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Dolphins-Raiders: Five Things To Watch

Posted Dec 3, 2011

Ten days in between games have made the Miami Dolphins a bit restless, which could spell trouble for the visiting Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.

Miami is still stinging from its 20-19 loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and that extra time allowed the team to stew a little and zero its focus in on Oakland. It also allowed the players to get healthy, something the Raiders cannot claim.

Oakland currently sits in first place in the AFC West and is counting on an improved Carson Palmer at quarterback to test the Dolphins defense. He’ll have to attack that defense without explosive running back Darren McFadden again as he is officially out with a foot injury, but backup Michael Bush has filled in admirably.

Meanwhile, the Raiders defense while banged up has been stingy enough to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone of late. Their aggressive style is something Miami will have to control in order to have success.

“They bring a lot of pressure and that’s something we have to clean up,” said Dolphins running back Reggie Bush, who leads the team with 567 yards and four rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. “A little bit of pressure got to (quarterback) Matt (Moore) this last game so we’ve got to clean that part of the game up, the pressure side of it, IDing the fronts right, IDing their fronts and their schemes correctly. They’re fast and big up front too. That’s something we’ve got to make sure we handle well this game. We can’t get caught in the early negative yardage.”

Bush and rookie running back Daniel Thomas will need to continue their proficiency at picking up the blitzers in passing situations in order to help Moore. That will be a key area to watch, along with these five match-ups:

1. Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess versus Raiders cornerbacks Lito Sheppard or DeMarcus Van Dyke – Last year at Oakland proved to be a happy homecoming for Bess as he caught six passes for 111 yards, the second highest yardage total of his career, and also had a 47-yard punt return. With the Raiders secondary certain to give Brandon Marshall more attention, Bess could have another big day against the veteran Sheppard, who lines up as the nickel more often but has started at right corner, or Van Dyke. Moore will likely have to get rid of the ball quickly when Oakland brings the blitz pressure and Bess excels at running quick routes to get open, so the outcome could be decided here.

2. Raiders running back Michael Bush versus Miami’s linebackers – Dolphins inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, who faced Oakland twice a year with San Diego, pointed to Bush’s physical running style as something that needs to be contained early because he has seen Bush break the long runs late after wearing down a defense. Bush is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and has 614 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the season to go along with 20 catches for 273 yards and a touchdown. If Burnett and company can shut him down and take away the running threat, their improved secondary can challenge Oakland’s receivers and the defensive front and outside linebackers can pin their ears back and go after Palmer.

3. Dolphins defensive end Jared Odrick versus Raiders left guard Stefen Wisniewski – These two were college teammates at Penn State and will be facing each other for the first time as pros as Wisniewski is a rookie. He was selected in the second round (48th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft while Odrick was Miami’s first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft. Odrick is tied for second on the team with 15th-year veteran outside linebacker Jason Taylor in sacks with four and has come on strong in the second half of the season, so his familiarity with Wisniewski from college practices could help him in this key battle in the trenches.

4. Raiders punter Shane Lechler versus Dolphins punter Brandon Fields Lechler is currently leading the Pro Bowl voting at his position in the AFC but Fields has established himself as one of the league’s best punters. Both have had a huge impact on field position the entire season, with Fields placing a league-best 24 punts inside the 20 and Lechler leading the NFL with a net average of 51.5 yards. He blasted one 80 yards last week in the win over Chicago while Fields has kicked a 70-yarder this season so the fans at Sun Life Stadium will get the rare treat of watching two of the best punters in the game.

5. Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano versus Raiders head coach Hue Jackson – Both coaches have navigated rough waters this season, with Jackson needing to rally his team after the passing of iconic team owner Al Davis and Sparano having to keep his team focused and together following an 0-7 start. Jackson made the smooth transition from offensive coordinator to head coach this season and is trying to steer the Raiders back to the playoffs, but he will have to match the intensity Sparano brings to the sideline to bolster his chances. Sparano made the difficult choice to drastically change everything about his practice regimen after the tough 18-15 overtime loss to Denver in Week 7 and has seen positive results, so he is banking on that continuing Sunday. This game could come down to the final whistle just like it did for Miami in Dallas.
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