When does paper ever match what actually happens on an NFL Field? Especially on Halloween night on national TV?
That's how the Bengals.com Media Roundtable sees Thursday's game in Miami (8:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) when the 6-2 Bengals take a four-game winning streak against a 3-4 Dolphins team that is reeling from a four-game losing streak and some sticky off-field issues.
Despite all that The Table is split and everyone sees a tight, one-score game because the Dolphins are at home and desperate and the Bengals are banged up.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock gives the edge to the Bengals because of the problems the Dolphins have had protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and because quarterback Andy Dalton is playing so well.
Mayock's opposite number in the Bengals radio booth, Dave Lapham, also gives the edge to the Bengals because he senses this team understands "they could be a part of something really special." He also thinks the Bengals are familiar with Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and the elements he's taken from his four seasons working under Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Versatile Chris Perkins has come off covering the Heat and is now bringing the heat on the Dolphins beat for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and he's taking Miami. But he doesn't feel good about it. He's making the call largely because he doesn't see the Dolphins losing five straight, which in this league isn't a bad way at looking at things.
Andy Kent of MiamiDolphins.com is also going with the home club. He thinks the Dolphins will be playing with utmost urgency and will be able to take advantage of a home game on a short week.
Let's go around the table:
I think the Bengals scoring first is big. Getting an early lead. They're 5-0 when they score first and you've got a team that's won four in a row and a team that's lost four in a row. If you get an early lead on the Dolphins, they may say, 'This might not be the night.' If the Dolphins score first and take a lead, you've got a tiger by the tail for the duration. It's an easier game to finish if you get up early.
The pressure the Dolphins give up is key with 32 sacks. It's not all the offensive line. There are a lot of reasons. They're minus-12 in the sack ratio, which is 30th in the league. The Bengals are a plus-six, which is a decent number. I think pressure-protection is key. Giving Andy a clean pocket where he's got depth and can see and you've got to get in Tannehill's face and make him chase ghosts and goblins on Halloween night.
Field position is big in this one with the punters. Miami's Brandon Fields is second in the league in gross and No. 1 in net and just like Bengals punter Kevin Huber he's got one touchback. They'll dictate field position. If you put the Bengals on a short field and the Dolphins on a long field, that's an issue.
From an offensive standpoint it comes down to purely execution for both teams. They've gone against the same defensive looks since OTAs working against their own defense. Kevin's defense is Mike's defense and Mike's defense is Kevin's defense.
THE EDGE: Bengals. A slight edge. They're on such a roll. I think this team realizes they could be a part of something really special. I don't expect them to be anything less than focused.
The thing is, they're beat up. It depends how many hands are on deck. There are going to be about seven guys on the injured list and about five won't go. I don't think left tackle Andrew Whitworth is going to go, but I have confidence in Anthony Collins. I think it's going to be the mantra of man down, next man up like it has all season. Guys have stepped up. They have confidence in the guys stepping in, but you're razor thin.
What do you do at linebacker? The Dolphins have a runner in Lamar Miller that's a one-cut runner, runs hard, averaging 4.5 per carry now and 4.9 last year. I thought the big thing last week was the Jets couldn't run it. If the Bengals can stop the run and make Tannehill one-dimensional, that's what they want to do, but their run defense is reduced.
Last week shocked me. I didn't have an inkling it would end up like that. If they played that game 100 times that would be the only time it would end up 49-9. It will be interesting. Will the Dolphins fold or will they fight? I think the Bengals will fight. They've got something to fight for. Do the Dolphins in their mind losing four straight? We'll see. I think it will be a typical NFL game. Dogfight. One score game. But who knows? Halloween night on the road. Some weird stuff potentially.
The first thing that comes to mind is Miami's inability to protect the quarterback. They've had all kinds of problems. The tackles get collapsed very easily. Nobody knows the status of right tackle Jonathan Martin. I would expect that Cincinnati is able to pressure the quarterback with four and if they can stop the run it's going to be a difficult day for Miami.
If you're a Miami fan what you're looking to do is trying to get the Bengals into a passing defense. They'll have a backup nickel linebacker. I do think the injury to cornerback Leon Hall is significant and I think it's significant in not just base defense but, more so, in nickel when he drops down on the slot. Whatever they do in the slot it won't be as good as Leon Hall and their nickel linebacker won't be as good as it's been. That would worry me from a Bengals perspective.
The Dolphins ran the ball really well in the first half against New England and I think that's what they need to be: run the ball effectively with a short passing game. They got up 14-0 and they looked like a real solid team and then all of a sudden it got to be 14-14 and they got away from the run.
They've got to commit to the run. Both tailbacks have played better, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller, so I think they're going to have to run the ball to beat the Bengals. You're looking at a front seven that is beat up at linebacker and you're hoping to stop the run with six and seven in the box and not drop that eighth guy down.
I think Andy Dalton has played extremely well, especially the last three or four games. I think I've watched every throw he's made this year. The biggest difference to me from years one and two, when I thought he was ultra-conservative, this year he's giving his big-body, talented wide receivers an opportunity to make plays.
