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OPPONENT: Miami Dolphins
WHERE: Land Shark Stadium in Miami, Fla.
WHERE THE DOLPHINS STAND: The Dolphins are 3-5 and tied with the Buffalo Bills for third place in the AFC East division.
DOLPHINS HEAD COACH: Tony Sparano
DOLPHINS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dan Henning
DOLPHINS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Paul Pasqualoni
DOLPHINS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: John Bonamego
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 28th (273 ypg)
RUSHING: 25th (96 ypg)
PASSING: 23rd (177 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 29th (380 ypg)
RUSHING: 30th (163 ypg)
PASSING: 15th (217 ypg)
MIAMI DOLPHINS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 23rd (309 ypg)
RUSHING: 4th (151 ypg)
PASSING: 29th (158 ypg)
MIAMI DOLPHINS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 22nd (341 ypg)
RUSHING: 6th (95 ypg)
PASSING: 28th (247 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW …
… the Dolphins who had a NFL-best 17-plus turnover ratio in 2008, rank 20th in the NFL with a minus-1 turnover ratio in 2009?
SCOUTING THE DOLPHINS
Dolphins QB Chad Pennington was a big part of Miami's turnaround last year when Miami went from 1-15 to 11-5, but he's sidelined for the year with another shoulder injury.
Former second-round pick Chad Henne replaced Pennington in the starting lineup. He's had a mixed outing, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 990 yards and tossing four touchdowns and three interceptions. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Henne, who is considered more of a pocket passer, isn't Miami's only quarterback, though.
Dolphins rookie QB Pat White (6-0, 190) was drafted in the second round out of West Virginia to help Miami build on its Wildcat offensive attack. White is 0-of-2 on pass attempts, but he's carried the ball 10 times for 47 yards, including a 33-yard run.
Miami's ground game is one of the league's most potent, and much of the Dolphins' success in this particular area is due to the running game. It's led by two former first-round picks in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, who have Miami's running game ranked fourth overall in the NFL and averaging 151 yards per game.
Brown (6-0, 230), who played with Bucs RB Cadillac Williams at Auburn, has carried the ball 135 times for 566 yards (4.2 avg.) and scored seven touchdowns. Brown has good speed and is a hard-nosed, downhill runner, but he also is capable for completing passes out of the Wildcat formation. He's completed 2-of-6 throws, one of which went for a touchdown.
Williams (5-10, 230) is worked into the rotation with Brown. He's rushed 85 times for 456 yards (5.4 avg.) and six touchdowns. Both Williams and Brown are considered dangerous receivers out of the backfield as well. However, most of their production has come from via the running game, which is helping Miami's offense convert 50.8 percent of their third downs this year.
While Tampa Bay's defense doesn't necessarily match up well with Miami's running game, its secondary should be able to contain the Dolphins starting receivers.
Miami's starting WRs Greg Camarillo and Brian Hartline have had issues with dropped passes in recent weeks. Neither player is considered a legitimate deep threat.
Camarillo (6-1, 190), a fourth-year player, has 25 catches for 260 yards (10.4 avg.). Hartline (6-2, 186) has more ability to stretch the field than Camarillo. He's hauled in 11 passes for 175 yards (15.9 avg.) and one touchdown.
Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, who has a team-leading five interceptions, shouldn't have difficulty covering Camarillo and Hartline on Sunday.
The Dolphins deploy quite a few three- and four-receiver sets, which could allow Miami to get speedy WRs Ted Ginn Jr. and Davone Bess in some favorable one-on-one matchups with Bucs backup cornerbacks Elbert Mack and Torrie Cox.
A former first-round pick, Ginn Jr. (5-11, 180) has 19 catches for 218 yards (11.5 avg.) and one touchdown on offense this year. Bess (5-10, 190) is one of Henne's favorite targets, evidenced by his team-leading 36 catches for 262 yards (7.3 avg.). These receivers' ability to get open on passing downs might prompt the Bucs to move free safety Tanard Jackson, who has three picks on the year, including two touchdowns, to nickel corner and replace him at safety with Cory Lynch (knee) or Will Allen (thumb), who are both nursing injuries.
