It hasn’t been a great start to the 2016 season for the Miami Dolphins. After losing their first two games on the road to the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, the Dolphins barely squeaked out a 30-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Miami will take aim at its first signature win against the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati on “Thursday Night Football.”
Much like the Dolphins, this season hasn’t gone the way the Bengals had envisioned. After winning their season opener 23-22 over the New York Jets, Cincinnati has lost consecutive games to division rival Pittsburgh and reigning Super Bowl champion at Denver, the latter coming at home.
Thursday will be the first time the Dolphins and Bengals have played each other since Oct. 31, 2013, when Miami won in overtime on a safety by Cameron Wake. Miami holds a 16-5 advantage in head-to-head games with Cincinnati.
Miami at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 29 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Cincinnati -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dolphin rush defense
Entering Thursday night’s game, the Dolphins are ranked next to last (31st) in the NFL in rushing defense at 147.3 yards per game. Last Sunday against the lowly Browns, Miami surrendered 169 yards on the ground (5.3 ypc).
Expect the Bengals to be committed to the running game on Thursday, much like they were in the first half against the Broncos. Cincinnati has two talented running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who both are capable of having big games against the Dolphins’ defense.
Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh knows how talented the Cincinnati backfield is.
“They have some good downhill runners,” Suh said. “They have two solid (running) backs (Hill and Bernard). Both of them can run the ball. One of them is more specialized to get out in the passing and screen game. At the end of the day, we have to be able to contain both of them and shut down the run and put it on the quarterback’s shoulders, who is obviously capable of winning games.
If Miami is going to defeat Cincinnati, the defense will have to force Andy Dalton to carry the Bengals’ offense by throwing the ball. While Dalton has improved in a number of areas, the Dolphins have a better chance of winning if Cincinnati is one-dimensional on offense.
2. Geno Atkins
Miami could be down to its third-string center Kraig Urbik against the Bengals. Starting center Mike Pouncey hasn’t played since the preseason and he will miss his fourth regular season game with a hip injury. Backup center Anthony Steen injured his ankle last week against the Browns and is doubtful to play Thursday night.
Urbik will have a tough assignment as he will be expected to block one of the NFL’s best in defensive tackle Geno Atkins. During his time in the league, Atkins has dominated some of the best offensive lines in the league. The four-time Pro Bowler could have a huge night working against Urbik and rookie tackle Laremy Tunsil.
3. Byron Maxwell and the Dolphins’ secondary
Miami’s back end, specifically Maxwell, had a tough time containing Cleveland wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. Miami allowed Pryor to catch eight passes for 144 yards, and that’s not counting the plays he made as a ball carrier and passer as well. This week’s assignment for the Dolphins’ secondary gets even more difficult with All-Pro A.J. Green as the primary focus. Through three games, Green is averaging 13.4 yards per catch and has a 54-yard TD reception.
“He has good ball skills,” Maxwell said. “I think that’s the thing that separates him. He comes in and out of his breaks like a little guy. He’s good.”
Maxwell has struggled this season containing the opposition’s top receiver. If that trend continues Thursday night, it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff decides to change things up and put rookie cornerback Xavien Howard on Green.
On a typical week, it would be a surprise if the Dolphins went on the road to defeat the Bengals. On a short week, it will be an even taller order considering Miami’s injury situation.
The Dolphins could be without their starting and backup center, starting two linebackers (Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi) and starting tight end Jordan Cameron. Miami must establish its running game with the backfield committee of Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams and Jay Ajayi to avoid quick three and outs. If quarterback Ryan Tannehill has to throw the ball a lot, it could be a night full of sacks and turnovers for the Dolphins.
Cincinnati is healthier, more talented and is playing at home, which spells trouble for Miami.
Prediction: Bengals 31, Dolphins 17
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.