NFL Preview - Washington (3-5) at Miami (1-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the Miami Dolphins take the field at Sun Life Stadium for Sunday's battle with the Washington Redskins, they'll be in a position that's been foreign to the long-struggling AFC East cellar-dwellers all throughout this difficult 2011 season: that of the team riding a wave of momentum.
While the Dolphins were able to finally obtain an elusive first victory of the year with a convincing 31-3 road rout of previously-surging Kansas City last week, the Redskins head to South Florida trying to avoid their longest losing streak in a decade and solving glaring problems on both sides of the ball.
Washington has been plagued by an anemic offense all throughout its current four-game skid, which was extended with this past Sunday's 19-11 home setback to NFC West-leading San Francisco. The Redskins have mustered a paltry 44 points and averaged just 280.3 total yards over the course of their winless stretch, with the low point coming in a 23-0 manhandling by Buffalo in Toronto on Oct. 30 in which the club mustered a mere 178 yards and 10 first downs.
The defense has suffered as a result of the offense's inability to move the ball as well. The Redskins have allowed an average of 386.3 total yards and a substandard 160.8 rushing yards during the losing streak.
Washington held opponents to only 84.5 rushing yards and 296.5 yards per game during an encouraging 3-1 start to the season which briefly had the Burgundy and Gold tied for first place in the NFC East.
"Collectively, we have to get better on offense," said Shanahan following the San Francisco game. "That's obvious."
In spite of the offense's continued woes, Shanahan won't be making a change at quarterback for the time being, with former Dolphins reject John Beck to make a fourth straight start in place of an also-ineffective Rex Grossman this weekend.
Beck, a second-round draft choice of Miami in 2007 who went 0-4 during a rookie audition and was cut loose by the organization after just two seasons, has thrown only two touchdown passes and been intercepted four times while taking 14 sacks in three outings since supplanting Grossman following a Week 6 loss to Philadelphia.
The Dolphins have had their issues under center as well during a 2011 campaign in which the embattled team dropped its first seven contests, but finally appear to be gaining some stability at the position. Quarterback Matt Moore, who took over for an injured Chad Henne last month, had one of his best games as a pro in last Sunday's thrashing of the Chiefs, accumulating a season-high 244 yards on 17-of-23 passing and matching a career best with three touchdown strikes on the afternoon.
The defense contributed five sacks in helping Miami put an end to a sequence of 10 consecutive losses that dated back to December of last season.
"It's pretty satisfying, beats the hell out of the alternative," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said of his team's triumph. "I said it [Sunday] the most satisfying thing is getting the chance to see those guys smile. Validate some of the things you've been talking about. We took a step up this, what it appears to be a giant mountain."
Miami still has one more hump to get over, however. The Dolphins have lost seven straight times at Sun Life Stadium since a 29-17 triumph over Tennessee in Week 10 of last season and are a brutal 1-12 in their last 13 tilts at their home venue.
Washington, which is 1-3 on the road thus far in 2011, hasn't lost five in a row since Sept. 9-Oct. 15, 2001.
Miami holds a 6-4 edge in the overall regular-season series between these clubs, but the Redskins have won two of their last three matchups with the Dolphins and posted a 16-13 home win in overtime in the most recent encounter, which took place in 2007. Washington also recorded a 21-10 decision over Miami at FedEx Field in 1999, with the Dolphins coming out on top in a 24-23 squeaker at Sun Life Stadium in 2003. The Redskins have never beaten the Dolphins in four lifetime visits to Miami.
These teams also squared off in a pair of Super Bowls, with Miami capping its historic undefeated 1972 season with a 14-7 verdict over the Redskins in Los Angeles in Super Bowl VII and Washington handing the Dolphins a 27-17 loss in Pasadena in Super Bowl XVII.
Shanahan is just 2-7 lifetime against Miami, with one of those losses coming while at the helm of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988 and the remainder occurring during his 14-year run as the head coach of Denver from 1995-2008. Sparano has never previously faced either the Redskins or Shanahan in a head coaching capacity.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Erratic quarterback play hasn't been the only problem a Washington offense that's averaging just 15.9 points per game (27th overall) has encountered during the team's slide, as injuries to wide receiver Santana Moss, tight end Chris Cooley and running back Tim Hightower have robbed the Redskins of three key players and they've generated little in the way of a ground attack. Washington has averaged a meager 53 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry over their four-game losing streak, and Beck (858 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) hasn't shown the arm strength to give the offense a needed vertical threat. The ex-Dolphin did complete a career-high 30 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers, but nearly half of those came on dump-offs to rookie running back Roy Helu (172 rushing yards, 26 receptions), with the promising fourth-round draft pick garnering a franchise-record 14 receptions totaling 105 yards. He's now the featured performer in the backfield with Shanahan benching plodder Ryan Torain (168 rushing yards, 1 TD), with talented tight end Fred Davis (40 receptions, 559 yards, 2 TD) and journeyman wideout Jabar Gaffney (31 receptions, 2 TD) lurking as Beck's main downfield targets with Moss still sidelined with a broken hand.
