Breaking down the game | By sportswriter Armando Salguero
WHEN THE DOLPHINS PASS THE BALL
The Dolphins have shown in the first two games they can put a diverse passing game on the field. They can beat you with Brian Hartline leading the way. They can beat you with Mike Wallace leading the way. And, increasingly, Charles Clay is becoming a weapon for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The only issue in the passing game so far has been the ability to keep Tannehill healthy. He has been sacked nine times in two games and that is no way to have your starting quarterback live. At that rate, Tannehill would be sacked 72 times in 2013. The most sacks the Dolphins have ever allowed in a season is 53 in 1969. Osi Umenyiora is the most accomplished pass rusher for the Falcons, and yet he doesn’t have a sack this season. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS RUN THE BALL
The Dolphins averaged 3.7 yards per rush last week against Indianapolis, and that was considered an epiphany. That speaks to how far the Dolphins have yet to go before they feel comfortable with their running game. Simply, it is not very good right now and has a long way to go to be merely mediocre. Blocking has to get better. Running has to get better. The Falcons are rated ninth in the NFL in rush defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan stresses the importance of stopping the run, but without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Kroy Biermann in the lineup this week because of injuries, the challenge grows. ADVANTAGE: Falcons.
WHEN THE FALCONS RUN THE BALL
The Falcons didn’t scare anyone running the football the first two games, and then they lost starting running back Steven Jackson to injury. Now a team that has gained only 62 yards rushing per game is without the player who was averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Atlanta must rely on Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers, who have 15 rushes between them this season. The Dolphins will be without defensive tackle Paul Soliai, and that hurts because he’s their best interior run stopper. But because Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are on the roster, Miami loses very little in the starting lineup. The issue will show up in the drop in talent when the Dolphins substitute. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.
WHEN THE FALCONS PASS THE BALL
Julio Jones is one of the NFL’s best and most explosive receivers. He is a matchup nightmare for the Dolphins. It also is troubling for Miami that Roddy White, although slowed by injury, is also talented, and Harry Douglas has elite speed and is leading the team with a 17-yard-per-catch average. The problem for the Falcons is they’re having trouble protecting Matt Ryan, who has been sacked five times but gets hit a lot more than that. Tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes, a first-year starter, have not been good. The Dolphins, meanwhile, rush the passer in waves led by Cameron Wake and Derrick Shelby. That’s right, Shelby. He has so far been the second-most productive Dolphins pass rusher. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.
Matt Bryant can make the clutch kick, as evidenced by his 49-yard, game-winning field goal with 13 seconds to play in last year’s playoffs. But he is 38 years old and his range outdoors in the elements is a question. Matt Bosher, formerly of the University of Miami, leads the NFL in net punt average. The Dolphins have no issue in the kicking and punting department so far but need to get more production out of their returns. The Dolphins are 28th in the NFL in punt returns. ADVANTAGE: Even.
Joe Philbin has his team playing at a high level, as Miami is 2-0 for the first time since 2010 and this home opener will be a great opportunity to win the home crowd’s trust. The Dolphins’ staff must solve the team’s issues containing tight ends and fix the running game but has done a great job improving the passing game and defense against the pass so far this year. Mike Smith became Atlanta’s head coach in 2008 and has become among the most successful coaches since, compiling a 57-25 regular-season record. Defensive coordinator Nolan, no stranger to Dolphins fans, is excellent at resolving problems and hiding his team’s deficiencies. ADVANTAGE: Falcons.