Unless the Dolphins meet Denver in the playoffs, they will not face a team with more dangerous weapons in the passing game this season than their next two opponents: Atlanta and New Orleans.
And injuries are adding new layers of uncertainty to Sunday’s home opener against the Falcons, including Friday’s news that three star receivers are listed as questionable on the injury report: the Dolphins’ Mike Wallace, who tweaked his groin this week, and the Falcons’ Julio Jones and Roddy White, who have been playing through knee and ankle injuries, respectively.
All three were limited in practice Friday. Wallace, who missed the preseason opener with a groin injury, appeared to be moving normally after practice, which was mostly closed to the media.
What’s more, the Dolphins’ defensive backfield will be without starting cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who is out with a groin injury, and might be without safety Chris Clemons, who is questionable with a hamstring injury.
That could be problematic if Jones and White continue playing in spite of their ailments.
Defensive tackle Paul Soliai, as expected, also was ruled out with a knee injury that isn’t season-threatening but could keep him sidelined beyond this week.
And Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi (knee) and center Mike Pouncey (ankle) were listed as questionable, but both are considered more likely to play than not, barring a setback.
Beyond Wallace, the biggest worry Sunday is stopping the Falcons’ passing game with a depleted secondary, a difficult task if Jones and White are suited up.
The Dolphins also must deal with Tony Gonzalez, who holds the NFL tight end record for touchdown receptions (104) and yards (14,337).
And in Matt Ryan, the Falcons have a quarterback who has thrown 70 more career touchdowns than interceptions (131 to 61). He’s fifth in the league in quarterback rating at 107.9 and rolls into Miami off a 374-yard aerial assault in a win against St. Louis, and off a 2012 season that was his best, including a 68.6 completion percentage and 32 touchdowns.
“It’s a great offense,” said Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who spent his first six seasons with the Falcons. “If you’re not ready, they can make you look bad in a lot of ways. They’ve got great weapons and a great quarterback to throw it to them.”
Jones, 6-3, has 258 yards receiving in two games, second in the league behind Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson.
He has fully justified the Falcons’ decision to give up a bundle for him in the 2011 draft — including two No.1 picks and five picks overall.
“Julio can do everything,” Grimes said. “An awesome player.”
White, 6-0, has just five catches for 40 yards while battling through a high ankle sprain but comes off a 92-reception, 1,351-yard season.
With Patterson missing a second consecutive game, Nolan Carroll is expected to start again at cornerback opposite Grimes.
Carroll performed competently against the Colts, allowing three of the eight passes thrown against him to be completed, for 41 yards.
But Jimmy Wilson had less success; the Colts completed four of the five passes in his coverage area, for 51 yards. Wilson, who is listed as probable with a groin injury, likely would start at safety if Clemons cannot play. Clemons said earlier this week he expects to play.
Rookie cornerbacks Jamar Taylor (groin) and Will Davis (toe) were listed as probable, and one or both could be needed for defensive snaps Sunday.
Slowing Gonzalez — who has seven catches for 69 yards and a touchdown this season — ranks high on the Dolphins’ priority list.
As was the case last season, the Dolphins have struggled to slow tight ends. Among Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron, Indianapolis’ Coby Fleener and their backups, the Dolphins already have permitted tight ends to catch 15 passes for 199 yards.
Numerous Dolphins have been victimized. Linebacker Philip Wheeler has allowed 9 of 10 passes thrown in his coverage area to be completed, for 84 yards, though not all have been against tight ends.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said critics should keep this in mind:
“When you look around the league, it’s not just us,” he said. “These tight ends, they are darn good athletes. We’ve got to keep mixing things up and do a better job against them.”
Miami has nine sacks in two games, and it’s critical the Dolphins generate a consistent pass rush Sunday.
Atlanta has allowed five sacks, and Ryan has been hit a lot. Falcons left tackle Sam Baker was ruled out Sunday with knee and foot injuries, and starting running back Stephen Jackson (hamstring) is also out.
The Falcons will shift right tackle Lamar Holmes — who has allowed eight quarterback hurries and a sack — to left tackle, with Jeremy Trueblood taking over at right tackle.