The Miami Dolphins will look to secure their eighth win of the season Sunday afternoon, as they play host to the Cincinnati Bengals. Once in pole position to secure a division title, the Dolphins are in desperate need of a victory to keep pace with the streaking Buffalo Bills. Though the lowly Bengals would appear to be the perfect opponent to capitalize against, Miami has already lost twice this year to teams currently under .500.
With injuries and coronavirus having ravaged their offensive core, the Dolphins will once again lean upon their stout defensive unit to keep the game in reach. Should they succeed, Miami will solidify control over their postseason fate. With five games to go in the regular season, here are our four bold predictions for the Dolphins matchup against the Bengals.
1. Tua will start, and rely heavily on quick-action pass plays
Following the announcement that Tua Tagovailoa would be the team’s starting quarterback heading into their week 8 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, many assumed that barring injury, the rookie play caller would retain his position for the remainder of the season. While injury concerns have occurred as of late, the former top draft pick has been given a shorter lease than initially thought.
Benched at halftime in an eventual loss to the Denver Broncos, the rookie QB struggled to gain a mere 83 yards of offense despite completing 11 of 20 passing attempts. Blanketed by pressure all afternoon, Tagovailoa failed to stretch the field, and led the Dolphins to the end zone only once in the half. While Ryan Fitzpatrick was unable to complete a comeback, his ability to generate two long drives in the game, showcased Miami’s potential despite the Denver defense.
Expected to be reinserted back into the starting lineup heading into the team’s matchup against the Bengals, head coach Brian Flores will need to institute quicker developing pass plays if Miami hopes to keep their prized rookie upright. With their receivers unable to gain separation in the secondary–ranking 25th in yards per game–the Dolphins would be better off relying on screen plays, and slant options against Cincinnati. Though the quick release that once made Tua such an attractive draft prospect has yet to fully materialize in his rookie season thus far, there remains every reason to believe he is capable of succeeding in an up-tempo attack.
The decision to push for quicker action, would also serve to mitigate the porous offensive line that has failed to protect both Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa this season. A unit that was already in need of improvement coming into the season, the front has been hampered by injuries and inconsistency all year, with the starting rotation expected to man the field Sunday, the fifth different one the team has employed. While a poor offensive line may ultimately prove to be the team’s undoing, count on the ever versatile Flores to find the best workaround.
2. Miami will run the ball at least 30 times
For all of their success in a season originally believed to be a rebuilding year, the Dolphins have failed to establish an offensive identity. With Tua attempting to establish himself in the quarterback position, the offensive line in flux, and the wide receiver corp lacking a top playmaker, the team had hopes that the running game would be the pillar of their scoring unit.
Unfortunately for the organization, things haven’t quite worked out so well.
Starting their offseason by signing veteran running back Jordan Howard to a lucrative two-year deal, as well as trading for Matt Breida in the lead up to the NFL draft, the Dolphins believed they had the top of their depth chart set. 13 weeks into the season however, Miami has not only released Howard–who averaged a horrendous 1.2 yards per carry–but have lost Breida to injury following his own poor performance. While the Dolphins have gotten tremendous production from rookie Salvon Ahmed, it has not prevented them from slipping to 30th in rushing yards per game.
Despite this, Miami will need to return to its rushing attack Sunday even if the results are middling. While the aforementioned struggles of the offensive line may limit the damage the Dolphins can inflict on the ground, the team’s ability control the play clock may prove to be the most important factor in determining a victor Sunday. Operating against a team whose offensive struggles have been worse than even Miami’s, the Dolphins can afford to play for field position, while looking to limit any turnovers they might incur–an area they’ve been relatively strong in.
What’s more, a commitment to the running game should allow for extra space when the Dolphins do attempt to stretch the field with play action. With no strong correlation between the effectiveness of the rushing attack, with the success of play action, teams now operate on the belief that it’s the appearance of the run, rather than the gain itself, that matters. Backed by one of the strongest defensive units in the game, Miami will almost certainly bide their time with runs that may not appear effective, but serve to set up play action later.
3. The defense scores a touchdown
The single biggest reason for the Dolphins’ success this season has undoubtedly been the work of the team’s defense. Having ranked last season in the bottom half of the league in points allowed, the unit has rebounded to climb to second in the category this year, behind only the unbeaten Steelers. That the defense has excelled by creating depth all over the field, rather than being reliant on one key player, speaks to the work Flores and coordinator Josh Boyer have done in developing talent on the roster.
To harness the athleticism readily available among their personnel, the two have implemented a blitz-heavy attack, shooting players around the guards in an attempt to get to the opposing quarterback. Despite only ranking in the middle of pack in sack percentage–at just over 6%–the Dolphins have used that pressure to bait play callers into making bad decisions, intercepting opponents 11 times on the season thus far.
Lining up against a Bengals team with a questionable offensive line, and third string quarterback, Miami looks poised to continue their run of productive performances. Having carried an offensive unit that has struggled to produce consistently all year, the defense will add to their impressive turnover margin, while returning a lost ball for a score.
4. Dolphins win 17-10
The mark of a good team is beating opponents you’re supposed to. With Cincinnati mired near the bottom of the league’s standings, and Miami in prime position for a playoff berth, there should be little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s game. The Dolphins however, have too often been their own worst enemy, stymied by turnovers and an inability to score despite opportunities to do so. Certainly one of the most surprising teams of the NFL season thus far, their inconsistent efforts have prevented them from being considered along the league’s best.
That begins to change Sunday afternoon.
While they will still have questions to answer as the season progresses, the Dolphins will win by a touchdown against the Bengals, thanks to a game plan that plays to their strengths, and limits mistakes. Though it may not be the type of signature win they are looking for, Miami’s ability to gain a victory when everyone expects them too, will go a long way towards stabilizing the franchises’ place among AFC contenders. At 8-4, the Dolphins are here to stay.