Pivotal Matchups: Five Best Individual Showdowns for Dolphins Players in 2016
Odell Beckham Jr. versus Josh Norman. It turned out to be one of the most intense, explosive and entertaining one-on-one matchups in recent memory. More importantly, they helped draw attention to the individual showdowns that are often overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Fans understandably care about the end result of each game above all else, but ignoring the player vs. player face-offs that directly affect these outcomes is foolish. It would be misguided to expect a clash like that of Beckham vs. Norman every week. However, when the league’s finest are put up against each other, games are decided and magic is often made. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at a handful of the most pivotal individual matchups lined up in the Dolphins’ 2016 schedule.
Jarvis Landry (WR) vs. Tyrann Mathieu (CB/S, Arizona)
Leaving Jarvis Landry off of a list of Miami’s top individual matchups for the upcoming season would be absolutely criminal, especially considering the defensive talent that the Dolphins are set to face throughout 2016. After all, Landry has been one of the few bright spots in what has been a horrific stretch of seasons in South Beach, and he should continue to be one of the best players on the field for head coach Adam Gase.
Assuming defensive back Tyrann Mathieu recovers nicely from his second ACL surgery, he should once again be in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year race. He is, quite possibly, the most versatile defender in the league, with the ability to play safety and nickel cornerback in addition to his work on the outside. This suits him perfectly for a potential showdown with Landry. Landry had the third most receiving yards out of the slot in 2015 and Mathieu had the most interceptions while covering the slot. In other words, they should be seeing plenty of each other come December.
In the play below, Landry runs a nearly flawless out-route. The corner is thrown completely off balance, the pass is completed easily and Landry avoids every Texan defender on the way to the goal line:
On the other hand, Mathieu’s hip fluidity and short area quickness suggest that he should be a fantastic match for Landry. Plus as we all know by now, the player formerly known as “the honey badger” has special playmaking ability. His skillset often makes it seem like he is the receiver once the ball is in the air. Take this next clip for example:
Additionally, Mathieu’s versatility should suit him well in this matchup as Gase attempts to get creative with his employment of Landry next season. With the “see ball, get ball” mentality that both players exhibit on the field week in and week out, this could be one of the more entertaining one-on-on matchups of the Dolphins’ season.
Mario Williams (DE) vs. Joe Thomas (OT, Cleveland)
This is a matchup that we’ve had the pleasure of seeing before. In 2014, Mario Williams got the best of Joe Thomas, forcing the All-Pro offensive tackle into two holding penalties and consistently wreaking havoc in the backfield despite failing to record a sack.
However, that one poor performance should take nothing away from what Thomas has accomplished in his career. Just last year in his ninth season, Thomas allowed just 24 quarterback pressures out of a whopping 705 snaps in pass protection according to PFF. This gave him the league’s best pass protection grade among offensive tackles. Since arriving in Cleveland, Thomas has been one of the few elite options on the roster.
With that being said, Williams should be more than a worthy opponent. Perhaps Miami’s biggest acquisition of the offseason, the former Bill was brought in to stabilize a defensive end position that was facing a ton of questions heading into the summer. Now, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph plans to use Mario Williams to create as much pressure as possible off the edge.
One aspect I will be looking out for is the potential implementation of the Wide-9 defense. Thomas has superb footwork, an absolute must when protecting against the Wide-9. While the defense in the next example is not set up in that specific technique, his ability to stick with the speed rush here would suit him extremely well if Joseph chooses to slide Williams out wide:
Williams undoubtedly has enough variety in his pass-rushing arsenal to cause trouble for Thomas, but the fact that neither has a clear advantage makes this an exciting head-to-head matchup. With Joseph hoping his front seven is one of the most aggressive in the league, Williams will likely be at the forefront, and Thomas may be his toughest opponent of 2016.
DeVante Parker (WR) vs. Richard Sherman (CB, Seattle)
While the Dolphins have a chance to win the aforementioned matchup with the Browns, Week 1’s game against the Seahawks leaves a very low level of hope. All of the cards are stacked against them. Not only is there an obvious talent difference between the two teams, but also it is Week 1, and the game will take place in Seattle. The “12th man” is going to be unbelievably pumped up and ready to make an impact. For this reason, I didn’t choose to include DeVante Parker and Richard Sherman believing that it could have a real outcome on the game. Instead, I see it as a way to measure Parker’s progress.
