This was supposed to be the year that the Miami Dolphins climbed from the depths of mediocrity, ascending into legitimate playoff contender. Key additions such as DT Ndamukong Suh, TE Jordan Cameron, and WR Kenny Stills were presumed to be the catalyst that would ignite an already talented Dolphins team to the next level. Unfortunately, the ascent was very short lived. A narrow Week 1 victory over Washington is the only positive that the Dolphins have to show for their lackluster efforts so far in 2015.
Since Week 1, Miami has underachieved its way to three consecutive losses, culminating in the firing of head coach Joe Philbin. Dan Campbell, Miami’s tight ends coach, was quickly promoted to interim head coach to replace Philbin as the team entered its Week 5 bye. Campbell now has the tall task of turning an uninspired and anemic football team into a winner. The talent is there, but the question is, can Campbell right the ship and motivate them into playing winning football? We will soon find out as the Dolphins head to Nashville in Week 6 to take on the Titans.
The Tennessee Titans also entered their 2015 campaign with a sense of optimism, thanks in large part to the addition of Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Expectations began to soar following a 42-14 drumming of the Buccaneers in Week 1. Since that time, the Titans have dropped three straight games, and the reality that this team still has a ways to go has quickly set in.
The good news is that Tennessee has actually played competitive football each and every week, which is more than can be said for the Dolphins. The Titans could easily be sitting at 3-1 instead of 1-3, giving way to optimism for the remainder of the season. That being said, moral victories can only carry a team so far, and the Titans are in bad need of a win Sunday against a talented and well-rested Dolphins team that may just find inspiration under new leadership.
Sunday’s matchup will mark the 35th time that the Titans and Dolphins have faced one another, dating back to 1966. Miami holds a narrow edge in the all-time series with a record of 18-16. The two teams last met in 2012, resulting in a 37-3 Tennessee victory in Miami.
Miami at Tennessee
Kickoff: 1 p.m ET (Sunday)
Spread: Tennessee -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Miami Finally Implement a Rushing Attack?
It is common knowledge in football that teams utilize the run to open up the passing attack and vice versa. Apparently, Miami has yet to get the memo. In the Dolphins' first four games, they have run the ball a league-low 65 times, averaging just 69 yards per game in the process. In comparison, they have thrown the ball 171 times. Granted, they have had to turn to the passing game in order to play catch up in a couple of games, but even in their victory over Washington, and in a close game against Jacksonville, the Dolphins almost completely ignored their running game.
Miami running back, Lamar Miller, who averaged just over five yards per carry in 2014, has just 37 carries in four contests. While, backups Damien Williams and Jonas Gray have barely even seen the field this season. The lack of a run game, or even an honest attempt to have one, has killed the Dolphins' offense all season. They currently rank dead last in the NFL in third down conversions at just 27 percent, primarily because they have chosen to ignore what could be a solid rushing attack, in favor of a predictable and failing passing game. It is quite simple for opposing defenses to stop you when they know what you are going to do 72 percent of the time. Miami must find balance in its offense, and at least attempt to get the football to Miller. The Titans rank 23rd in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing 117 rushing yards per game. So, the opportunity to find success on the ground is there, but the Dolphins have to at least try to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it will be yet another rough week for the Fins.
2. Ndamukong Suh and the Dolphins' Pass Rush
Suh is being paid ridiculous money to do four things – disrupt the run game, create opportunities for teammates, pressure the quarterback, and get sacks. So far, he has done very little in the way of any of those things. Suh has just 10 tackles through four games and zero sacks. Surely, Suh’s teammates have benefited from his presence? Not at all actually, defensive end Cameron Wake, who had 11.5 sacks last season, has zero so far this season and just one assisted tackle. Fellow end Olivier Vernon had 6.5 sacks last year, but not a single one yet this season. In fact, the Dolphins have just one sack in total, by far the fewest in the NFL, with a quarter of the season already in the books. To make matters worse, that one sack is credited to rookie tackle, Jordan Phillips, who is Suh’s primary backup.
It is possible that Suh has grown complacent after getting the big pay day, as happens so often in the NFL. Regardless, he has an opportunity to gain some traction for himself, and a talented Dolphins' pass rush Sunday against a mediocre Titans front line. Tennessee should provide Suh and company with their best matchup so far this season. The Titans' offensive line has struggled all season, allowing 14 sacks through four games. The Dolphins' pass rush must find a way to pressure the elusive Mariota, or they will pay dearly.
3. Can Marcus Mariota and the Titans Finish?
Based on the Titans' previous results, and the current spread on this game, there is a reasonable chance that the Titans’ matchup with the Dolphins could also come down to the wire. In the Titans’ previous two games against Indianapolis and Buffalo, Tennessee had ample opportunity to come away with victories, coming up short each time. Is this the week that Tennessee finally gets over the hump?
It stands to reason that Mariota might struggle in close, late-game situations. After all, he spent most of his time at Oregon in a comfort zone, playing with huge leads against most of his opponents. It’s a different story in the NFL where games often come down to one or two plays. So far, Mariota has failed to deliver on those plays with the game on the line. But he, and the Titans, have accrued a wealth of knowledge and valuable experience in the process. Knowledge and experience that may very well prove to be the difference against a struggling Dolphins defense.
There are as many questions as there are answers coming out of their bye for Dolphins team under new leadership. The Dolphins are not short on talent, but they must learn to utilize that talent properly. The X-factor for Miami will lie in how well interim head coach Dan Campbell has done in properly motivating a team that appeared left for dead in London in Week 4. If Campbell can effectively breath some life into his players, coax some semblance of a pass rush from Ndamukong Suh and company, and establish a solid run game, Miami should be able to jumpstart their season in a positive direction starting Sunday. Of course, that is easier said than done, and it will not prove easy on the road against an equally hungry Tennessee team.
Like Miami, Tennessee needs to find a rushing attack this week. They have shown flashes at times this season, which is both encouraging and surprising given the lack of talent in their backfield. But there is plenty of need for improvement. Sunday's matchup against a Miami defense that is allowing 160 rushing yards per game, by far the most in the NFL, should provide ample running room. Tennessee’s offensive line must take Ndamukong Suh out of the game and provide Mariota with the time he needs to shine. Defensively, Tennessee must apply pressure on Ryan Tannehill, while containing Jarvis Landry and Jordan Cameron in the passing game. Miami has struggled across the board on offense in its last two contests, so it is a manageable situation, especially if the Dolphins continue to ignore their run game.
Prediction: Titans 24, Dolphins 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.