Henne doesn't shy away from his tight ends, either. With TE David Martin on injured reserve, the Dolphins have relied on Anthony Fasano and Joey Haynos. Fasano (6-4, 255) has 14 catches for 113 yards and one touchdown. Haynos (6-8, 270) is a huge target and could give Bucs linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, and even athletic safety Sabby Piscitelli, problems in pass protection. Haynos has seven catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Both tight ends are players the Bucs must account for, especially in the red zone.
It will be critical for Tampa Bay's front seven to find a way to shut down Miami's ground attack. That won't be easy since the Bucs' run defense ranks 30th in the NFL, allowing 163 yards per game.
In order to slow down Miami's running game, Tampa Bay's defensive line must be sound in assignments regarding the Wildcat formations they see, as well as tackling. Neither Brown nor Williams is easy to bring down. Bucs linebackers Barrett Ruud and Geno Hayes will have to play much better against the run than they did last week vs. the Packers. Both players missed a few tackles, and that can't happen Sunday.
Miami's offensive line stands in the way of Tampa Bay's defensive linemen in terms of their pursuit to the ball carrier and quarterback. The Dolphins' O-line has fairly good size and talent.
Dolphins starting offensive tackles Jake Long (6-7, 317) and Vernon Cary (6-5, 340) are former first-round picks. Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but has been inconsistent this season. Bucs right end Stylez G. White, who notched two sacks vs. the Packers last week, will face Long, while Jimmy Wilkerson, who has notched a team-leading 5.5 sacks, will square off against Cary. The Bucs will also work some players, including Tim Crowder, Michael Bennett and rookie Kyle Moore, into the rotation in an effort to keep Tampa Bay's defensive line fresh.
The interior part of Miami's offensive line is strong up front, especially in the running game. The Dolphins might attempt to attack the middle of the Bucs' defense since defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims have struggled often this year against the run. Dolphins left guard Justin Smiley (6-3, 310) and center Jake Grove (6-4, 300) likely will double team Sims, which many teams have elected to do this year, which would leave Hovan in some one-on-one matchups with Dolphins RG Donald Thomas (6-4, 310).
While this unit is talented, it's had some issues in pass protection this year, which is good news for the Bucs, who notched six tackles vs. the Packers last week. Miami only surrendered 26 sacks in 16 games last year. Through the first half of the 2009 season, the Dolphins have already allowed 23 quarterback takedowns. Some of these problems can also be attributed to Henne's inability to get rid of the ball. The Bucs can capitalize on this weakness, but only if they stop the run first.
The Buccaneers will face a 3-4 defense for the second straight week. Miami's has been quite productive, especially against the run, where the Dolphins rank sixth in the NFL, allowing just 95 yards per game. Tampa Bay's run game has stalled, averaging just 96 yards per game. However, Bucs running back Cadillac Williams is running the ball well and likely will be as motivated as ever for this contest with his former Auburn teammate, Ronnie Brown, watching from the opposite sideline.
In order for Tampa Bay to have success running the football, the Bucs' offensive must dominate in the trenches. That won't be easy as Miami's D-line is led by nose tackle Jason Ferguson (6-3, 310), who is no longer in his prime at 34, but is one hell of a force against the run and has the frame to take on two blockers. He has already notched four tackles for a loss and will give Bucs center Jeff Faine all he can handle. The good news for Faine is Ferguson is battling an elbow injury.
Miami defensive ends Kendall Langford (6-6, 295) and Randy Starks (6-3, 305) could also give Tampa Bay's offensive line some problems in the Bucs' quest to establish the ground attack early. Langford, a second-year player, is considered a better run defender, but he does have one sack. In obvious passing situations, the Dolphins could call on another second-year player, DE Phillip Merling (6-4, 295), to replace Langford. Merling has 1.5 sacks this year. Starks, who lines up on the right side, is a dangerous pass rusher, evidenced by his 4.5 quarterback takedowns through eight games.
