Raiders' Focus: Breaking Down the Beat Up Dolphins


Raiders' Focus: Breaking Down the Beat Up Dolphins

Comcast SportsNet

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.

LB Smith praises Raiders' turnover ratio, but wants much more

LB Smith praises Raiders' turnover ratio, but wants much more

SARASOTA, Fla. – The Raiders defense gave up 344 yards Sunday while beating the Jacksonville Jaguars.

That sum’s a season low, still way too many for Malcolm Smith. The Raiders weakside linebacker has higher standards, even after one of two solid defensive efforts in seven games.

“That’s still a lot of yards,” Smith said. “We’re not where we want to be.”

Just because Sunday was better doesn’t mean it’s good enough. The Raiders defense ranks last in yards allowed and 22nd in scoring defense at 25.6 points per game.

There’s a main reason why the Raiders aren’t dead last in both categories. Takeaways.

The Raiders have plundered the opposition this season 13 times in seven games. Special teams got one Sunday on a muffed punt, but the defense has been incredibly active stealing possession.

Reggie Nelson has a nose for the ball, with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Sean Smith and David Amerson have two picks each and Bruce Irvin leads the league with four forced fumbles.

Turnovers make all those yards allowed easy to stomach, and has kept the Raiders in several close games. The force big mistakes and don’t make many, proven with a plus-eight turnover ratio ranked No. 3 overall.

“It’s given us a chance to win some games, where you could just look at other statistics and say we wouldn’t have a chance.” Smith said. “That’s what the game is about, and us finding ways to compete. Hopefully we stay after it that way.”

The Raiders have stayed after it in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on just 50 percent of opponent trips inside their 20-yard line.

While big plays have brought wins and positivity to the defense, the season’s first half has been difficult for Raiders expecting more.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Smith said. “You come into the year with all these aspirations and things you want to do. When it doesn’t go your way you have to stay after it, keep putting the work in and know it’s not going to be wasted. Hopefully we’re making strides and those improvements will show on Sundays.”

The Raiders believe the defense is close to being good, and has done a solid job masking issues with takeaways and timely production.

“Our team has done a great job of competing to win games,” Smith said. “If we keep doing that, everything will be fine.”

Del Rio pleased with Raiders' mature attitude towards 5-2 start

Del Rio pleased with Raiders' mature attitude towards 5-2 start

SARASOTA, Fla. – The Raiders were certainly happy they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars into submission. They jumped out to a strong halftime lead, played smart complimentary football and, at 33-16, ended up with a large margin of victory.

All, however, was not right with the world.

Derek Carr lamented settling for too many field goals. Latavius Murray wanted more efficiency from his runs. Defensive players saw progress in several deficient areas, still seeking greater cohesion and consistency.

[BAIR: Top 5 takeaways from Raiders' 33-16 win over Jaguars]

Sunday’s big victory over lowly Jacksonville was not a sign they've arrived. It was proof these Raiders remain a work in progress.

Records normally suffer with much to correct. These Raiders are 5-2, and feel better football’s ahead.

“That’s what is great about this team is that we haven’t played our best yet,” Murray said. “That’s a good feeling moving forward, knowing there are things you can get better at and you’re still 5-2.”

Winning while fixing things; that’s a coach’s dream. It’s also easier when players know it, that egos don’t expand and confidence doesn’t become arrogance.

“I like that part. I like the fact that we recognize it,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I’m certainly going to point it out. There are things that we have to do better. I think it’s healthy.

“You should enjoy the wins. You should feel good about the success. Take pride in it. We worked hard for it, but to have a healthy respect for what’s coming and the need to play better and the need to continue to grow as a football team as we go throughout the year. That’s a mature way to look at it, and I’m very pleased about that with a younger team.”

The Raiders are a confident bunch and have survived several games on guts, guile and turnovers -- a recipe for success with inconsistent production.

The Raiders defense believes it made strides in the Jaguars win, though there’s significant work remaining to be a decent defense. With the offense rolling, that’s all the Raiders need to be a top team. Defenders aren’t striving for decent. They want more, and believe that realizing potential could put them in position for a playoff push.

“This team has so much talent, with good coaches and good players,” cornerback David Amerson said. “The sky’s the limit. Once we all start clicking, we can go out there and beat teams 30-0. Once we get to that point, that’s when we can look towards the playoffs and things like that. We have just as much talent as any team in the league.”