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Dolphins-Cowboys: Five Things To Watch

Posted Nov 23, 2011

If it seems just like yesterday when you were absorbing our Five Things To Watch that’s because it almost was.

Three days ago the Miami Dolphins were polishing off the Buffalo Bills, 35-8, and now tomorrow they’ll be back on the field taking on the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. The turnaround is so short that Head Coach Tony Sparano didn’t even show his players the film from the Bills game, quickly switching their focus to Dallas.

Both teams are riding three-game winning streaks and are pretty familiar with each other. Sparano of course coached in Dallas from 2003-07 as their tight ends coach (2003-04), offensive line coach and run game coordinator (2005) and assistant head coach/offensive line (2006-07). He still knows almost everyone on Dallas’ offensive coaching staff and quite a few players, but he’s not getting sentimental.

“Those people were really good to me,” Sparano said. “I mean, the (Jerry) Jones family and the fans there were really good to me so we spent a lot of time there obviously, and obviously I know a lot of players there too. Still that’s it. It’s a business trip. If I want a vacation in Dallas I can do that some other time.”

Four of Sparano’s current players were in Dallas with him – tight end Anthony Fasano, inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, right tackle Marc Columbo and defensive end Igor Olshansky. They also know players and coaches on the other sideline, but this isn’t a holiday family gathering.

So here are some of the key matchups to pay close attention to in between bites of turkey, stuffing and sweet potato pie:

1. Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware versus Miami’s offensive line – Since the Cowboys like to move Ware around constantly, Columbo, Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long, guards Richie Incognito and Vernon Carey and even rookie center Mike Pouncey will likely get a shot at trying to block him. Ware not only leads the NFL in sacks with 14 but he is seriously threatening Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5. The Dolphins, after giving up 27 sacks through the first seven games – all losses, have only allowed three in the last three games – all wins. If that offensive line, with the help of running backs Daniel Thomas, Reggie Bush and Lex Hilliard and tight ends Anthony Fasano and Jeron Mastrud, can keep Ware away from quarterback Matt Moore it will help immensely.

2. Dolphins linebackers and safeties versus Dallas tight end Jason Witten and rookie running back DeMarco Murray – Whenever Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo can soften up the middle of the defense by connecting with Witten down the seams and running Murray between the tackles, he grows more confident in taking big shots down the field to wide receiver Dez Bryant. Miami’s inside linebackers, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, are two of the best coverage linebackers in the league and have shown that over the last five games, while veteran strong safety Yeremiah Bell has developed a reputation as a hard hitter capable of stuffing the run. This will be where the true chess match is really fought.

3. Cowboys backup cornerback Alan Ball versus Miami wide receiver Brandon Marshall – Last week against Buffalo, Marshall caught just one pass and was targeted three times after being the team’s leading receiver the two previous games. The Bills made a concerted effort to take him out of the game and force Moore to look elsewhere, which he did with plenty of success, but injuries to starting cornerback Mike Jenkins and free safety Gerald Sensabaugh are certain to catch Marshall’s and Moore’s eye. Moore has been in a zone of late both in and out of the pocket with triple-digit passer ratings in two of the last three games, so if Ball falters just a little it could be another big afternoon for Marshall.

4. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake versus Dallas left tackle Doug Free – Though he has been a little quieter on the stat sheet this season than he was in 2010, Wake’s high motor and relentlessness have worn down opposing tackles in the fourth quarter of games. He has a team-high 5.5 sacks through 10 games after finishing second in the AFC and third in the league last year with 14. If Wake can help collapse the pocket around Romo and not allow him time to go through his progressions, thus making it a long day for Free, the Dolphins defense could benefit from hurried decisions by Romo and create turnovers.

5. Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano versus Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett – These two were on the same coaching staff together in Dallas for one year back in 2007 after Garrett spent his first two years in the profession in Miami with the Dolphins as their quarterbacks coach. Garrett was the offensive coordinator and Sparano was the assistant head coach and offensive line coach so they do know a little about each other’s tendencies. That’s why Sparano likes the short turnaround. “You don’t have too much time to over analyze much,” he said. “You got to get to what it is that you got to get to and study your guys, see the tendencies and move on. The game is on you fast. Here we are, we’re on a plane tomorrow and we’re getting ready to do this thing. I like it. I always did when I was in Dallas. I thought the three games in 11 days can change your fortunes fast, one way or the other. And I think that this is a good opportunity for us.” One Sparano and the Dolphins do not want to let get away.
Game Pass: Miami Dolphins