The Miami Dolphins (4-3) head west to face the Arizona Cardinals (5-2) on Sunday afternoon. The Dolphins arrive after a 28-17 win where the defense dominated the LA Rams. This alleviated the pressure on first-time start Tua Tagovailoa. But that pressure returns in his first career road start against a similarly talented young quarterback in Kyler Murray.
The last time Tagovailoa and Murray squared off, they put on a show at the 2018 Orange Bowl. The two complied 735 yards in that one. It’s unlikely fans will see that type of performance on Sunday, considering the solid defenses in this one.
So here’s a look at five keys to Week 9’s Dolphins-Cardinals matchup.
Dolphins-Cardinals: Get the Offense Going
In three of Miami’s four wins this season, the offense got on the board first. The Dolphins managed to build early leads against Jacksonville, San Francisco and New York. Although the Rams put points on the board early last week, Miami thundered back with 28 straight in the first half.
What’s clear is, if the Dolphins offense can get going early, they win. The problem recently has been a struggling offense. In the second half against the Jets, Miami managed just 102 net yards on just 4.0 yards-per-play.
Against the Rams, those struggles continued. the Dolphins gained 145 yards on 48 offensive plays, good for just 3.0 yards-per-play. Facing an explosive Cardinals team, Miami will have to put up points.
Miami needs to win time-of-possession and string together extended drives. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey called a conservative game last week, especially after the early lead, but he might need to open it up against Arizona. Tagovailoa, meanwhile, needs to develop chemistry with his receivers.
Fans look forward to seeing if Tagovailoa can build on his statistically underwhelming debut. Tagovailoa went 12-of-22 for 93 yards and a touchdown. He lost a fumble but was victimized by at least three drops.
Contain Kyler Murray
The challenge of containing Kyler Murray stands as Miami’s top priority against the Cardinals. Murray quarterbacks a potent offense that scores 29.0 points-per-game (eighth) and piles up 419.1 yards-per-game (first in total offense).
Murray’s ability to run could be Miami’s most difficult task. Murray leads all quarterbacks with 437 rushing yards. He gains 6.7 yards-per-carry and averages 62.4 yards-per-game. He’s scored seven rushing touchdowns and remains a real threat in the red zone.
This season, the Dolphins have struggled against mobile quarterbacks. Losses to Cam Newton, Josh Allen and Russell Wilson can be traced to an inability to contain those QBs, particularly when they extended plays with their feet.
The Dolphins will need to shut down Arizona’s rushing game beyond just Murray. Their 160.7 rushing yards-per-game is second in the league. Although they’re likely to be without former Dolphin Kenyan Drake, Chase Edmonds remains a shifty, talented back. Edmonds averages 6.1 yards-per-carry and Arizona’s attack overall nets 5.2 yards-per-carry (second-most).
Miami’s run defense allows 125.1 yards-per-game and 4.9 yards-per-carry, both 21st in the NFL.
Dolphins-Cardinals: Run the Ball
If Miami is going to win this game against the Cardinals, they’ll need some semblance of a running game. What hurts the Dolphins in that regard is they’ll be without starting running back Myles Gaskin, who has been placed on the IR.
Finding a consistent rushing attack continues to confound the Dolphins. In 2019, Miami had the worst ground game in the league (72.3 yards-per-game). This season, the Dolphins aren’t much better. Miami runners gain an average of 98.0 yards-per-game (fifth-worst) and average just 3.6 yards-per-carry (second-worst).
The Cardinals, though, feature a rush defense that can be run on. They allow 131.1 yards-per-game (eighth-most). A consistent ground game could alleviate pressure on Tagovailoa.
Without Gaskin, Miami probably turns to Jordan Howard, who hasn’t been active since Week 4. Howard stands as the most experienced option. Other options include former practice squad talent Salvon Ahmed, and perhaps Brieda and Laird, if they’re healthy.
Win Strength v Strength
Miami’s three-game winning streak comes thanks in large part to dominant defensive play. Since Week 5, the Dolphins defense ranks top-3 in points allowed, sacks, takeaways and third-down conversion rate. The Dolphins are tops in the NFL in scoring defense (18.6 pints-per-game) and Xavien Howard leads the league with four interceptions.
The defense pins opponents to obvious passing situations, pressures the quarterback and gets off the field. Over the last three games, opposing QBs are 0-for-14 when throwing the ball 20-or-more yards in the air. But the Dolphins D will have its hands full with Murray and the Cardinals.
DeAndre Hopkins might be the best receiver in the NFL these days. He’s snagged 57 catches for 704 yards and three touchdowns and hogs targets from Murray. Hopkins has 73 targets this season and has caught 78.1 percent of them. The next closest receiver is Larry Fitzgerald, with 37 targets.
The Dolphins feature one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Howard and Byron Jones. In four games with those two on the field, the defense allows just 13.8 points-per-game and 5.5 yards-per-pass.
Hopkins torched Howard the last time the two faced off (back in 2018). Hopkins caught six of seven targets for 82 yards and two touchdowns while with the Houston Texans. This week, Howard could look for redemption, or the team could slot Jones in front of Hopkins. Howard could face Christian Kirk (who’s averaging 15.4 yards-per-catch and has five receiving touchdowns).
Although normally a tight end eraser, Eric Rowe could matchup with Fitzgerald, who’s largely been used like a tight end by the Cardinals this season.
Dolphins-Cardinals: Protect Tua
Although the Cardinals will be without Chandler Jones, Miami’s offensive line will still need to keep their quarterback upright. Arizona sends an extra rusher 38.6 percent of the time, which is the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. The Cardinals’ 19 sacks are 10th-most in the league. They’re also top-10 in knockdown percentage (8.9) and pressure rate (23.5).
Against the Rams, Tagovailoa faced only five blitzes, according to Pro Football Focus. His touchdown pass came against a blitz. For the Cardinals, Haason Reddick leads the team with five sacks and 20 quarterback pressures.
Miami’s offensive line could see the return of Austin Jackson from the IR. In his absence, fellow rookie Robert Hunt has played well at right tackle and Jesse Davis has played well at left tackle. Jackson may not play or could be used as a sixth linemen in some formations.
Give Tagovailoa time and the Dolphins may put up points. The Cardinals allow 20.9 points-per-game (ninth) but 378.4 yards-per-game (22nd). The passing defense cedes 247.3 yards-per-game (18th) and 63.1 percent completions.
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