Pivotal Matchups: Five Most Important Games On the Dolphins’ 2016 Schedule
Each year there are a couple of games on the NFL schedule that should immediately catch your attention. It could be a rivalry, or simply a game that would seem to have major playoff or draft order implications. When the Miami Dolphins’ schedule was released for next season, our very own Max Himmelrich could be heard softly weeping in the distance. Adam Gase’s inaugural season as head coach was almost perfectly set up for disaster. The first half of 2016 could not be much more difficult, with matchups against the Seahawks, Patriots, Bengals, and Steelers immediately looming. While the matchups should get easier as the season progresses, the damage will almost undoubtedly be done by the time they reach their bye week in Week 8. For this reason, let’s take a look at multiple games that could be essential to creating some hope heading into year two.
5. Week 6 – vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Do the Miami Dolphins really have a chance against the Steelers? That much remains to be seen. Pittsburgh figures to be one of the AFC’s powerhouses in the upcoming season. Even after the suspension of Martavis Bryant, their offense is set up to post potential record-breaking numbers in 2016 if the “Killer B’s” (Ben, Brown, and Bell) stay healthy.
This begs the question: Will Gase’s troops be able to keep up? I actually think both of these defenses will outperform expectations, but offense will still be their teams’ respective calling cards. Gase has a variety of tools at his disposal as he attempts to shape this offense: a young quarterback with loads of potential, tons of depth at wide receiver, explosive options at running back, and finally a reliable group of offensive linemen. If there is a single time that Gase must prove his offensive prowess, it will have to be against these Steelers. It is the only way they will be able to be competitive in this game.
The Pittsburgh secondary should undoubtedly be improved with the help of Senquez Golson, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis, but it is still the team’s biggest weakness. This looks to be the perfect opportunity for Gase’s new quarterback to show his development under his tutelage. While starting running back Jay Ajayi figures to struggle against one of the league’s stingiest run defenses, Ryan Tannehill will be forced to carry his team in order to at least make things interesting. How will he perform against his opponents’ inexperienced defensive backs? Will he be able to match the big play potential of Roethlisberger?
Additionally, Miami’s defensive line could turn out to be an X-factor. Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, and Ndamukong Suh will be up against an offensive line with three potential pro bowlers in Maurkice Pouncey, David Decastro, and Marcus Gilbert. Miami invested a lot in this position group to wreak havoc in opposing backfields and, despite facing talented opponents, they will play a pivotal role in slowing down Pittsburgh’s offensive attack. While it seems unlikely that Joseph’s defense has enough talent to lead the team to a win, even preventing a record setting performance could be seen as a moral victory for this up-and-coming roster.
4. Week 10 – @ Los Angeles Rams
This could turn out to be one of the Dolphins’ easiest games in the 2016 season, which says something about the strength of their schedule. Yet, that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that this should be the perfect opportunity for Miami to show off an offense that, in theory, should be a well-oiled machine at this point in the season.
Even though the recently relocated Rams ranked only 23rd in total defense last season, it was mostly due to an unbelievably inept offense that couldn’t manage to sustain drives long enough to keep their counterparts off the field. In actuality, Los Angeles is the home of a defensive unit that is loaded with talent. Even after Janoris Jenkins’ departure, Aaron Donald, Trumaine Johnson, Alec Ogeltree, etc. are sure to pick up the slack.
For this reason, the Rams seem like the perfect opponent in which to measure Miami’s offensive improvement. Head coach Adam Gase worked wonders with Jay Cutler & Co. in Chicago and has the talent in place to do the same in Miami. The key could turn out to be offensive line play; how does Miami’s revamped position group fare against Los Angeles’ stellar front seven?
While that may be the main storyline, there are plenty of other aspects that should intrigue us as well. Will Jared Goff be able to take advantage of a secondary that many expect to continue to struggle despite added talent? It is unknown when Goff will officially supplant Nick Foles of his starting duties, but if the Rams haven’t began to show off the new face of their franchise by Week 10 then something must be seriously wrong. Bryon Maxwell and Xavien Howard will face off against a few of the league’s best passing offenses prior to this matchup, but it will be up to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to get the best out of his defensive backfield against the rookie play caller.
Finally, there should be a major focus on Gase at this point in the season. After an undeniably tough start to his tenure in Miami, weeks 10-12 (against the Chargers, Rams, and 49ers) is by far the easiest stretch of the season and could therefore be essential to inspiring optimism heading into year two. How he handles the team’s time on the West Coast will be very telling about his ability to lead.