THE EDGE: Bengals. You're talking about a 6-2 team that's played extremely well the last four weeks against a 3-4 team that struggles. If Cincinnati comes and plays with their normal tenacity and confidence, I think they'll win a game. But you're going to get Miami's best just because of the situation they're in. The Bengals are banged up, on the road, against a desperate team. That always spells trouble.
The big thing with the Dolphins is pass protection. They've given up an NFL-leading 32 sacks. Along with that Tannehill has lost five fumbles. And four of those fumbles have been the result of sacks. Tannehill's health has also been a question. Last week he was on the injury report for his shoulder and that was the second time this season he's been on the report with a shoulder injury. Protection to me is the No. 1 thing for the Dolphins in this game.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a handful for anybody and for the interior of the Dolphins offensive line center Mike Pouncey has not had that type of season people thought he would be having, just outside of Pro Bowl status. Left guard Richie Incognito is having a good year, but the right guard, John Jerry has not been having a good year and Geno is a beast. I would say Geno is one of the top three or four interior defensive linemen in the NFL and he will cause a major, major headache for the Dolphins.
Their top five, six players in the Dolphins secondary all have at least one interception, so they've been able to make plays. On the other end of it they've allowed six 100-yard receiving games. One of those has been to a running back, Darren Sproles, and the others have been wide receivers and tight ends. So A.J. Green is going to be a huge, huge problem.
One thing the Dolphins did against Baltimore and Buffalo that they hadn't done in the Joe Philbin regime is they had not moved Grimes against a certain receiver. He always stayed on the left side. But he did move with Torrey Smith in Baltimore and Smith torched him for six catches and 121 yards, but Grimes kept him out of the end zone. I'm not saying Grimes will move with Green. I think he'll probably stay on the left side and Dimitri Patterson will stay on the right. But I think the Dolphins would accept a Torrey Smith-type tradeoff, where if A.J. gets 120 yards receiving but they keep him out of the end zone, the Dolphins take that tradeoff. I expect A.J. to get over 100 yards. We know how well the Bengals have been playing on this winning streak. Andy Dalton is in one of the best stretches of his career and we know he'll go to A.J. With the Dolphins' propensity for giving up 100-yard receivers I can almost be assured that A.J. is going to go over 100. I think the key for the Dolphins is keeping him out of the end zone.
But Andy has distributed the ball well and the Dolphins have had problems with tight ends. Jordan Cameron of the Browns and Jimmy Graham of the Saints went over 100 and Rob Gronkowski didn't kill them last week but even when they don't go over 100 the tight ends do a good job against the Dolphins linebackers and safeties. I would expect the tight ends for Cincinnati to be targets and that's a big, big problem for the Dolphins.
The Dolphins have multiple blitzes and they blitz from all angles. You'll see Reshad Jones blitz from strong safety. You'll also see linebacker Dannell Ellerbe blitzing from the middle. You'll see the other two backers, Phillip Wheeler and Koa Misi come in there every now and then. Nickel corner Jimmy Wilson will fire in from the slot. It's a very high pressure, aggressive, multiple blitz package that Coyle likes to throw in there. No doubt they'll bring heat on Dalton.
Dion Jordan, the third pick in the draft, is almost exclusively at right end and the funny thing about him is he's being used really in only passing situations. He's about 6-4, 250, but he's razor thin. They don't trust him to set the edge against the run. He has been effective. He's got some speed and can get around the edge. He's showing promise, but 20 to 25 plays a game you'd like to see more from that high of a pick. Derrick Shelby, the right end, is a little thicker and plays against the run and he's played pretty well the last three games with 3.5 sacks.
Defensive tackle Jared Odrick might be having a Pro Bowl-type season. He had two sacks last game and he'll move around and be over both guards. The difference for Odrick is they've found his spot at 4-3 tackle instead of a 4-3 end or 3-4 end and the difference is like night and day. This guy is using his strength and quickness and he's effective against the run and the pass.
THE EDGE: Dolphins, 27-24. I don't feel that strong about it, but last week in our paper I said the Dolphins are not going to go on a five-game losing streak. I didn't know which of the two games they would win, so I flipped a coin and it came up the Patriots, so I picked the Patriots last week. Now I have to pick the Dolphins. I painted myself in a corner. I have to stick to what I said. I don't have a lot of faith in the pick, but I have to stick with what I said.
The Dolphins point of emphasis is protecting Tannehill after giving up six more sacks last week in New England. They did well in the first half, but then the blitz packages came. They know Cincinnati's front four is ridiculously tough so I think you could see the Dolphins leave in extra people to block with tight ends to help combat that.
Philbin has talked about how Tannehill has to do a better job protecting the ball in the pocket when it collapses so they can't get any hands on it.
The Dolphins would like to run the ball more. Left guard Richie Incognito talked this week about the problems defensive tackle Geno Atkins causes. He compared him to Warren Sapp and said he's a Sapp kind of three technique that can take over a game and ruin an offensive line's day. He says the Dolphins blueprint for success is they'd like to run the ball for all four quarters and not abandon it. They've had success the last two weeks. Thomas and Miller have run well and broken tackles after contact. They rushed for 156 yards against the Patriots and 89 were from Miller, so it was successful.
