Nearly a year to the day the Bengals got entangled in an overtime shootout in Miami, they return Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) looking to their defense and special teams to guide them through what promises to be a much stingier game.
Even though the Dolphins are uncertain at quarterback, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is leaning to Miami because of the Bengals are unproven at quarterback in the wake of Joe Burrow's injury.
Alex Marvez, the Sirius NFL Radio Talkmaster who covered his native South Florida Dolphins (1999-2006) longer than he covered the Bengals at The Dayton Daily News (1995-96 for Marvmania fans), admits he didn't see Miami progressing this quickly. He thinks the Bengals can rise in 2021 if they fix pass protection and the defense, areas he gives the edge to the Dolphins on Sunday.
Armando Salguero, the long-time Dolphins chronicler for The Miami Herald who authored the book "100 Things Dolphins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die," doesn't see this one going to sudden death like last year. He may have to add an epilogue for another No Name Defense that is quickly earning one and one he thinks signs off on Sunday.
Locally, Pfahler, one of Marvez's successors on the Bengals beat in Dayton, thinks Miami's own special teams and defense are going to be too much while The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith believes the Bengals pitch another winnable defensive effort that falls short.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
It's going to be a problem for the Bengals how well the Dolphins play defense, especially on third down. We've seen the Bengals struggle with that in recent weeks. Having a quarterback like Brandon Allen, who really hasn't been tested, and not having running back Joe Mixon I think is a recipe for struggles there.
I'm not really sold on Miami's offense. They don't have much of a running game and it seems like all their running backs are hurt or sick. I don't think it's going to be a really high scoring game and I think the Bengals can do some things there. I'm guessing we'll see Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Dolphins quarterback with Tua Tagovailoa limited all week. I know they've said he's the starter when healthy, but I don't see them going with him this week. Fitzpatrick is a veteran quarterback, but I don't think there are going to be a lot of points.
THE EDGE: Miami's special teams are really good, too, and I think that gives them an edge along with their defense. DOLPHINS, 21-10
To his credit Flores has found players who can play his defense. He did a good job getting former Patriots who know it, like linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. And they really did a good job in free agency by and large hitting the middle class. From defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to left guard Ereck Flowers. Those are tremendous signings for what they paid. Their secondary is fantastic at corner with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones is a good a No. 2 even though he's paid like a No. 1 and safety Eric Rowe is just incredible against tight ends.
The Dolphins are one of the surprises of the season. I thought it was going to take another year for them to get it get going. But they've exceeded that expectation and are probably playoff bound.
The Bengals are probably in the evaluation mode for 2021, but there's a lot of reason for hope in Cincinnati with the future, especially if the offensive line and pass protection issues are resolved. It's not just the line and hopefully those issues are corrected and the defense needs work, although free safety Jessie Bates III has been a real bright spot.
THE EDGE: It's probably a familiar face for Bengals fans with Fitzpatrick. He's good for probably a turnover a game and a couple of touchdown passes. Good enough to get it done. DOLPHINS, 29-9
I want to say that Tua is going to be the starter. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores had said he was very close to starting last week, so unless he has regressed this week, why wouldn't he be the guy? Having said that I know Flores likes Ryan Fitzpatrick a lot. They've had success with Ryan Fitzpatrick, so that's not off the table.
The Dolphins are big favorites not just because of what happens on offense because their offense is so-so and it's battered, but their defense is second in scoring in the NFL right now. They do a lot of things that are very confusing. They do a lot of things that are very aggressive, particularly against young quarterbacks. Really, they do it against all quarterbacks, but young quarterbacks fare less well. For that reason, it's just hard to see the Bengals coming to town without Joe Burrow and lighting it up.
They don't have Joe Mixon. I get it, the Bengals do have some weapons on the outside, but who is going to get the ball to them consistently? Look, every quarterback that starts a game in the NFL is an NFL quarterback capable of doing damage. But consistency is the thing. It's not about two completions on one drive. You have to string together two or three drives to score and we haven't seen that since Burrow went down.
