Miami Dolphins

Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins vs. Houston Texans

Lamar Miller and the rest of the Dolphins’ running game got going during last week’s victory against the Titans in Tennessee. Miami is now third in the NFL in average yards per rush, and Houston’s run defense is not great.
Lamar Miller and the rest of the Dolphins’ running game got going during last week’s victory against the Titans in Tennessee. Miami is now third in the NFL in average yards per rush, and Houston’s run defense is not great. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

When the Dolphins pass the football

If the Dolphins continue to follow the script written during last week’s win over Tennessee, this team will throw fewer passes in hopes of having more balance and scoring more points. The passing game has some things to clean up, as last week a ball bounded off a receiver’s hand for an interception and there was a miscommunication where a receiver continued a route when quarterback Ryan Tannehill expected him to sit down in a zone. That resulted in another interception. The offensive line that seems to be finding a groove run blocking still has much work to do on improving its pass blocking. Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner are solid run blockers but the pass protection needs improvement. The Dolphins are aware and supposedly have a plan for containing J.J. Watt. Part of that plan will have to fall on Tannehill, who must move in the pocket to find passing lanes. If Tannehill fails to do this, Watt is an expert at batting passes at the line of scrimmage. The Texans lead the NFL in third-down defense. The Dolphins’ easy answer? Stay out of third-down situations. Houston starting CB Kareem Jackson will not play.

ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football

It’s amazing what happens when the Dolphins make the commitment to running the football. The team that is No. 3 in the NFL in rush yards per carry is No. 26 in rushing yards per game because, until last week, circumstances and other issues (calling it?) prevented Miami from running effectively. It didn’t happen last week, and now the question lingers whether this team has successfully altered its offensive personality or just stumbled upon a game it could and wanted to run in? The Texans are a good, not great run defense. Vince Wilfork, the anchor of the New England defensive line during their Super Bowl runs, is in Houston now, and although he remains savvy and proficient, he isn’t the player he used to be.

ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Texans pass the football

The Texans have two issues throwing the football. The first issue is neither Brian Hoyer nor Ryan Mallett has been good enough, consistently enough to convince anyone he is the team’s long-term answer at the position. Hoyer gets the start, and he has been more accurate and less prone to turnovers. The other problem is the Texans have only one good receiver and that’s DeAndre Hopkins. So what happens when the Dolphins lock Brent Grimes on Hopkins or double-team Hopkins? Journeyman Cecil Shorts is the next best option, but he’s out with a hamstring injury. The Texans have a solid offensive line. After a tough opener in which they gave up four sacks against Kansas City, the line has allowed only one sack per game the past five weeks.

ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Texans run the football

Arian Foster, a four-time Pro Bowl player, is not the same guy he was in 2010 when he led the NFL in rushing. Foster has been slowed by multiple groin and hamstring injuries, and although the team is 21-11 in games in which he rushes for 100 yards or more, that hasn’t happened yet this season. Foster is averaging 2.3 yards per rush. Alfred Blue had a great game against Cleveland last year, rushing for 156 yards, and ran for 139 yards in Week 3 this season against Tampa Bay, so he should not be dismissed. The Miami run defense still isn’t where coaches or players want it to be. Miami limited Tennessee to 63 yards and so the test continues whether that is the aberration or the new run D under new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.

ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams

Texans punter Shane Lechler, a former college roommate of Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell, is the NFL’s all-time leading punter with a 47.4 gross average. That’s good but the Texans are 28th in the NFL in net punting average this season and that’s bad. The Texans aren’t exceptional in any special-teams category, and they’re especially challenged covering kickoffs (they are 31st in the NFL in that statistic). The Dolphins remain very good in punt-return average and have been solid in most other special-teams categories. Limiting penalties on special teams remains a focus.

ADVANTAGE: Miami

Coaching

Bill O’Brien is a competent and thorough coach who bases much of his approach on the New England Patriots model. He worked for the Patriots from 2007 to ’11. The problem for O’Brien? No Tom Brady. O’Brien’s focus in recent weeks has been getting a team that turned the ball over too much early in the season to stop beating itself. Campbell infused a new vibe with the Dolphins and, not surprisingly, the team was engaged and played a physical brand of ball. Can they do that consistently?

ADVANTAGE: Even.

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