Dolphins-Titans: Five Things To Watch

Posted Nov 10, 2012

Tennessee stands in the way of Miami going back above .500.

One half of the season is in the books and the Miami Dolphins find themselves in the middle of the pack in the AFC. Tomorrow’s home game at Sun Life Stadium against the Tennessee Titans should serve as a litmus test on what to expect in the second half.

This will be the first time Miami is in front of its home fans in four weeks, but it also begins a stretch of five home games over a seven-week period. The Titans are three games under .500 at 3-6 and coming off of a humiliating 51-20 home loss to the Chicago Bears, a loss that prompted owner Bud Adams to go on an angry rant.

The Dolphins cannot afford to allow Tennessee to use whatever emotion it can derive from Adams’ speech and catch them asleep at the wheel, so Head Coach Joe Philbin has done a good job getting them prepared for what can be considered a wounded team.

Last week’s tough loss at the Indianapolis Colts, which snapped a three-game winning streak, got Miami’s attention, especially on defense. A unit that entered the game as the NFL’s best on third down allowed Indy’s rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to convert 13-of-19 while passing for an NFL rookie record 433 yards.

“Especially in the secondary, we played so well and we have one off day and everybody kind of writes us off,” cornerback Sean Smith said on Friday. “We’re definitely looking forward to putting on a great showing and getting things going back in the right direction.”

Clearly, the pass defense will be one important area to pay attention to, as will a handful of other key matchups and tendencies. But we’ll stick to our weekly five things.

Five Things To Watch:

1. How will Miami’s defense slow down Titans running back Chris Johnson and contain mobile quarterback Jake Locker – After a slow start to the season that saw the speedy Johnson rush for just 45 yards in the first three games, CJ2K has taken off. His 736 total rushing yards (5.0 yards per carry) rank sixth overall in the NFL and he already has two touchdown runs of more than 80 yards, so Miami’s front seven will have to corral him and not let him get outside or to the second level. Locker returns after missing four games with a separated shoulder and will try to duplicate what Luck was able to do last week in extending plays with his feet. Rush discipline is the key for the Dolphins and if they can rattle Locker early while also stifling Johnson they should be able to come out on top.

2. Can the Dolphins re-establish dominance on the ground against a shaky Tennessee run defense – The Titans come in with the 30th-ranked run defense in the league, allowing an average of 141.6 yards per game, which should play right into Miami’s hands. Even with the current slump, the Dolphins are averaging 111.9 yards on the ground (13th overall) and Reggie Bush is still averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Daniel Thomas has come on strong in the last two games as a more physical option and Bush showed off his elusiveness with his 18-yard touchdown run against the Colts. Success in this phase can only benefit rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and give him more time to throw and more options down the field.

3. Will Miami’s special teams once again be a determining factor in the outcome of the game – Two blocked field goals, one blocked punt returned for a touchdown, a successful fake punt, a successful onside kick and field-flipping punts by Brandon Fields have directly impacted the last three games for the Dolphins. Fields leads the league with a 51.6 gross average on punts and the height and distance of his kicks, coupled with excellent coverage, have denied opponents that big return. Kicker Dan Carpenter also has been kicking the ball deep enough for touchbacks on a regular basis or limiting the returns. The Titans have one punt return for a touchdown (a 65-yarder by Tommie Campbell against Detroit) and one kickoff return for a touchdown (105 yards also against Detroit), so Fields and Carpenter will have to be sharp.

4. Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake versus Titans right tackle David Stewart – Wake has had at least one sack in each of the last five games and is at 8.5 on the season, matching his total from last season. He also has 18 quarterback hits and will be intent on chasing down young Locker, hoping to force him into some rushed throws that could wind up as interceptions. Stewart is a wily veteran in his eighth season out of Mississippi State and at 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds, has the length to try to stymie the shorter Wake (6-3, 258). But Wake’s first step has proven to be too quick for just about anybody lining up across from him, so if he wins this battle it could be a long afternoon for Locker.

5. When will Miami’s home field advantage become a factor and in essence be another obstacle for Tennessee to try to overcome – Each of the last three times the Titans have visited Sun Life Stadium they came away on the losing end, falling 29-17 on November 14th, 2011. Miami leads the overall series, 6-3, since the Titans moved to Tennessee in 1997 and the chance to get to 5-4 before a quick trip to Buffalo for a Thursday night game against the Bills will serve as solid motivation. The home fans also know a win will give them meaningful games to watch in late November and December against Seattle, New England, Jacksonville and Buffalo, so expect a loud stadium.

Game Pass: Miami Dolphins