THE EDGE: The Dolphins have two really good cornerbacks to match the Bengals' strength, their wide receivers, including the guy that leads the NFL in interceptions. Xavien Howard. DOLPHINS, 22-10
With all of the quarterback questions around the Dolphins, I think it will be a conservative offensive scheme, whether it's the savvy veteran Fitzpatrick or the limited rookie Tua. I see the Bengals defense having another impressive game. I think they create a turnover. I think they'll play the kind of game like they did against New York. I'm not as confident that the Bengals offense will be able to keep up.
I think the loss of Joe Mixon has especially hurt the Bengals offense. They didn't really establish the run against New York. On top of that there have been only two receivers producing consistently for Cincinnati with A.J. Green on the quiet end. I'm not sure where the yards come from for the Bengals to get, say, 300 or 250 on the board to score points.
THE EDGE: Miami's defense has been so stout all season. DOLPHINS, 21-7.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Anyone who has watched the Patriots in this century knows what Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is going to do Sunday against the Bengals. As a defensive assistant who coached on four of Bill Belichick's Super Bowl championships, Flores figures to take away the Bengals' strength and let them do anything else.
That's their trio of wide receivers and he'll probably blanket them and dare the Bengals to run it against three- and four-men fronts. He has the weapons to play it like that with NFL interception-leader Xavien Howard on one corner, high-priced Byron Jones on the other corner and safety Bobby McCain leading all safeties in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
That's what Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham did last week and the Bengals couldn't run it against the zone. Graham, who coached with Flores in New England and Miami, frustrated the Bengals on 40 rushing yards when they couldn't move the Giants after a month they got good push up front despite the loss of running back Joe Mixon. The Bengals were visibly surprised they were held to 2.7 yards per rush with one of their longest runs of the day coming on a fake punt and they sounded determined to fix it.
It was hard finding a rhythm for anything offensively with just 19 snaps in the first half. And behind yet another guard-center combo. So look for the Bengals to keep trying the run against the Dolphins. It won't be easy because of those disciplined Patriotic linebackers. But somebody is running it on them. The Dolphins are rated 26th against the run.
Given that Miami is No. 1 in third down defense and the Bengals are 7-for-41 on third since they've been without Joe Burrow, they need the run early to keep things manageable. It will help attacking end Emmanuel Ogbah, a guy the Bengals have had trouble with ever since he came into the league. While playing in Cleveland he had 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries against them in just five games.
Miami is ranked second in scoring defense and they're going against an offense that has scored three touchdowns in the three games since the bye, so the Bengals are looking for their defense to keep keeping them in games. They did it the last two weeks and they should get a boost with the return of cornerback Darius Phillips to a unit that has allowed just five touchdowns in the last 10 quarters.
Still, this is one of those days that is probably going to be decided in the kicking game, where the Dolphins are ranked first and the Bengals are ranked sixth, according to Football Outsiders.
Miami's special teams is led by its leading tackler, former Bengals teams captain Clayton Fejedelem. And the Dolphins' special teamers are coached by Danny Crossman, the man whom replaced Bengals special teams boss Darrin Simmons in Carolina when Simmons came to Cincinnati with Marvin Lewis 18 seasons ago and became the NFL's longest-tenured special teams coach.
The Bengals must stop the Dolphins' Jakeem Grant, Sr. a 171-pound dynamo leading the NFL in punt returns. The Bengals are getting a career year out of punter Kevin Huber, but one of his gunners, cornerback Tony Brown, went on injured reserve with a hamstring problem Saturday. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., got the call from the practice squad and he's excelled at the gunner role.
Plus, Morgan is returning to the field where he helped pull off the Bengals' first successful on-side kick in nine years back on Dec. 22. With 29 seconds left, Morgan went flying through the air to punch kicker Randy Bullock's spinner to linebacker Jordan Evans. While Morgan was led to the locker room with a concussion, the Bengals scored the tying touchdown at the gun before losing in overtime.
Bengals special teams ace Brandon Wilson, a week removed from his 103-yard kick return, has battled a hamstring issue of his own and has been called questionable. But there's optimism he'll play because he practiced full Friday.
Wilson, the NFL's defending kick return champ, has moved up to sixth in the rankings. But the Dolphins are No. 1 covering kicks. It helps that kicker Jason Sanders is seventh in the NFL touchbacks.
Who has the biggest play? Wilson or Grant? That may very well decide what everyone is certain is going to be a close game.