Beck doesn't appear to have the most difficult assignments this week, as Miami enters Sunday's clash ranked 30th in pass efficiency defense and is permitting 265.2 yards per game through the air (27th overall), while the team's sum of two interceptions is tied for the lowest in the NFL. The Dolphins have made significant strides in pressuring the quarterback, however, with inside linebacker Kevin Burnett (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks) accounting for 1 1/2 of the group's five sacks of Kansas City's Matt Cassel a week ago and outside teammate Cameron Wake (20 tackles, 5.5 sacks) having earned a reputation as one of the league's premier pass rushers. Miami was also able to keep the Chiefs' running game in check, with Burnett and inside counterpart Karlos Dansby (52 tackles, 1 sack) racking up 23 tackles in the win, and the Dolphins are holding the opposition to a modest 3.8 yards per rush attempt on the season. A shaky secondary could get a boost this week from the expected return of starting cornerback Vontae Davis (16 tackles), who's missed four of the last six games due to a hamstring injury and a team-issued suspension after reportedly showing up hung over to practice last week.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Though it's hardly been a smooth operation this season, the Miami offense is coming off one of its best showings of the year against the Chiefs, with Moore (950 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT) displaying both accuracy and command and running back Reggie Bush (427 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 2 TD) a factor for a second consecutive week. The versatile offseason acquisition followed up a 103-yard, 15-carry effort in a Week 8 loss to the New York Giants by compiling 142 yards from scrimmage (92 rushing, 42 receiving) against Kansas City, and he's averaged at least 6.9 yards per rush attempt in three of the last four games. With powerful rookie Daniel Thomas (314 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD) now over a hamstring strain that's forced him to miss three games earlier in the year, the Dolphins have two capable backs to potentially provide a formidable inside-outside combo. Miami also sports a top-flight receiver in two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall (46 receptions, 644 yards, 2 TD), who abused Kansas City for 106 yards and a touchdown last Sunday, while underused tight end Anthony Fasano (12 receptions, 3 TD) hauled in two of Moore's three scoring deliveries in the win. Moving the chains consistently still remains an area of concern, however, as the Dolphins have converted a league-low 26.3 percent of third-down tries this season and were just 3-of-10 in that department against the Chiefs.
A Washington defense that was impressively sound during the early part of this season has undergone a regression, particularly in attempting to stop the run, that has been a contributing factor to the team's overall struggles as of late. The Redskins have yielded at least 138 rushing yards in each of their last four losses, with San Francisco standout Frank Gore piling up 107 yards on 19 attempts on coordinator Jim Haslett's crew last week, and it'll be up to a front line anchored by smallish nose tackle Barry Cofield (12 tackles, 2 sacks) to hold its ground and allow a strong linebacking corps headed up by veteran tackling machine London Fletcher (72 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT) to make plays. Effectively containing the run would also enable Haslett to turn loose his outstanding pass-rushing tandem of outside linebackers Brian Orakpo (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Ryan Kerrigan (35 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), the two best pressure-creators of a unit that's tied for third in the NFL with 25 sacks. A secondary led by flashy cornerback DeAngelo Hall (49 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) has allowed just eight touchdown passes so far but comes in banged up in the backfield, with free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (28 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) likely to miss a third game in four weeks with a knee problem and enforcer LaRon Landry (37 tackles, 0.5 sacks) questionable because of a sore Achilles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
For the Redskins, it comes down to running the football and preventing the Dolphins from doing so. Beck's limitations as a passer have been exposed over the last few games, in part due to the fact Washington has had virtually no ground game to speak of, but can be a serviceable game-manager with a more balanced offense and if the defense is doing its job. The Redskins are 3-0 this season when keeping opponents under 100 rushing yards and 0-5 when they surpass that number, so it's critical that Haslett's group prevents Miami's running backs from having big days.
The Dolphins' defensive objective is simple: make Beck throw. The still- winless Washington quarterback hasn't shown the elite arm strength to threaten a defense with deep passes and has been prone to holding on the ball and taking sacks. Miami got its pass rush working in last week's win and will need to ratchet up the pressure again on Sunday, as the secondary has been shaky and come up with a dearth of big plays over the course of the season.
Red-zone efficiency. Since neither of these teams have what can be termed as explosive offenses, it's vital to the success of each that they make the most of whatever scoring opportunities exist during the game. Miami has done a much better job in that area as of late, having produced touchdowns in all four of its red-zone possessions over the last two weeks, and it's no coincidence that the Dolphins have been more competitive because of that improvement.
To their credit, the Dolphins haven't stopped playing hard or with pride in a season in which the playoffs have become a mirage, and last week's result was clear evidence that Miami can indeed be a team to be reckoned with if all the parts are working properly. The Redskins, however, have become a shell of their early-season selves, with the defense proving incapable of preventing opponents from running the ball at will and the offense handcuffed by injuries and a lack of playmakers. While Miami could be in line for a mild letdown after exerting all its energy towards ending its lengthy losing streak, there's little question that the Dolphins have been the superior of these two clubs lately. Though those fans with visions of Andrew Luck in a Miami jersey this time next year may be a bit disappointed, the Dolphins seem to stand a pretty good chance of rejoicing for a second straight Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 16, Redskins 10
11/10 13:31:51 ET