Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1) @ Miami Dolphins (7-5)
Sunday December 11, 1:00 EST – Hard Rock Stadium
Betting Line: Dolphins -1
The NFL is the ultimate bizzaro-world. Back in September, if I told you the Dolphins would have two more wins than the Cardinals leading up to their December meeting, you’d have called me a homer. Alas, here we are: a suddenly surging Cardinals team looks to continue to mend its broken wings while the Dolphins try to repair a flaccid flipper.
Bad animal sexual analogies aside, both of these teams need this game. The Cardinals need it more, but just barely. The Dolphins need three wins in the final four games to have a shot at an AFC wildcard spot while the Redbirds likely need to run the table to even be considered at 9-6-1.
On paper, the match-ups appear to favor the road team. Arizona are, however, the road team. And this Cardinals team doesn’t travel east very well. In three east coast trips this season (Buffalo, Carolina and Atlanta) Bruce Arians’ team is winless and has been outscored 101-57.
With the Jets on tap in primetime just six days after this contents, the Dolphins can restore all the hope they gave the fan base after that six game winning streak came toppling down in Baltimore. With the Jets gas tank on empty, the Dolphins are starring a 9-5 record in the face with a win over Carson Palmer and company.
Cardinals Offense vs. Dolphins Defense:
Does the name Ulrick John mean anything to you? If you’re an obsessed Dolphins fan that watched every snap of every game this year (including pre-season) then maybe it does. If not, he was a camp body that didn’t survive final cuts on September 3rd. He was recently inserted into the Cardinals starting line-up and he will make his third start in the stadium where he played his football back in August.
The poorly balanced, slow kick-slide tackle is top heavy and struggles with most any pass rusher in the NFL. Sunday’s task is Cameron Wake – one of the league’s most productive rushers on a per snap basis.
The Cardinals will be smart to shift help to that side which, in turn, leaves other unfavorable match-ups exposed. D.J. Humphries kicked over to the left side when Jared Veldheer was lost to injury, and he has issues of his own.
John Wetzel, listed as a tackle, plays right guard, A.Q. Shipley is the center and Mike Iupati is the left guard. Iupati has been to multiple pro-bowls while the rest of the line-up would have a difficult time finding starting work anywhere else in the league.
The point is that the Cardinals offensive line is bad – really, really bad. The Dolphins have an opportunity to control this game in the trenches with these favorable match-ups and they will have to.
They have to because the man behind this line is the best running back in the NFL. David Johnson has an opportunity to break the yards from scrimmage record this season. Doing it behind a patchwork group makes it all the more impressive.
Miami has held some impressive backs in check this season, but it’s the pass catching of Johnson against these questionable Dolphins linebackers that has me worried most. Jelani Jenkins might miss another game and Kiko Alonso will play despite having thumb surgery on Monday.
Their ability to get to the boundary quickly as well as fill gaps in the interior will be crucial to making the Cardinals offense one dimensional.
If Carson Palmer is camped in the shot gun in obvious passing downs, the Miami pass rush can tee off and force some poor decisions from the former Raider/Bengal/Trojan.
The Cardinals came into the season with one of the scariest wide receiver groups on football. Michael Floyd has been a disappointment, Jaron Brown has been out for a number of weeks, John Brown is a 20% snap type of guy and JJ Nelson is the burner that plays about half of the Cardinals offensive snaps.
Larry Fitzgerald has had a career resurgence moving to the slot and his match-up with Bobby McCain looks like a nightmare. McCain struggles with bigger-bodied guys and the Dolphins need to find more creative ways to funnel Fitzgerald into zone help away from McCain.
The Cardinals tight ends are merely compliments to the offense and top tight end, Jermain Gresham, only plays 65% of the team’s offensive snaps. This bodes well for the Dolphins porous linebacker coverage skills that struggled immensely in Baltimore. The Ravens tight ends sat underneath and between the zone coverage of the Dolphins defense and if it happens again, Vance Joseph will be put on notice.
Last year, Arizona spread the ball all over the lot and took tons of deep shots down the field. With poor protection and the regression of every receiver not named Larry Fitzgerald, they rely on two players: one sure fire gold jacket recipient, and another that’s well on his way in his early career.
Hold David Johnson to four yards per carry and give Bobby McCain a lot of help on Larry Fitzgerald and the Dolphins defense will hold this offense to under 20. I just don’t know if that task is achievable.
Dolphins Offense vs. Cardinals Defense:
By every measure, the Cardinals defense is pretty damn good. Second to only the Broncos in yards allowed per play (4.8), 4th in passing yards per play (6.5) and 5th in yards per rush allowed (3.8).
I mentioned how the Miami offense had moments but failed at crucial times on the Phinalysis Podcast and this game is going to test that theory. Jay Ajayi got it cranking but the train had to pull into the station with the early deficit growing with each Baltimore possession.
With Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert one week healthier, the Dolphins must control the trenches on this side of the ball as well. Calais Campbell is one of the best players in Cardinals history, but he can be worn down if the stretch zone concepts are affective. The same goes for nose tackle Corey Peters and defensive tackles Josh Mauro and Frostee Rucker.
Just like on the other side of the ball, this match-up favors the Dolphins. If the defense keeps it close, Miami can run the ball and wear down that veteran group in the humidity of Miami.
It’s the Cardinals back seven that figures to give the offense a difficult time. Ryan Tannehill will need to have time to make his reads, progressions and even break the pocket for some improvisational plays, but the windows will be tight and the ball hawks will be flying around.
Against Washington, Tony Jefferson, Tyvon Branch and D.J. Swearinger were all nicked up at different points in the game and Tyrann Mathieu sat out with a shoulder injury. It appears as though the Cardinals will have their full complement.
The pass rush starts with Chandler Jones. Using play action and misdirection, as the Dolphins do, after a steady dose of Ajayi could keep Jones to a quiet day as he’s far more concerned with passing downs than defending the run.
Jones and Markus Golden have been sensational together this year creating pressure off the edges meaning the Dolphins will likely keep Dion Sims and Jay Ajayi in to help in pass protection.
Whoever Patrick Peterson draws on the outside figures to be a back-burner option while the Dolphins focus on attacking Marcus Cooper. Cooper will likely get frequent match-ups with Kenny Stills and Cooper is a bit of a gambler so expect some shot plays built into this game plan.
Deon Bucannon is a Swiss army knife with linebacker and safety skillsets wrapped into one. He will blitz the edge, cover the slot or play an underneath zone. Ryan Tannehill will need to account for him and using his eyes to move Bucannon away from the ball.
Points are going to be difficult to come by. Jarvis Landry has a tough match-up in the slot regardless of who he draws and Devante Parker needs to be more physically imposing at the catch point and win some contested catches in this game. He is practicing in full this week so his health shouldn’t be an excuse.
I talked about the Cardinals east coast woes in the intro and they go beyond this season – the Cardinals have struggled on the east coast in general under Arians. The long travel could be offset by having their backs up against the wall and a Dolphins defense that has been shredded in back to back weeks.
There is no need to look ahead on the schedule for either team – this game is incredibly important to each. The Cardinals are feeling good off a close victory over the Redskins and the Dolphins have a sour taste in their mouth following a thrashing in Baltimore.
This is a huge test for Adam Gase to see how his team responds to the adversity they’ve been hearing all week. They went from being the NFL’s least talked about playoff team to just another fraud amongst many league-wide.
I think they will respond to that challenge but, in the end, the match-ups will play out in the Cardinals favor with a late game victory ripping Dolphins fan’s hearts out.
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