound Larry Chester. Both can clog the running lanes and require enough attention to open up the pass-rush lanes for Taylor and Ogunleye.

The linebackers are also very good, led by All-Pro Zach Thomas. His ability to get through traffic and chase down runners from sideline to sideline has made him one of the most feared linebackers in the game. He's flanked by second-year man Morlon Greenwood and six-year vet Derrick Rodgers. While Rodgers' future with the team isn't certain because of salary cap conflicts, Thomas and Greenwood are going to be the center of the Miami defense for years to come.

Perhaps the best top-to-bottom group on the defense is in the secondary. The Dolphins have paid good money to have the best and, if they don't have it, they're awfully close. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain are dominant shutdown corners who can make big plays and take away a team's top receiver. At safety, Brock Marion and Arturo Freeman are heavy hitters with great ball skills and instincts. They allow the Dolphins to go with more man coverage because of their ability to sneak up and stuff the run. If the Vikings are going to have any chance of denting the scoreboard, they will have to flood the safety zones with receivers and forget about the Randy Ratio.

Miami is a club that has been one of the most successful in the NFL the past few seasons. With a stifling defense and an improving offense, they may finally have the pieces together to make a deep playoff run. They may become a blueprint that other teams follow, mixing the draft and free agency to build a winner that can sustain in the parity-laden roller coaster that is the NFL of the new millennium.


KEY MATCHUP
Randy Moss/D'Wayne Bates vs. Sam Madison/Patrick Surtain —
Few teams have the personnel to shut down opposing wide receivers, but Miami is blessed in that regard. After taking a beating from the likes of Andre Reed, Keyshawn Johnson and Marvin Harrison, the Dolphins committed to getting a pair of cover corners capable of holding their own with both speed receivers and those with size.

They got them in Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain. They are risk-takers and players capable of forcing offensive coordinators to change the way they attack the Miami defense. Getting an opponent to alter its game plan simply because of your personnel is a plus few teams can boast, but Miami can make that claim.

The Vikings have consistently forced teams to double- and even triple-cover Randy Moss. Miami won't do that. They will put Madison and Surtain on Randy Moss and D'Wayne Bates and almost dare Daunte Culpepper to try to beat them. With their cover skills, coach Dave Wannstedt is confident to leave them on an island and take their chances with a big play on offense with the tradeoff being a big play occasionally turning the game around.

The Vikings likely will try to take at least a couple shots with Moss deep. If Miami comes out in man coverage, don't be surprised to see it come early. While the Vikings have maintained a commitment to establishing the run, the long bomb is the great offensive equalizer, and with Moss and Bates looking to roam in the deep secondary and keep the defense honest to respect the bomb, three of four big plays could spell the difference between winning and losing.

Neither team is likely to back off its main strength, so expect to see these guys locking up early and often in the Saturday showdown.



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