Miami Dolphins

Keys to the game: Dolphins vs. Chargers

Dolphins coach Joe Philbin
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin AP

When the Chargers pass the football

Phillip Rivers doesn’t always get mentioned in the company of elite quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees but belongs in the conversation with those players as long as no one is discussing winning a Super Bowl. “He has an extra sense when something bad might be happening,” coach Joe Philbin said. In other words, Rivers has good instincts for the pocket and how to escape bad situations. The Dolphins had success against the Chargers last season, particularly in the red zone, forcing them to kick field goals instead of allowing touchdowns. Perhaps one reason for that is tight end Antonio Gates was battling injuries and was slowed to the point he was contained – four catches for 52 yards and the team’s only score. But Gates is healthier now and playing as well as ever, leading his team with nine TDs. Speaking of a renaissance, nine-year veteran Malcolm Floyd has been San Diego’s best deep threat, averaging 19.6 yards per catch. The Miami secondary has been great in recent weeks, intercepting six passes in four games, including two returned for touchdowns. ADVANTAGE: San Diego.

When the Chargers run the football

The question has been whether Ryan Mathews is ready to return to action. The answer is no. But Donald Brown, out recently with a concussion, will be available. And Miami-born rookie Branden Oliver will likely continue to be a big part of the run game for San Diego because he’s emerged in the absence of both Mathews and Brown. But let’s face it, this team passes to set up the run. This team runs as an afterthought. That’s the biggest difference between these Chargers and the dominant Chargers of the last decade that featured LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime. Those offenses were more complete. The Miami defensive front was gashed last week by the Jaguars as players lost the edge on run plays on multiple occasions. The Dolphins are No. 16 in the NFL against the run, yielding an average of 111.1 rushing yards per game. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Dolphins pass the football

Let’s see, Mike Wallace came to the Dolphins to be a dynamic deep threat receiver and is mostly a possession receiver. Brian Hartline has four drops, including two last week, and is on pace for his worst season since 2011 when he wasn’t a fulltime starter. Tight end Charles Clay, feeling good about himself two weeks ago after the Chicago game, was limited to one catch last week at Jacksonville. The Dolphins passing game is not consistent and doesn’t seem to be maximizing its talents. Part of that falls on quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is trying to find consistency and keep it throughout not just multiple games but even within games. All that translates to the 25-ranked pass offense. The Chargers pass defense sounds more ominous with defensive end Dwight Freeney rushing the passer, corners Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett at their posts and safety Jahleel Addae available for service. But Verrett is out and Addae is doubtful. The Chargers better pack their depth for this road trip. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.

When the Dolphins run the football

Giving Lamar Miller two carries in the first half of any game is probably not in Miami’s plan, but that’s exactly what happened last week because the Miami offense could not string together any first downs. Will the Dolphins flip the switch on Miller and allow him to be the catalyst for the rest of the offense? That hasn’t happened yet either as he’s averaging 13.5 carries per game, and the Dolphins seem intent on being a passing team. The team is running only 43 percent of the time. The San Diego run defense is vulnerable. It yields 4.5 yards per rush, which is 23rd in the NFL. If only the Dolphins would run the ball more. It makes too much sense. So it probably won’t happen. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams

The Chargers have the worst kick return team in the NFL as they are ranked 32nd. They’re 21st in punting return average. The Chargers cover the kicks better than they return them but they still are not great in punt return coverage, ranking 21st in the NFL. Kicker Nick Novak was 4-for-4 against Jacksonville on Sept. 28 and was named the special teams player of the week. The Dolphins have the AFC special teams player of the month in Jarvis Landry and he continues to be threat on kickoffs. Caleb Sturgis has connected on three consecutive field goals and Brandon Fields has raised his net punting average by two yards the past two weeks. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross interviewed Mike McCoy and Joe Philbin when he was searching for a head coach in 2012 and obviously was more impressed with Philbin’s organizational skills than McCoy’s play-calling and other assets. Was it the right call? Impossible to answer at this point. McCoy’s team did get to the playoffs last year but Philbin’s team beat the Chargers. ADVANTAGE: Even.

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