This unit is the strength of Miami's 3-4 defense. It's littered with talent, including outside linebackers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, who have accounted for eight of Miami's 21 sacks through the first half of the season. Taylor (6-5, 255) is 35 and no longer in his prime, but he's found the fountain of youth in his new role since returning to Miami after a one-year hiatus in Washington. Porter (6-3, 255), 32, has 2.5 sacks of his own, but is a fiery playmaker and leader. He recorded 17.5 sacks with Miami last year. Tampa Bay's offensive line, particularly tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood, will have to put their athleticism to good use in order to hold off Taylor and Porter and provide rookie quarterback Josh Freeman with time to find open receivers in his second pro start.
While he is mobile, Freeman will attempt to throw out of the pocket first. One of his favorite targets is Kellen Winslow, but the athletic tight end could have some difficulty getting open. Dolphins inside linebackers Channing Crowder, who is battling a shoulder injury, and Akin Ayodele haven't been great against the run, but they have excelled in pass coverage. Freeman will also have to be careful throwing the ball to running backs Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward in the flats because of the athleticism Taylor and Porter possess.
Miami's defense is allowing opposing offenses to convert just 35 percent of their third down attempts, but the Dolphins are also surrendering 26 points per game. Despite attempting to address this unit in the offseason, Miami's secondary has to be considered a weakness due to its inconsistent play this season.
The Dolphins have the 28th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, which means Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who threw three touchdown passes in his debut vs. the Packers, likely will be called on to throw the football quite often in this contest.
If his offensive line can buy him time to throw the football, Freeman should be able to test Dolphins starting cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.
Davis (5-11, 203) was Miami's first-round pick in April. He has performed well, notching six passes defensed and two interceptions, including one for a touchdown. But just like most rookies, Davis has also had some growing pains along the way.
Part of the reason why Miami's secondary has struggled is because of the loss of starting CB Will Allen, who had two picks before being placed on injured reserve. Allen has been replaced by Smith, whose 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame has allowed him to break up a team-leading eight passes. Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson likely will call on Freeman to test Smith deep since the taller corner could have trouble turning his hips and adjusting on deep balls thrown by the rookie signal caller.
Bucs wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton will go up against Davis and Smith. If Bryant (knee) isn't able to play again, he will be replaced by WR Maurice Stovall, who was impressive as a starter last week. Although it will have some max protect sets, Tampa Bay likely will continue to get rookie WR Sammie Stroughter on the field as well. He has 19 catches for 233 yards and one touchdown as Tampa Bay's slot receiver.
Bryant, Clayton and/or Stroughter should be able to get open vs. the Dolphins secondary. Miami safeties Yeremiah Bell (6-0, 205) and Gibril Wilson (6-0, 205) are active against the run, but they've had to chase down too many receivers so far this season, evidenced by the fact that they rank one and two, respectively in total tackles. Freeman must be careful with the football, though. Wilson, who has 1.5 sacks this year, has 13 interceptions in five seasons in the NFL.
Tampa Bay's special teams unit played an integral role in helping the Bucs record their first win of the season last week. It will have to excel again in order to contain Miami's dangerous kickoff returner, Ted Ginn Jr., who is averaging 32.6 yards per attempt and has two touchdowns, which came in the same game. It will be key for Bucs kicker Connor Barth to get some real depth on his kickoffs to Ginn Jr.
The Bucs will also have to account for Dolphins punt returner Davon Bess, who is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. He has a long of 14 on the season.
Tampa Bay has its own Pro Bowl-caliber return specialist in running back Clifton Smith, who is averaging 30.6 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return this year. While he still is looking for his first score on special teams, Smith broke off an 83-yard kickoff return that helped the Bucs beat the Packers last week.
Smith will field kicks from Dolphins punter Brandon Fields and K Dan Carpenter. Fields is averaging 45.8 yards per attempt and has pinned 13 of his 37 punts inside the 20-yard line. While he's a decent directional punter, Fields doesn't have great hang time on punts, which could allow Smith to do some damage in the return game.
Carpenter is a reliable field goal kicker. He's made 11-of-12 (91.7 percent) of his field goals. To put that number in perspective, the Bucs have been successful on just 3-of-9 (33.3 percent) of their field goal tries this year. Barth was 1-of-2 on field goal attempts in his debut with the Bucs last week.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Dolphins 27 Buccaneers 24