Nov. 22, 2010RAIDERS PAGE RAIDERS VIDEOMIAMI PAGERich Libero
After a physically nasty showdown in Pittsburgh, the Raiders will face another ex-1970s rival on Sunday when they host the banged-up Miami Dolphins.
A Raiders-Dolphins matchup used to represent a showdown between perennial powerhouses. These days, it marks a matchup of two teams trying to re-join the NFL Contenders Club. The conclusion of the game will yield some answers as to which organization is indeed closer to playoff reality in 2010.
The Dolphins enjoyed a Pyrrhic victory over the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 14. The win lifted them to 5-4 and put them in residence with other AFC Wild Card hopefuls. But in the process of winning 29-17, they lost two quarterbacks, a starting center, their prized left tackle and a safety. The losses were too great to overcome in time for their Thursday home game against the Chicago Bears -- a nationally televised 16-0 loss. Additionally, the Dolphins lost backup center Corey Proctor to a torn ACL early in that game.
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning called only seven running plays against the Bears. The offense sputtered with untimely penalties, sacks and turnovers that conspired to waste excellent field position. All in all, the Dolphins performed like the 1-15 team from 2007.
Heres what the Raiders can expect on Sunday:
Coaching: The Dolphins are a potential disaster waiting to happen. A loss could send their season into a complete finger-pointing tailspin. Coach Tony Sparano draws the bulk of the criticism, but Henning is also deservedly under fire from both fans and the media. Hennings conservative playcalling is often mixed with puzzling, momentum-killing play selection. Miami ranks in the bottom five of the league in deep passing attempts over 21 yards. Expect lots of check-downs and wide receiver screens. Receiver Devon Bess is an excellent third down target with good yards-after-catch ability. Fullback Lousaka Polite is all but unstoppable on third- and fourth- and-short situations.
ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth hammered Henning after the loss to the Bears: "That's an awful job by that coaching staff regardless," Schlereth said. "Their best 11 guys are when they get into their Wildcat formation, no disrespect to Tyler Thigpen. They got into the Wildcat exactly zero times on Thursday night, they did not run the ball at all on Thursday night. ... I've heard excuses coming out of Miami, I've heard people talking about, 'You know, We have a beat-up offensive line.' All the more reason that you run the football. Let me tell you something, pass protection in this league is 10 times harder than run blocking: assignment-wise, picking up blitz, all those different things.
Bill Parcells stepped down from his role as head of football operations in September. The general manager and the entire coaching staff could be feeling the heat if they fail to conclude the season in strong fashion. Injuries will be used as an excuse, but the bottom line is that this team is not a playoff contender -- on paper or the field -- at this stage. Another season of housecleaning could be in the offing, but with its fairly soft end-of-season schedule the team should realistically finish around 8-8.
In terms of injuries, starting center Joe Berger is expected to be back in the lineup while the Dolphins have worked out a couple of left tackle candidates with the idea of shutting down Jake Long and his recently dislocated shoulder. Diva receiver Brandon Marshall tweaked his hamstring and might not be 100 percent for Sunday.
Miami Offense: Thigpen is a bit of a gambler with a solid arm and great scrambling ability. Raiders fans will remember him as an emergency starter for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams provide a formidable 1-2 punch out of the backfield, but the Dolphins have not run the ball effectively this season. The front office spent much of the offseason mysteriously tinkering with an offensive line that rolled up over 2,200 rushing yards last season. The once-strongest unit on the team is now officially eligible for national disaster relief. The Wildcat is also a shambles, averaging less than two yards per carry heading into the Tennessee game. The trendy formation resides in mothballs these days, although Henning did whip it out for three plays against the Titans after Chad Henne hurt his knee.
With Thigpens legs and Miamis experience running the Cat, fans and media expected all kinds of gadgetry against the Bears, but Henning kept things pretty vanilla. It will be interesting to see if that changes this week in Oakland.
Miami Defense: The defense has performed fairly well this season despite constant flux along the line and secondary. Sean Smith started at cornerback as a rookie, but lost his job in training camp to former first-rounder Jason Allen before winning it back. Allen was released before the Titans game and replaced by former Packer Al Harris. Cameron Wake continues to excel as the Dolphins' best pass rusher with 9.5 sacks. And nose tackle Paul Soliai is having a breakthrough season in his third year. Karlos Dansby, the teams best linebacker, did not practice Monday and may be nicked up.
Can the Raiders win? The real question should be: How BIG will the Raiders' margin of victory be? It wont matter how many days the Dolphins have to prepare. They have too many injuries to too many key players. The offensive coordinator has had an awful year, special teams punt protection and kick return coverage has been awful and the Dolphins are, at 5-5, a ticking time bomb. Throw in the overall length of the trip and the Raiders should be the lock of locks this week.
Rich Libero is the vice president of digital content for Comcast Sports Group and the author of the book This Could Be The Year: My 30 Years as a Miami Dolphins fan.