Keys to the Game: Miami

Posted Oct 12, 2012

1. Bottling Up Bush

Dolphins running back Reggie Bush came into the league with New Orleans as one of the most hyped dual threat backs the league had seen in some time. But it never quite panned out with the Saints.

After being shipped to South Beach before the 2011 season, Bush took off. He posted his best NFL season last year and has found the consistency he lacked in New Orleans. In fact, Bush has put up 90 or more yards of total offense in 10 of the 20 games he’s played as a Dolphin.

Bush has been even better at home where earlier this season he had a streak of three consecutive home games with at least 100 rushing yards.

Further, Bush has had previous success against the Rams. In three meetings against St. Louis, Bush has 22 carries for 139 yards (6.3 per attempt) with two touchdowns and 12 catches for 64 yards and another score.

Miami’s offense isn’t completely Bush-centric but he’s certainly the centerpiece of the group.

Defensively, the Rams have had some ups and downs against the run but are coming off their best performances in that regard last week against Arizona. As it stands, St. Louis is 18th in the league in run defense, holding opponents to 117.2 yards per game on the ground.

While slowing Bush in the run game is imperative, the Rams must also be conscious of him in the screen and passing game as well. Considering the Rams pass rush and coverage skills on the back end, they’ve proved vulnerable to checkdowns and screens at various points this season.

“He’s definitely a threat at receiving,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who played with Bush in New Orleans, said. “He’s definitely one of those guys if you get him in any kind of open space with the ball, he hurts you. I’ve seen him do it in practice. I’ve seen him do it in games so it’s the same old Reggie for me. It’s definitely a headache week. We need this guy to calm down a little bit.”

2. Handling Hartline

While it’s Bush who has garnered most of the headlines for Miami’s offense, the Dolphins have seemingly found an emerging weapon on the outside for the first time in a long time.

Brian Hartline, has enjoyed a breakout season so far in 2012, suddenly jumping to the league lead in receiving yards with 514 and posting the best single game performance by a wideout this season when he went for 12 catches and 253 yards against Arizona on Sept. 30.

Hartline’s 253 yards against the Cardinals set a franchise record for that category and he continues to be a favorite target for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The Rams have been no stranger to facing top wideouts this season, faring well against bigger names than Hartline such as Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall.

In fact, the Rams have allowed just one touchdown to a wide receiver all season and sit 12th in the NFL in pass defense (218.2 yards per game).

Like always, don’t expect the Rams to shadow Hartline with Cortland Finnegan or Janoris Jenkins. Instead, they’ll continue to trust the whole group to work together and contain Hartline.

“Hartline is doing a great job with what he’s been given and he’s making the most of it,” Finnegan said. “So we’ve got our hands full.”

3. Worried About Wake

While he may not get the credit that some of his contemporaries around the league do, Miami defensive end Cameron Wake is one of the league’s premiere pass rushers.

Through five games, Wake has posted 5.5 sacks, including a thoroughly dominant 4.5-sack performance against Arizona on Sept. 30. In his fourth NFL season, Wake has already put up 33.5 sacks, a team record for an undrafted player.

There has been a bit of an adjustment period for Wake as the Dolphins have shifted to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4. He’s had his hand on the ground more often than usual and, aside from the breakout against Arizona, has had some rough moments.

For the Rams, the offensive line has been oft-scrutinized this season but has been solid in pass protection the past two games, both victories. The task of slowing Wake will fall to left tackle Wayne Hunter, who has been perhaps the team’s most pleasant surprise since coming over from the Jets in a trade.

Miami has plenty of talent on a highly underrated defense but Wake is the guy that makes it all go. Keeping him in check would go a long way toward a victory.

“Once again we’re facing another really good pass rusher, so our tackles are going to have to handle it, tight ends are going to have to handle it,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re going to have to be aware of where he is because they do a good job of moving him around. They actually do a very unique job up front with the combination rushes with the secondary, and the linebackers, and the defensive line.”

4. Rushing the Rookie

For the second time in three weeks and third time this season, the Rams will see a rookie quarterback. After mixed results against Washington’s Robert Griffin III and a strong outing against Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the Rams will see Tannehill, the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

After winning a training camp battle for the starting job, Tannehill has been better than advertised in his first five contests. He set a rookie franchise record by throwing for 431 yards against Arizona on Sept. 30. That’s also the second highest total by a rookie in league history.

Tannehill got off to a rough start but has improved in each week since and has thrown for 1,269 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 57.4 percent of his passes for a rating of 70.4.

The Rams pass defense has been strong this year with interceptions from all four corners, including three by Cortland Finnegan. In addition, the pass rush took off last week with nine sacks against Arizona.

The Dolphins have allowed just 10 sacks so far this season and Tannehill is good at escaping pressure. End Robert Quinn will face the task of taking on left tackle Jake Long and Chris Long draws rookie Jonathan Martin.

If the Rams can generate pressure consistently again, they could get Tannehill to give them some opportunities for takeaways.

“He’s a good, young quarterback,” defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. “He’s poised. He looks comfortable in the offense. He’s running the offense very well. He’s making some good throws out there and some good plays. He has the ability to extend plays with his legs but at the same time he is looking to throw the ball versus running it.”

5. Stepping Up

The Rams will be without primary Sam Bradford target Danny Amendola this week, which means that Bradford will have to rely on others to pick up the slack. Likewise, there’s a prime opportunity for other receivers, tight ends or even backs to step up and make an impact on the game.

Amendola has been the traditional starter along with Brandon Gibson but it seems likely rookie Chris Givens will step into that starting spot. He’s played the snaps of a starter in recent weeks anyway.

What’s more intriguing is how the Rams handle the slot role that Amendola excelled at in his absence. Veteran Steve Smith is the most logical and likely candidate after he made his name in the league early in his career working from the inside.

Fellow wideout Austin Pettis also figures into the mix in the slot and should get some opportunities.

Miami has struggled to defend the pass in the first five weeks, allowing 281.8 yards per game, 27th in the NFL. The opportunity for a big day for Bradford could be there but he’ll need his other receivers to step into the role and get the job done for it to happen.

Stepping in to fill Amendola’s shoes is nothing new for some of the incumbent wideouts who went through something similar in 2011.

“We went through it a little bit last year with a lot of people being rotated,” Pettis said.  “Obviously it’s an unfortunate situation that happened especially two years in a row but I know everyone is wishing for as speedy a recovery as possible and trying to make those plays while he’s gone.”