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Dolphins-Texans: Five Things To Watch

Posted Sep 8, 2012

Plenty of critical areas to focus on for Miami’s 2012 season opener.

Anticipation and anxiety could be felt all throughout the Miami Dolphins locker room this week as the reality of the regular season set in. Right out of the gate the Dolphins will face one of the preseason favorites to contend for a Super Bowl in the Houston Texans.

This is a Houston team that has never lost to Miami in six previous meetings, and with Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub back to 100 percent after suffering a season-ending foot injury, the team’s confidence level is high. Schaub has dangerous weapons at his disposal in Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson and Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster as well as tight end Owen Daniels. Foster was listed as questionable on Friday with a knee injury but he told reporters he expects to start.

Over on the defensive side of the ball is where the Texans suffered their biggest losses as top pass rushers Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans signed with the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. Rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus will be asked to bring the pressure from his defensive end position, but other than his addition along with linebacker Bradie James, Houston doesn’t look much different from the team that beat Miami last year at Sun Life Stadium in Week 2, 23-13.

“We certainly looked at last year’s game, obviously, because the vast majority of their staff is still intact and a lot of their players are still intact,” Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin said. “They’ve certainly added some good players to their roster just like hopefully we have. We looked at last year’s film, but beyond that, really didn’t study much.”

By kickoff tomorrow at noon Houston time, Philbin will have a good idea how much his preparation and the studying his players did get done will pay off.

Five Things To Watch:

1. What kind of start Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the offense has in a loud Reliant Stadium: It won’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is going to want to try to get to Tannehill early and rattle him with blitzes and disguised coverages. Fortunately for Tannehill, he has seen that approach daily in practice from his own defense under defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. The first-round draft pick needs to be true on his pre-snap reads early on and be accurate with his passes so as to move the chains, keep Houston’s offense off the field and develop a rhythm with his receivers in order for Miami to quiet that home crowd.

2. Who on Miami will give defensive end Cameron Wake the most help on the other side of the defensive line in the pass rush: Whether or not Foster plays, backup running back Ben Tate is still a viable threat to run the ball, but if defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks can bottle him up, taking away the effectiveness of the play-action fakes, Jared Odrick and rookies Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby need to step up and get in Schaub’s face. Wake will face double teams coming from the right side and Schaub gets rid of the ball fast, so those other pass rushers must take him out of his rhythm in order to have success.

3. Dolphins rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin versus Texans defensive end J.J. Watt: Phillips certainly will get in Watt’s ear and encourage him to use his veteran savvy and athleticism to outsmart and out quick a player in Martin still making the transition from the left to the right. But after a slow start to the preseason, Martin has made significant strides and likely will get some help from tight ends Anthony Fasano, Jeron Mastrud and Charles Clay in passing situations. How successful he is in keeping Watts off of Tannehill’s back will go a long way towards determining the game’s final outcome.

4. Which special teams unit is playing at a higher level: Houston won the only three previous meetings at home against the Dolphins by a total of five points, winning 17-15 on October 1st, 2006, 22-19 on October 7th, 2007 and 29-28 on October 12th, 2008. Miami’s Dan Carpenter, who made the Pro Bowl in 2009, has kicked four field goals against the Texans but none at Reliant Stadium. He had a solid finish to the preseason and converted three field goals from more than 50 yards, while punter Brandon Fields dramatically impacts field position with his booming punts and deft touch inside the 20. If this game plays out like Miami’s last three trips to Houston then either Carpenter’s foot, Fields’ foot or both could decide it.

5. Miami Head Coach Joe Philbin versus Houston Head Coach Gary Kubiak: This is Kubiak’s seventh season running the show for the Texans and Philbin’s first with the Dolphins and first as a head coach. Kubiak’s performance last season in bringing the AFC South title and a playoff victory to Houston – with a third-string quarterback no less – earned him the respect of his owner, players and fellow coaches around the league and he is out to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Philbin said earlier this week that he loves road games because of the us against them mentality it breeds, and his pregame speech tonight along with how he reacts against live bullets tomorrow is crucial. If he can coax an inspired performance out of his team and establish a comfort level for Tannehill and his young offense, an upset is not out of the question.
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