NFL Preview - Miami (0-3) at San Diego (2-1)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Slow starts have been a common theme for the San Diego Chargers in recent years, but few teams have stumbled out of the gates as badly as the Miami Dolphins have over the past few seasons.
Faced with another big early deficit in the division standings and questions swirling about the long-term future of their head coach, the reeling Dolphins head to Qualcomm Stadium in a virtual must-win mode for Sunday's matchup with the potent Chargers.
Miami is already two games behind their closest competition in the stout AFC East after being dealt defeats in each of its first three outings of 2011. The Dolphins also closed out the previous season with a whimper, dropping its final three contests to finish 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years.
That six-game slide has put head coach Tony Sparano on obvious thin ice heading into Sunday's tilt. With Miami on a bye following the game, speculation as to whether success-craving owner Stephen Ross would make a change in leadership if the Dolphins fell to 0-4 has run rampant during the week.
"I don't know anything about that," said Sparano when asked about his job security at his Monday press conference. "I'm getting ready for the San Diego Chargers. You guys (the media) can figure that out. Go ask the sources, they'll tell you better than me."
The Dolphins could have eased the pressure on their embattled sideline boss had they been able to hold onto a late lead last week. Up by six points on Cleveland with time winding down, a struggling Miami defense allowed the Browns to march 65 yards on 13 plays and claim a 17-16 decision on quarterback Colt McCoy's short touchdown pass with just 43 seconds remaining.
Miami is now 0-3 for the second time in the past three seasons, though the team did rebound to win seven of its next 10 games that year. The Dolphins overcame a similar sluggish beginning in Sparano's 2008 debut, going 9-1 after losing four of its first six tilts to capture a surprise AFC East title.
The Chargers have a history of faltering early on during head coach Norv Turner's tenure before eventually catching fire down the stretch, therefore this season's 2-1 start is seen as an encouraging sign for the expected AFC West contenders. Despite that solid record, San Diego hasn't been particularly sharp over its first three games, however.
Turner's troops had to fight back from a 10-point halftime deficit at home against a still-winless Minnesota outfit in Week 1, and were forced to hold off a belated comeback attempt from slumping Kansas City to register a 20-17 victory at Qualcomm Stadium last Sunday. The Chargers have also compiled a troublesome minus-six turnover margin through the initial three weeks, with usually on-point quarterback Philip Rivers having thrown a league-high six interceptions over that span.
Rivers has averaged over 325 yards per game through the air thus far, however, and gets to face a disappointing Dolphins defense that enters Sunday's clash ranked 30th against the pass.
The Chargers likely won't have one of their best pass-catchers available for the game, however, with seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates doubtful to suit up due to a nagging foot injury that also kept him out of last week's win.
The Dolphins hold a slim 12-11 edge in the all-time regular season set between these teams and had defeated the Chargers seven straight times prior to a 23-13 loss at Qualcomm Stadium in 2009. Miami had emerged victorious three times in San Diego during its long winning streak in the series, recording road triumphs in 1995 (24-14), 2000 (17-7) and 2005 (23-21).
Miami and San Diego have also squared off four times previously during the postseason, with each coming out on top twice. The Chargers bested the Dolphins in a classic 41-38 overtime thriller at the Orange Bowl in the 1981 AFC Divisional Playoffs, with Miami avenging that loss with a 34-13 home win in the Second Round of the following season's conference tournament. The Dolphins also topped San Diego at home in a 1992 AFC Divisional Playoff, while the Chargers came through in a 22-21 squeaker at Qualcomm Stadium in the 1994 Divisional Round.
Turner is 2-2 in his career against the Dolphins, including a win while at the helm of Washington in 1998 and a loss in 2005 while then in charge of Oakland. Sparano owns a 1-1 record against both San Diego and Turner during his three- plus seasons with Miami.
Turner served as the Dolphins' offensive coordinator from 2002-03 before taking over as the Raiders' head coach the following year.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Expect Miami to attack a San Diego defense that comes in with a host of injury concerns along the front line with a running game that's been a factor over the last two weeks. The Dolphins have amassed 153 and 138 rushing yards in their two most recent defeats, with powerful rookie Daniel Thomas (202 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 1 TD) averaging a shade over 100 yards and nearly five yards per carry during that time frame. The promising youngster has supplanted the more well-known Reggie Bush (69 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD) as the lead back in Miami's seventh-ranked ground attack (129.7 ypg), rendering the ex-Saint into primarily a third-down role he often excelled in with New Orleans. The Dolphins have been more hit-or-miss when throwing the football, which has usually been the case during the Sparano era, with the much-maligned Chad Henne (841 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) displaying spotty accuracy and not getting much assistance from a patchwork offensive line that given up 11 sacks to date, including five to the Browns a week ago. The receiving corps has been somewhat inconsistent as well, though top target Brandon Marshall (17 receptions, 261 yards, 1 TD) is a premier talent with an outstanding track record and teammate Davone Bess (12 receptions) offers a reliable option out of the slot. Brian Hartline (10 receptions) lines up opposite Marshall on the outside and is coming off a four-catch, 87-yard performance against Cleveland.
