Armando Salguero

Five things to watch: Titans at Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins run defense has improved significantly from a year ago but Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans will be the best test of the unit to so far this season.
The Miami Dolphins run defense has improved significantly from a year ago but Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans will be the best test of the unit to so far this season. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Five Things to watch during the Miami Dolphins 2017 home opener against the Tennessee Titans...

1. Marcus Mariota is supposed to be a game-time decision but the Dolphins expect him to play. No idea if they have ways of knowing this or they’re just guessing. If the Dolphins are right, the question remains to what degree his mobility will be affected by his hamstring injury if he plays. That mobility is a key factor in the Tennessee offense and last week’s 34-yard touchdown run and 2-yard touchdown run by Mariota is proof of that. If Mariota does not play or is ineffective or re-injures his hamstring, Matt Cassel would be the Titans quarterback. Cassel is strictly a pocket quarterback these days and that means Dolphins defenders looking for sacks wouldn’t have to worry about a moving target.

2. The Dolphins offense is struggling, but the Titans were horrible on defense last week. Tennessee yielded 57 points to Houston as Deshaun Watson lit them up with four TD passes. If that wasn’t enough, the Texans rushed for 173 yards. No, it didn’t help that the Titans offense betrayed the defense by giving up four interceptions and a fumble but, again, 57 points allowed in one game suggests major issues. Dolphins coach Adam Gase didn’t take solace in that score. “It happens,” Gase said. “Sometimes you get shut out. Not a lot, but it happens.” The Dolphins were shut out last week and have scored 25 points in three games.

3. The Dolphins have felt good about the improvement of their run defense this year. But this game will determine if that improvement is real or something of a mirage. The Dolphins have gone from 30th in the NFL against the run to fourth in the NFL now in rushing yards allowed per game. But the Titans boast the best running team that Dolphins have faced all year. They’re sixth in the NFL running the football. Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray are both talented backs who combine to average 4.85 yards per rush. If the Dolphins can contain this running game, their offseason focus on improving the run defense will be proven to have paid dividends. Rey Maualuga is expected to make his first start at middle linebacker on Sunday.

4. Will the Dolphins offensive line continue to be disjointed and a problem for the team? Well, without speaking to whether the individual matchups are better for the line this week -- they are -- it should be noted that Tennessee plays a 3-4 scheme on defense. And that relieves the pressure on the Dolphins guards in this game. And the Dolphins guards, particularly left guard Anthony Steen, have struggled this season. There will be times on Sunday where Miami guards will have zero assignment in pass protection. They will be free to help the center or tackles. That’s a pretty easy assignment.

5. Third down conversions have been a point of emphasis for the Miami offense this week. It was a point of emphasis in the offseason and in the opener and before last’s week game against New Orleans. But the Dolphins are nonetheless the NFL’s worst team at converting third downs. They are ranked No. 32. So why? Well, pre-snap penalties haven’t helped. It has been too common for the Dolphins to hurt themselves with penalties that make converting a first down longer than a 10-yard proposition. Some of it is sacks. The Dolphins are 20th in the NFL in sacks allowed. Some of it is the Dolphins passing offense has been unspectacular. There are many reasons the Dolphins are really bad on third down. A lot of those reasons don’t have to do with third down itself.

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