On defense they've got two solid cornerbacks. Last week I don't think Tom Brady threw at Grimes once. He got picked off by Patterson, but he kept going that way and when Patterson went out with an injury he picked on Nolan Carroll. If Grimes shadows Green, that would allow them not to commit too much to stop him while still being able to stop the run and come up with creative blitzes.
They're blitzing more this year. I think in Coyle's mind Ellerbe and Wheeler were major upgrades from a quickness and speed standpoint. He likes to blitz them. Jordan is quick. Left end Cameron Wake is closer to getting healthy. Even some of their interior guys are quick. Odrick is going to be a matchup issue for the Bengals. When they bring Jordan in with right end Olivier Vernon, they consider that their speed package.
THE EDGE: Dolphins, 23-20. Just looking at it on paper, you see a team with four straight wins playing lights out facing a team on a four-game losing streak. You think that should be easy, but it's a short week with the Dolphins knowing they can't afford to lose another one, or they're really going to be in a hole. I think the Dolphins pull one out in a close one. Last year they won 17-13 and I can see another game like that one.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No tricks here in the sixth game for the Bengals on Halloween. It looks to be pretty basic. The 3-4 Dolphins can't lose this one at home, so they figure to play it all close to the vest, trying to smash it on the ground on offense and making the Bengals drive it against their defense while attempting to take away the big plays of A.J. Green and Co.
The buzz in South Florida is the Dolphins gave up on a successful running game too early in New England last week and it led to the Patriots unleashing 24 second-half points in their comeback victory.
The Miami locker room has been talking about getting back to the run (think Bengals after the Cleveland loss) and with Cincinnati coming in severely reduced at linebacker without Rey Maualuga in the middle, Taylor Mays in the nickel and possibly no Michael Boley, not to mention possibly being two down in their defensive line rotation if Wallace Gilberry can't go, the Dolphins figure to give the Bengals a steady diet of running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas.
Especially Miller, a one-cut slasher that gets it downhill at 4.5 yards per pop rapidly and is coming off an 89-yard game. Plus, the Dolphins are so concerned about protecting a passer that turns it over, they figure to run it so they don't have to throw it. Particularly since right tackle Jonathan Martin went AWOL this week.
That would seem to indicate that Tyson Clabo is going to be back in the lineup and he has struggled so much this year giving up eight sacks that the Dolphins went out a few weeks ago and traded for left tackle Bryant McKinnie and moved Martin to right.
This is a game that Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap may be able to take over. Tannehill has fumbled eight times, lost five, and Dunlap has six career forced fumbles. If they get a chance to get near him. No doubt the Dolphins will be max protecting for him.
Even though Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace has had some big days against Cincinnati as as Steeler, the Bengals have also had good days against the speed merchant. Wallace had a two-touchdown game against Cincinnati in 2011 and a 100-yard game in 2010 and 2009.
But the Bengals also held him to one catch twice, including the last time the teams met met last season and he's only caught one ball longer than 40 yards on them, a 51-yarder four years ago. Wallace is averaging 12.8 yards per catch against the Bengals and it will be a challenge for Cincinnati's pair of 30 and over cornerbacks Adam Jones (30) and Terence Newman (35) bouncing back in a short week.
But it should help that the Dolphins are virtually operating with just three receivers now that Brandon Gibson, their leader with three touchdown catches, is on injured reserve. And Bengals safety Chris Crocker noted that Wallace appears be trying to adjust to life without his speedy Steelers sidekick Antonio Brown and has just one TD catch and a non-speedster 13.3 average.
The Bengals offense looks to be in for a grind against the ultimate grinder, Coyle, their former 11-year secondary coach. You won't see much of that man-to-man stuff the Jets woefully tried to play last week. Coyle figures not to get beat deep and he'll make the Bengals work for every point underneath and dare them to run the ball against a very physical front they didn't move much last year while also breaking out blitzes on passing downs.
An offense that comes into the game with 13 touchdown drives of at least 80 yards and six of at least 90 is going to have to have a couple of long ones Thursday.
If it sounds like a 23-20, 20-17 type deal, it probably is going to be and so special teams is going to dictate it somehow. Cincinnati's first three wins in the streak came down to a punt and this one may, too. Cincinnati's Kevin Huber and Miami's Brandon Fields each have one touchback and Fields is leading the NFL in net average while Huber has the fifth-best differential in the NFL between punts inside the 20 and touchbacks.
Two of the wins in the streak came courtesy of a Mike Nugent field goal, a category where the Dolphins have struggled of late. Caleb Sturgis has missed four of his last five field-goal tries and his last one, a 39-yarder, got blocked. Enter Dunlap again with his two blocks this season.
Pretty basic. No ghosts or goblins.
Force Tannehill to fumble it for at least one short drive. Convert a couple of long drives. Run the ball against Coyle's bend but don't break defense and control the ball to give the reduced defense a break, and let Nugent and Huber do the rest.
And there should be only treats.