3. Week 9 – vs. New York Jets
If the first half of the season goes as expected, then this could turn out to be the most important game of the season for the young Dolphins’ squad. The first showdown of the season against their division rival, the New York Jets, comes right after the bye week. They could need this game to gain momentum as they head into the stretch of winnable games that I previously discussed.
Unfortunately it is difficult to know how the Jets are going to play in 2016. They were nearly led to last year’s playoffs by then starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, as we all know by now, he is still inexplicably jobless well into the offseason. Having Fitzpatrick back in the fold would surely make this matchup much, much easier for the Jets, but by no means would they be a lock to win. Miami will be motivated to notch their first signature win under Gase and well rested after a much needed week off. Motivated and rested sounds like the perfect recipe for an upset to me, plus they should benefit greatly from the support of their home crowd in a rivalry game.
Overlooked in this matchup could be Matt Forte’s desire to beat his former coach. Gase only coached him for one season, and in that season he actually gave some of Forte’s playing time to blooming star Jeremy Langford.
Forte now finds himself in New York and could be looking to prove to his old leader that he still has plenty left in the tank. While everyone has focused on the Dolphins’ lackluster pass defense, the linebackers struggled just as much against the run in 2015. Kiko Alonso should definitely help in this regard, but how much he will help is obviously unknown. Miami’s run defense will have tough tests well before Week 9 (including the aforementioned Le’Veon Bell), but Forte’s versatility and prior history with Gase add another dimension to an already heated rivalry.
2. Week 7 – vs. Buffalo Bills
This matchup seems very similar in importance to the one I just discussed: rivalry game, chance for a signature win, and opportunity to gain momentum. Sound familiar? The problem is this game should be significantly harder to win for Miami. They won’t be rested and face a team that they have had a ridiculous amount of trouble against recently.
The Dolphins’ most obvious weaknesses last season seemed even more accentuated against the Buffalo Bills: terrible coaching in addition to indescribably bad play by the linebackers and cornerbacks. This is the team’s first opportunity to make up for the absolutely embarrassing performances last season against their AFC East counterparts.
The energy should be there for sure. At the very least, Adam Gase, Vance Joseph, and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen will have the troops pumped up and ready to play. While that doesn’t mean the results will follow, it will at least be an improvement over the effort they gave last season.
It will be essential for the defense to prevent big plays this time around as well. The linebackers have to take advantage of the attention given to the defensive linemen, and Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, and Isa-Abdull Quddus have to give Reshad Jones adequate assistance in the secondary. I have faith in the offense putting enough points on the board to be competitive, but if the defense isn’t ready to step up then Miami has no chance. It will be up to Gase to create a winning mindset and culture that is capable of withstanding the physicality that Rex Ryan has used to overwhelm the team in the past. It will be interesting to see how the team steps up at an absolutely critical point in the season.
1. Week 2 – @ New England Patriots
How could this not be first on the list? There are very few times when Miami actually has a chance to beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium, but remove Tom Brady from the equation and you have a chance. Even without Brady, Miami will be going up against Rob Gronkowski and Bill Bellichek. In other words, still no easy task.
However, if Gase is able to march into New England and come out with a win in just his second game as part of Miami’s organization, there will be very high hopes for the first time head coach. Suddenly, the first half of the schedule doesn’t seem as daunting anymore.
If they’re going to win this game, Gase and Joseph will have to prove themselves capable as head coach and defensive coordinator much earlier than expected. Bellichek is going to have the perfect game plan to overcome the loss of his Hall of Fame quarterback, and Jimmy Garrapalo is no slouch. Gase will be forced to put his offense in position to make big plays, and Joseph will be tasked with limiting Gronkowski and forcing Garrapalo into a few turnovers. Play calling will therefore be crucial on both sides of the ball.
Obviously, rivalry games always carry intensity unlike other games; there is a reason the top three teams on this list are all part of the AFC East. Nonetheless, this matchup carries even more weight than usual. It is the type of game that could allow the Dolphins to shock their doubters. When the schedule was first released, there was virtually no way that they could steal a win against the Patriots in Week 2, but then word came of Brady’s suspension and now things don’t seem so sure. Will Miami be able to take advantage of the opportunity? Only time will tell.