The Chargers enter Sunday's matchup seeking healthy bodies to place alongside sturdy nose tackle Antonio Garay (15 tackles, 1 sack) on their three-man front, with veterans Luis Castillo (fractured leg) and Jacques Cesaire (knee) currently out with injuries and well-regarded rookie end Corey Liuget (3 tackles) questionable to go due to a sprained ankle. Despite that depleted state, San Diego still managed to hold the Chiefs to a pedestrian 81 rushing yards on 27 attempts in last week's win. There are health issues in the secondary as well, with cornerback Quentin Jammer (8 tackles) uncertain to play this week because of a hamstring strain and notoriously brittle strong safety Bob Sanders (knee) placed on injured reserve Wednesday. The defense hadn't been particularly good against the pass even at full strength, surrendering 410 net yards to Tom Brady and the powerful Patriots two weeks week and allowing enemy signal-callers to complete nearly 70 percent of their throws on the year. With the team banged up in the backfield, outside linebackers Shaun Phillips (11 tackles, 1 sacks) and Antwan Barnes (3 tackles, 2 sacks) will be asked to bring steady pressure upon Henne.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego hasn't had much of a problem churning out yards, bringing the No. 4 ranked total offense (417.3 ypg) and sixth-rated passing game (320.0 ypg) into this week's play, but the unit has been repeatedly plagued by mistakes over the course of the year. The Chargers have turned the ball over eight times in three games, with Rivers (979 passing yards, 4 TD, 6 INT) having thrown a pair of interceptions in each of those tests. The fiery quarterback is still exceptionally accurate and adept at producing the big play, with the physical wideout tandem of Vincent Jackson (17 receptions, 266 yards, 2 TD) and Malcom Floyd (7 receptions) each averaging better than 15 yards per catch at the moment. Both come in at less than 100 percent, however, with Jackson bothered by a abdominal strain and Floyd limited last week by a groin injury, and it's all but certain Gates (8 receptions) won't be available for a second straight game. The team does have experienced alternatives in wide receiver Patrick Crayton (5 receptions) and Randy McMichael (8 receptions), who combined for 98 yards on nine catches in expanded duty against the Chiefs, while stocky running back Mike Tolbert (64 rushing yards, 3 TD) is among the league leaders at his position with a team-best 20 catches. 2010 first-round pick Ryan Matthews (207 rushing yards, 3 TD, 14 receptions) is also a capable receiver out of the backfield and made an impact running the ball as well last week, generating 98 yards and two scores in the Kansas City win.
Even with San Diego's injury woes at the receiving positions, Rivers could be in line again for a big day if the Dolphins aren't able to tighten up in coverage or apply more pressure on the quarterback than they did in September. Miami has been torched for 933 net passing yards (30th overall) and eight touchdowns through the air in three games, while registering a mere four sacks over that span. Two of those takedowns have come from disruptive outside linebacker Cameron Wake (6 tackles), but a consistent complement to the 2010 All-Pro has yet to emerge, and the secondary would get a needed boost if skilled cornerback Vontae Davis (10 tackles) can return from a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week's loss. The run defense has been adequate and held the Peyton Hillis-less Browns to just 70 yards a week ago, with end Randy Starks (10 tackles) and massive nose tackle Paul Soliai (5 tackles) leading the charge up front and young safety Reshad Jones (22 tackles, 1 sack, 2 PD) lending support from the back end.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. The Chargers have too much firepower for the suddenly defensively- challenged Dolphins to handle as long as they're not beating themselves with mistakes, which has too often been the case in the early going. As long as San Diego keeps its giveaways to a minimum, it stands a good chance of winning this game. Conversely, Miami's best opportunity of pulling off the upset is if Henne can deliver an error-free performance under center, though that's been rare as of late.
Thomas. The rookie running back has given Miami's offense a real lift in the past two weeks, and his ability to grind out yards and keep the chains moving could be the Dolphins' best defense to San Diego's high-powered attack. He's been dealing with a sore hamstring during practice this week, however, and Miami's waiver claim of Houston reject Steve Slaton on Wednesday could be an indicator that Thomas' availability and effectiveness is in question.
Since winning the turnover battle will be critical to Miami's chances for success, it's imperative the team can rattle Rivers in the pocket and force the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback into one or two of those uncharacteristic miscues he's been susceptible to this season. If the Dolphins can't get pressure, it's going to be another long afternoon for Sparano's bunch.
The Dolphins are in a state of desperation and if nothing else, should come out hungry and motivated, and the injury-plagued Chargers could be a vulnerable opponent if the team can't overcome all of its medical issues and its recent sloppy play carries over into another week. Still, it's hard to put one's faith in a Miami squad that hasn't won in nearly 10 months -- especially on the road -- and has shown its own propensity for mistakes during the early part of this season. The Dolphins will battle hard and put a scare into the home team, but San Diego's superior talent and Rivers' leadership ultimately make the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 24, Dolphins 20
09/30 11:46:42 ET