Is Tony Sparano the NFL Coach of the Year? He has a decent argument. Few could have foreseen Miami, 0-12 at this point last year, still firmly in the playoff picture with a 7-5 record. The Dolphins show the signs of a well-coached team, committing few penalties and leading the league with just 10 turnovers.
OFFENSE (#10 total yardage, #13 rushing, #8 passing, t23 scoring):
Chad Pennington continues to prove he can still start in this league. The ninth-year vet’s 92.8 passer rating is second in the AFC and fifth in the NFL, and 119 more yards would give him the first 3,000-yard season by a Dolphins quarterback since Jay Fiedler did it in 2001 – the second-longest drought in the league. He’s no Dan Marino, but he’s certainly an upgrade from the succession of washed-up veterans and second-stringers the team has plugged into the lineup in recent seasons.
Ted Ginn may have looked like the second coming of Jerry Rice against a gimpy Terrence McGee in the first matchup, rolling up 175 yards on seven catches, but has managed just 40-476 in the other 11 games. Greg Camarillo (55-613 yards, 2 TDs), Trent Edwards’ Stanford teammate, was Miami’s best receiver before a knee injury ended his season the weekend before Thanksgiving. In his stead, Davone Bess inherits the starting spot opposite Ginn. The undrafted rookie from Hawaii has taken advantage of his increased playing time, totaling 11 receptions for 171 yards in the last two games. Pricey free-agent addition Ernest Wilford is still a non-factor, with former Giants practice-squadder Brandon London passing him to take over the No. 3 role.
With so little production from the wideouts, Pennington often looks to his running backs and tight ends; they’ve combined for eight of Miami’s 12 touchdown catches this season. Anthony Fasano (23-312 yards and a team-leading 3 TDs) starts, but David Martin (25-335, 1 TD) gets plenty of playing time in two-TE sets.
Whether they’re in the Wildcat or splitting time in a normal formation, Ronnie Brown (169 carries-690 yards, 10 TDs) and former Toronto Argonaut Ricky Williams (120-512, 1 TD) provide a formidable one-two punch in the backfield. They’ve also combined for 40 catches and 344 receiving yards. Overall, the team has 16 rushing touchdowns in the first 12 games, the most they’ve scored in a single season since 2002.
The line has been a source of stability, starting the same five players in every game since Week 2, but that will change on Sunday. Left guard Justin Smiley’s season ended with a broken leg last week, forcing waiver pickup Andy Alleman, who had been splitting time with Ikechuku Ndukwe on the right side, into the rotation. Expect Alleman to line up next to No. 1 overall pick Jake Long again on Sunday, with recently signed Al Johnson, who played for Sparano in Dallas, also an option.
DEFENSE (#18 total yardage, #11 rushing, #26 passing, #13 scoring):
Under the tutelage of Paul Pasqualoni, who made the Dallas-to-Miami move with Tony Sparano, the Dolphins defense continues to improve. After giving up seven individual 100-yard games last season, they’ve allowed just two in the first 12 games, and they’re also letting opponents score six fewer points per game.
Third-round pick Kendall Langford (Hampton) and veteran Vonnie Holliday flank nose tackle Jason Ferguson, with Randy Starks and second-rounder Phillip Merling (Clemson) also in the rotation at end. Reserve DT Paul Soliai might be working his way off the roster, serving his second one-game suspension of the season last week.
Linebacker Joey Porter leads the AFC with 14.5 sacks from his preferred weakside spot. Teams have begun to pay extra attention to him in recent weeks, slowing his production, but he could still be considered a decent candidate for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. The loquacious veteran, never one to avoid an interview, credits the Miami coaching staff for helping to revive his career. “Actually, I’ve never been in a system like this to where I’m not a part of the defense, I’m featured in the defense to go out there and make some plays,” Porter said. “They put me in position to make plays a lot and I put that on myself to go out there and make the plays. It’s a great position they’ve got me in. It’s a player friendly defense. I have a lot of opportunities that I’m one-on-one with the back, one-on-one with the tackle, I’m isolated and in a lot of situations, I take advantage of it. The sombrero is on me when I have to win those matchups.”
Former defensive end Matt Roth continues to adapt to playing the strongside position, with Akin Ayodele and Channing Crowder manning the inside.
Aside from top cornerback Will Allen, the secondary is still the weak point of the defense. Andre’ Goodman starts on the other side. Former first-round pick Jason Allen is (finally) on the injury report with a broken hand, and his replacement last week, Joey Thomas, had a rough game against the Rams. Nobody on the team has more than two interceptions. Safeties Renaldo Hill and Yeremiah Bell won’t be on too many voters’ Pro Bowl lists, but they have provided some stability on the back line. Bell leads the team with 92 tackles.
Rookie Dan Carpenter is having a solid season after beating Jay Feely for the kicking job in training camp. He’s made 11 straight field goals and 16 of 18 overall, and hasn’t missed a kick since the first half of the first Buffalo game. The Montana grad is even making a run at a Pro Bowl berth, courtesy of some recent ballot-box stuffing.
Carpenter is a rare bright spot on an otherwise mediocre-at-best unit. Punter Brandon Fields is averaging just 35.0 net yards per kick, among the worst in the league. The coverage teams are equally bad, allowing an average of 14.5 yards on punt returns (including two TDs) and 26.2 yards per kickoff.
Since taking over as the lead returner, Davone Bess has been adequate (22.2 yards per attempt) on kickoffs and slightly better on punts (9.6), still just barely above the league average.
The Bills haven’t lost to Miami in Orchard Park since 2003. Too bad this one isn’t being played there. The marketing department can says whatever it wants, but I’ll be surprised if the sterile atmosphere of the Rogers Centre provides any semblance of an advantage to the “home” team. That brings it down to, who’s better on a neutral field? Before the game in Miami, I was convinced the Bills were. Now? They probably still have more talent, but they haven’t exactly been showing it lately.
The Dolphins have won five of their last six games. The Bills have lost five of six. Despite some promising signs – Terrence McGee and Josh Reed are healthy for this game, and the Fins struggled to put away St. Louis last week – it’s hard to bet against that trend.
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