Coming off two consecutive wins, the Miami Dolphins will host the San Diego Chargers in Week 9 of the 2014 NFL season. The Dolphins have an opportunity to show that they’re a legitimate playoff contender with a win against a talented Chargers team, and Miami holds the upper hand since the Chargers are traveling to Miami for the showdown.
To win the game, certain Dolphins must be able to win individual matchups. Below are four such matchups in which Miami needs to hold its own or prevail if it is to successfully defend against a very good Chargers offense and move the ball against a banged-up San Diego defense.
Don’t forget to post the matchups that you’ll be watching in the comments section below.
Reshad Jones vs. Antonio Gates
For Miami’s defense, guarding tight end Antonio Gates has to be the top priority. The future Hall of Famer has aged incredibly well, as he’s produced 417 yards and nine touchdowns on just 32 receptions this season, per pro-football-reference.com. Bottling up Gates is going to be a very difficult challenge for the Dolphins.
That’s why Reshad Jones should be called upon to defend Gates. Since returning to the lineup, Jones has been one of the better safeties in the NFL. His ability to anticipate where receivers are running has been a needed boost for the Dolphins defense.
Jones isn’t an ideal matchup against Gates, as the 6’4″, 260-pound Gates uses his bulk to box out defenders and make catches in traffic. Jones gives up a lot of size to Gates, meaning that San Diego QB Philip Rivers is likely to target Gates a lot. But using Jones on the veteran TE is a better option than linebacker Philip Wheeler, and putting Jones on Gates means that outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins can focus on containing Branden Oliver.
What could happen is that Jones will cover Gates for a majority of San Diego’s passing plays, and the remaining coverage snaps will go to linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and, if he plays, Koa Misi. That scenario is better than any alternative the Dolphins have for single coverage on the all-time playmaker. If Jones can limit Gates to a few catches, minimize the tight end’s yardage after the catch and keep him out of the end zone, the Dolphins’ chances to win the game will be significantly higher.
Jared Odrick vs. Chad Rinehart
Another week, another major advantage the Dolphins have in the trenches. Pointing out that defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon will have a strong game is too obvious, so it’s time to give defensive tackle Jared Odrick time in the spotlight.
Odrick has been excellent for the Dolphins in a contract year, eating up blocks so that the Dolphins’ edge-rushers face single blockers and penetrating interior gaps en route to eight tackles and three passes defensed. His statistics aren’t Pro Bowl-worthy, but his production has been key for the Dolphins.
Rinehart is the left guard for the Chargers, and he’s been downright terrible this season. His Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade of minus-9.2 is the 68th best among all qualifying guards, and he’s been equally bad whether run or pass-blocking.
That means Odrick will need to dominate when he’s matched up with Rinehart.
Kendall Reyes vs. Mike Pouncey
Like Rinehart, Reyes is currently graded by PFF as one of the worst starters in the NFL. A left defensive end in San Diego’s 3-4 defense, Reyes will be facing Miami right guard Mike Pouncey on Sunday. Reyes’ PFF grade of minus-15.1 is 48th in the league—or second to last among all ends.
Pouncey played a better game against the Jacksonville Jaguars than his previous two games back from injury, which was expected as the center gets back into football shape and acclimates to a new position. If Pouncey can handle Reyes in one-on-one matchups, it will limit the number of San Diego rushers coming free through the line.
It’s Reyes’ job to demand double teams as a 3-4 end, which would then leave linebackers to shoot the gaps that have been opened by the lineman. But if he is unable to do so, the Dolphins’ offensive line is in a much more advantageous position.
That must happen for Miami’s ground game to get back on track this week.
Ryan Tannehill vs. Chargers Secondary
The Dolphins are playing the Chargers at an opportune time, as the San Diego defense will potentially have to play without its top two cornerbacks. According to Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo, stud rookie cornerback Jason Verrett could miss significant time after reinjuring his shoulder against the Broncos in Week 8.
Brandon Flowers also could miss the game, although Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk said the veteran corner has a “decent” chance to play against Miami. Even if Flowers can overcome his concussion and participate, expect Miami to target him if he’s lined up against Mike Wallace in man coverage. Flowers is tough and quick but does not have the downfield speed needed to cover Wallace on comebacks, crosses or deep routes.
San Diego has one of the top free safeties in the league in Eric Weddle, so Tannehill will need to be wary of his location every play. He is often in single-high coverage, and is able to make up a lot of ground quickly if he’s tested.
Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline has struggled mightily this season, and saw his snap count dip against Jacksonville in favor of Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews. Whether he’s the No. 2 receiver or it is someone else, they must be more productive and reliable than what Miami has gotten out of that position recently.
This should be a week where the Dolphins offense mirrors its play against the Oakland Raiders and its second-half performance against the Green Bay Packers. The Chargers are banged up and lack the pass-rushers to create enough pressure on Tannehill and the running game.
It’s time for the Dolphins to show that they are one of the better teams in the AFC, and a win in these matchups will be major factors in whether that happens. On Thursday we will look at a specific game plan to beat the Chargers.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus’ Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth.