Two teams on the opposite ends of things to begin their 2018 season clash in Miami Sunday. The Raiders come in trying to dig their way out of an 0-2 hole while the Dolphins try to keep remain undefeated.
With the teams set to face off, I spoke to Kevin Nogle of SB Nation Dolphins blog, The Phinsider to the the Phinside scoop on the team the Raiders will be facing Sunday. Here’s what he had to say.
1. Is this Dolphins defense for real or is it more a product of the quality of competition over the first two weeks?
They are for real, but they have weaknesses that have not been exploited yet. The pass rush is their strength, and that includes the defensive ends and defensive tackles. They can get up field and, while everyone focuses on the loss of Ndamukong Suh, they are playing better without him because they are rotating players into the game more often, throwing fresh players at the opposing offensive line, as compared to one great player staying in the entire game. Cameron Wake has not gotten on the board with a sack yet this year, but he, Robert Quinn, Andre Branch, and Charles Harris are really good.
Xavien Howard is a shutdown cornerback that should have his name become more and more known this year. After that, though, the cornerbacks are not tried-and-true yet. Bobby McCain is playing well as an outside cornerback, but at some point, someone is going to start picking on him as he shifts from being a nickel corner to the boundary. Minkah Fitzpatrick as a nickel cornerback is amazing and the Dolphins have a stud in the making, but he is still a rookie and will make rookie mistakes at some point this year. An opposing team needs to find a way to attack him and see if they can force those mistakes - but that is high risk because, if he does not make the mistake, he will make the opposing offense pay.
Safety Reshad Jones looks like the two-time Pro Bowl play maker he is and T.J. McDonald has looked strong early this year.
Which leaves the biggest question marks on the team - the linebackers. Kiko Alonso has looked much better early this year than he did last year. He leads the league in tackles and he is playing fast. He is still being asked to do too much at times, especially when he is covering for the younger linebackers playing beside him, but he is solid. Raekwon McMillan in the middle is still adjusting to the NFL after missing his entire rookie campaign with an ACL tear. Jerome Baker is also trying to adjust to the NFL as a starting rookie linebacker. Attack the linebackers, both on the ground and in the air, and you will force Miami to have to make adjustments (Jones in the box, Fitzpatrick shifting coverage, McDonald having to move into coverage, etc.) and that is where you should be able to expose Miami’s defense.
2. How has Tannehill been looking since his return? Back to his old self? Better? Worse? Why?
Tannehill has been fairly sharp. We are starting to see him make plays with his legs again, which is a good sign that he is trusting the knee. There have been some throws, especially in Week 1, where you just were not sure what he was doing or seeing, but overall he looks like the player he was at the end of the 2016 season, which was the best form of him we had seen. He is never going to be confused with Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but Tannehill is a really good quarterback when he has the changce to make a play - and the offensive line is actually doing that thus far this year.
3. How did the Dolphins go about replacing some of the big players they lost this offseason like Suh and Landry?
Like I said about Suh, they are rotating player much more, allowing the sum of the parts to surpass Suh. No one player is going to match what Suh brought, but four should be able to do it. The same basic concept is going to the wide receivers. With Landry in Cleveland, the Dolphins offense is not all about getting him 100 receptions, but rather spreading the ball around more evently, letting more players get touches and make plays. Kenny Stills has six receptions on eight targets, Albert Wilson has six on nine, Jakeem Grant has seven on eleven, Danny Amendola has eight on ten, and Kenyan Drake has seven on eight. Even when you add in DeVante Parker, who has missed the first two games with a broken finger, and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, who should become a receiving threat at some point this year, I would expect about equal looks and catches for Miami’s receivers.
Another player that people love to mention when they talk about Miami losing players this offseason is center Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins traded for Daniel Kilgore in the offseason, which then led to the team releasing Pouncey - though they wanted to keep him at a reduced salary cap number - and making it look like another Pro Bowl talent was leaving Miami. The highlight of Pouncey’s 2017 season was simply the fact that he played in 16 games, the first time he had done that since 2012. Pouncey is a fine player, but he was not playing like a Pro Bowl talent for the Dolphins after making the all-star game in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Kilgore is playing just as well as Pouncey was.
4. What area(s) are the Dolphins the most vulnerable?
Linebacker on defense is clearly the biggest area. On offense, the interior of the offensive line is a concern now, as the team replaces Josh Sitton at left guard with Ted Larsen. Larsen is fine at the position, but this was the first time in years Miami appeared to have a strong, stable offensive line and then Sitton was injured in Week 1 and is out for the year. Attack the middle and left middle of the offensive line and see how well they hold up.
The Dolphins also want to get Gesicki rolling after he only caught one pass on two targets in his first two NFL games. He has been blocking well, which was seen as his weakness coming our of college, but now they need the pass catching threat. The Titans and Jets both did a solid job of not allowing the rookie to get of the line of scrimmage cleanly, including pressing him with two players at times. The offense can work without him, but having him would be a huge bonus to Tannehill and the rest of the receivers.
5. Give me a Dolphins player not mentioned above who we may not know about but who should have a large impact in this game.
I covered a lot of players who could fit this - players like Grant and Wilson at wide receiver could both be answers - so I will turn back to the defensive line. Jordan Phillips and Davon Godchaux are playing really well in the middle of the defensive line, creating havoc, getting into the backfield and either disrupting the run or flushing out the quarterback. They are both players who could be impactful this weekend.
I will also give you a player who everyone tends to ignore, but the punter. Matt Haack has been averaging 51 yards per kick this year and was a huge bonus for Miami last week against the Jets as he flipped field position routinely. He is someone no one knows, playing a position that really is not appreciated, but he is doing it well and it could make a difference on Sunday.