By now, we know how talented Sherman is: arguably the best outside corner in the game. He consistently shuts down even the most elite receivers. For this reason alone, expectations probably shouldn’t be very high for Parker heading into Week 1. Yet that doesn’t mean Parker can’t surprise us.
The young wide receiver’s development was momentarily stunted as a rookie, plagued by a foot injury that kept him sidelined for five weeks. Upon his return, he burst onto the scene, totaling at least 80 receiving yards and a touchdown in all but one of his final six games. Perhaps more significantly, he has now kept the momentum going well into the offseason. He has been described as the star of Dolphins’ camp so far, reportedly making consistently impressive plays over Miami’s cornerbacks. As such, he can now firmly be seen as the team’s biggest breakout candidate in 2016. If the plays below suggest anything, it’s that he may be a star sooner rather than later:
At the very least, Parker is going to be Miami’s best deep threat for years to come. His matchup against Sherman is going to be extremely telling. If he can manage to beat him on even a couple of plays, Dolphins’ fans should be excited for the rest of the season. Miami may not come out with a win, but the face-off between Parker and Sherman could create a ton of optimism heading into the critical showdown in New England.
Reshad Jones (S) vs. Rob Gronkowski (TE, New England)
Teams consistently struggle to find players that can successfully cover Rob Gronkowski. He is widely seen as the biggest mismatch creator in the NFL, as he is bigger than most defensive backs and faster than most linebackers. Gronk is the type of player that forces defenses to devote a ton of attention toward stopping him. Fortunately for Miami, Reshad Jones always seems willing to take on the challenge.
The 6’1”, 214-pound safety thrived on the back end of Miami’s defense in 2015. Jones was the only player in the NFL to tally upwards of 100 tackles and five interceptions last season. This is important on a few levels. First of all, he obviously has solid coverage and playmaking abilities based on the takeaways. As I explained earlier however, very few are successful in completely slowing down Gronk. Similarly, there have been plenty of times in which defenders seem to have him contained but fail miserably when attempting to bring him down. As the leader among NFL defensive backs in tackles, there isn’t a cornerback or safety better suited to drag down Gronk once the ball is in his possession.
One of the most important aspects of Gronkowski’s game is his ability in the red zone. His size and speed combined with his physicality make him nearly impossible to defend even with the shortened field. There is a reason he trails only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates in career touchdowns among tight ends. While Jones actually stands five inches shorter than Gronk, he plays bigger than his height on tape and has displayed a nose for the football while defending inside the 20-yard line.
Football fans should feel blessed to be able to see this individual matchup twice each season. However, we should really be focusing on the Week 2 game for the Dolphins. With Brady suspended, Jimmy Garoppolo will be the quarterback trying to get the ball into Gronk’s hands and, although Garoppolo is extremely talented, it is an obvious break that Miami (and Jones) will be looking to take advantage of. If they are successful in slowing Gronk down, Miami fans could be treated to a win against the rival Patriots.
Ryan Tannehill (QB) vs. Ryan Shazier (LB, Pittsburgh)
A lot has been made out of Tannehill taking complete control over the offense. Gase trusts his developing quarterback to make the right decisions at the line of scrimmage: adjust routes and protections, or call a new play all together. Ryan Tannehill has previously discussed his lack of freedom in the offense last season, citing the tempo of Bill Lazor’s scheme as the primary reason, but that no longer should be an issue. Gase has given Tannehill a lot of power and has worked closely with him throughout the offseason and training camp to ensure he is ready for the responsibility.
In many ways, Ryan Shazier is in the same situation for Pittsburgh’s defense. He too has recently been given the keys to his unit, taking the reigns away from veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons part way through 2015. Shazier now seems more comfortable than ever, calling changes out for the defense and consistently putting himself and his teammates in the right positions to make plays. Considering the Steelers’ struggles in pass defense last season, the switch to the amazingly athletic Shazier was a much-needed change on defense. While almost all of the attention this season will be focused on Pittsburgh’s potentially record-breaking offense, this Week 6 matchup will be a fantastic test for Tannehill.
As seen above, Shazier relies heavily on his instincts. How Tannehill handles going through his progressions despite Shazier flying around the field is going to be very telling. Additionally, Tannehill’s choices at the line of scrimmage should be examined under a microscope against this opponent. The Steelers’ run defense was superb this past year, but that doesn’t mean Miami should completely abandon the run like they did for much of 2015. While the play calling obviously falls on Gase above everyone else, how Tannehill handles his adjustments at the line should speak volumes about his development and about the team’s potential in the second half of the season.