There are always a couple surprise teams in the NFL, and after two weeks, we have a couple contenders for 2013’s edition, as unexpected teams have gone 2-0. In the AFC West, the Kansas City Chiefs have already matched last year’s win totals. Over in the NFC, both the Saints and Bears have bounced back from playoff-less years with strong 2-0 starts. One of the most surprising teams, and one with some potential for keeping a hot start going, is the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins were an uninspiring 7-9 last season, and then went out and made some interesting decisions in the offseason, spending high on Mike Wallace coming off of a down year, letting left tackle Jake Long leave town, and jumping up to #3 in the draft in order to take Dion Jordan, who has so far made no impact on the season. Yet, here they are at 2-0, riding a strong defense to a hot start, and looking like a potential contender against the suddenly vulnerable-seeming Patriots. This week, they face their toughest challenge so far – will they jump through this new hoop, or will they be unable to squeak past?
Atlanta Falcons (1-1) @ Miami Dolphins (2-0) – Sunday, September 22nd, 4:05 PM Eastern, FOX.
Last Week: After a week 1 loss, the Falcons took a beating in the first half on the field against St. Louis, if not on the score line – five starters were hurt by halftime, including running back Steven Jackson and cornerback Asante Samuel. Add that to Roddy White coming in banged up, and you’d think the Falcons would struggle, right? Not with Julio Jones in the line-up – Jones had 11 receptions for 182 yards and a touchdown to lead all scorers in the game. Though the Rams brought pressure, Matt Ryan still went 13-for-17 against the blitz and, despite being sacked twice and knocked down eight more times, kept the Falcons ahead, holding off a late Rams charge to win, 31-24.
The Dolphins had a step up in competition, facing their first playoff team of the year in Indianapolis. Riding into Lucas Oil stadium for a battle between second-year quarterbacks, Ryan Tannehill matched the much more acclaimed Andrew Luck throw for throw, and the defense stepped up and made Luck pay for his mistakes, intercepting him once in the end zone and forcing a key three-and-out to prevent Luck from having yet another fourth quarter comeback. Add in nine receptions for Mike Wallace a week after he complained about not getting the ball enough, and you have an impressive 24-20 victory.
Last meeting: The Falcons had question marks entering their 2009 season opener, having revamped their defense in the offseason. With the likes of Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy leaving in the offseason, and with what seemed like a lack of talent coming in, how would they respond? Well, a near-shut out of the Chad Pennington-led Dolphins was as good a start as any, forcing four turnovers and adding four sacks to harry the Dolphins all day long. On offense, new addition Tony Gonzalez hooked up with second-year quarterback Matt Ryan for a touchdown, leading to a 19-7 Falcons win.
What’s at stake: The loss to the Saints in week 1 means the Falcons no longer control their own destiny in the NFC South, though obviously, in week 3 it’s a bit early to get too concerned about that. A win, coupled with a Saints loss, would have them level once again in the division – but a loss would raise some serious questions, and the specter of a 1-3 start with New England coming in next week. The Dolphins, on the other hand, are trying to keep pace with the Patriots themselves. A win would give them their first 3-0 start since 2002 and cement their status as viable playoff contenders this season.
This time: Let’s start with the key injuries, as that will be the main storyline coming in for Atlanta– the Falcons will be without Steven Jackson, who went down with a hamstring injury against the Rams. He’ll be replaced with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, which is a notable step down for the run game. They’re going to have to try to get some of that short-yardage production in unorthodox ways – which may mean plenty of screen passes and outlet routes. Last week, the Dolphins allowed Ahmad Bradshaw and Stanley Havili to get 45 yards after the catch on only five receptions, and we could see more of that in lieu of a successful, between-the-tackles style run game for the Falcons this week, as I don’t see them having any success on the ground with Jackson out.
The passing game is likely more of a route for success for the Falcons, even with Roddy White still questionable with a high-ankle sprain. It won’t be Jones this time, though – -or, rather, not to the same tune as in the Rams game, where he was almost unstoppable. He’ll get his catches and his yards, but I’d be more concerned about something else. Look at this – in week one, against the Browns, the Dolphins let tight end Jordan Cameron go for 9 catches, 104 yards and a touchdown. In week two, against the Colts, the Dolphins let tight end Coby Fleener go for 4 catches, 69 yards, and a touchdown. There’s no reason to believe that Tony Gonzalez can’t match that and more, as the Dolphins have yet to find an answer this season. They’re likely going to have to assign someone – safety Reshad Jones? – to stick to Gonzalez like glue, which will open the routes for the deep ball to Jones. It’s a tricky puzzle, and one the Dolphins are going to have to solve if they want to stay in this game.
Injuries continue to affect the game when the Dolphins have the ball, as Atlanta will be missing Asante Samuel, Kory Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon, and more. The linebacking corps in particular is shallow this week – it’s too bad Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, as this would be the kind of game they’d lean on him in. Perhaps Charles Clay, the fullback/tight-end hybrid who scored the sealing touchdown last week, will continue to get opportunities in the short passing game. For the deep passing game, the Falcons need to find some way to get pressure on the quarterback, as they didn’t sack Sam Bradford once Sunday despite 57 pass attempts. The Dolphins have had trouble keeping Tannnehill upright, so it’s sort of a match between a stoppable force and a movable object. Assuming the pass protection holds up, though, Mike Wallace should be able to find some deep routes; the sort that they haven’t quite hooked up on yet. I’d imagine in front of the home crowd, they’d want to show off their new toy, however, so look for a deep bomb or two to Wallace early.
On the ground, Lamar Miller bounced back from an awful game against Cleveland to be quite efficient against Indianapolis, and he might be the key this week, too, as the best way to stop the Falcons offense is to simply never allow them to have the ball. If they can chew up yardage on the ground, they’ll be alright — meaning they’re going to have to find ways to stop players like Jonathan Massaquoi from blowing up plays before they start. The Dolphins offensive line hasn’t had nearly the same start that the rest of the team has had. Outside of Richie Incognito and Mike Pouncey, they haven’t exactly been lighting it up. Tyson Clabo at right tackle has been particularly poor – but I have a feeling that they’ll be able to get things right against the depleted Falcons defense.
Prediction: This is by far the toughest challenge for the Dolphins so far. The Browns have already punted on this season by trading Trent Richardson, while the Colts squeaked into the playoffs with some last-second heroics. The Falcons had the best record in the NFC last year, and made it just a few yards from the Super Bowl. If anyone is going to bring the Dolphins back to Earth, the Falcons would be a likely subject.
But add in all the injuries the Falcons are facing, as well as the fact that this is the Dolphins home opener, and I can see Miami abusing the depleted linebacker corps with counter runs, play action fakes, and middle-crossing routes. I’m going to go ahead and give the Dolphins the 3-0 start they’ve been looking for for over a decade, and call this one Dolphins 17, Falcons 14.