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Keys to the Game: Miami Dolphins vs. Indianapolis Colts

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Indianapolis Colts v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts head into today’s match up with the Miami Dolphins as one of the hottest teams in the league. The offense has averaged 36 points per game over the last 5 weeks. Over the span, Andrew Luck has not been sacked. Over that span, removing kneel downs to close out games, Indianapolis has generated 769 yards in 139 carries on the ground. This is an average of 154 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.

The... offense... is... rolling.

This week the offensive line will have to do without Ryan Kelly, who will miss time with a sprained MCL. His replacement, Evan Boehm, has looked good in his limited opportunities but continuity is so important for the offensive line and changes can certainly increase the chances of seeing the sack-less streak come to an end, or start to show some chinks in the run game.

The upside? The Miami Dolphins defense will feel like a break compared to the defenses the Colts recently faced. As a team, Miami has generated only 17 sacks on the season — good for 29th in the NFL. Their rush defense allows an average of 142 yards per game. If there was ever a game that Boehm needed to work his way into the rotation, this would be a good option.

The Colts defense has been inconsistent over the same five game stretch. There have been examples where the unit played very fast and frustrated their opponents. They put together a whole game against the Titans, a dominant first half against Jacksonville, and harassed the Derek Anderson led Bills. They also allowed the Jets to look like offensive juggernauts and allowed the Raiders to stay in the game through three quarters, with Derek Carr looking like one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league (he actually has been).

The weakest area for the defense all season has been a suspect secondary. This is partially due to a lack of top end talent, partially due to injuries, and partially the nature of the Tampa 2 defense. The bend but don’t break mentality will tend to allow short passes. It is all about limiting or eliminating big plays on the back end and reducing yards after the catch.

The good news for the secondary is that the Dolphins come into the game averaging only 207 yards per game through the air, ranked 26th in the NFL. The bad news is that this ranks higher than the Bills, Titans, and Jets. Also, Ryan Tannehill is expected to return to the field after working his way back from injury. On the positive side, again, is that Tannehill is remarkably similar to Marcus Mariota when both are completely healthy. In some respects, this should feel like a repeat of the first half a week ago.

As for the rush defense, this is another relatively positive match up. The run defense is ranked 14th in the NFL in yards per game but is tied for 6th in yards per carry allowed at 3.9 yards. The best rush defenses in the NFL have allowed 3.6 yards per carry. The Dolphins? They enter the game as the 21st ranked rush offense in the league, averaging 105.9 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.

The downside for the Colts is that Frank Gore will be returning to Indianapolis and, respect or no, will feel compelled to let everyone know that it was a mistake to not bring him back. He has a knack for picking up difficult yards and while he is no longer a huge threat to break off a big play, he is still one of the best in the NFL at getting the most out of each opportunity. His counterpart Kenyan Drake is underwhelming as a rusher but has been very active in the passing game.

Remember the weakness of the Tampa 2? Expect that Drake could catch a lot of balls on screens or as a check down. He is athletic enough to do damage if he can make someone miss.

Ultimately, the Colts should be heavily favored to win, despite the fact that the two teams enter the game with .500 records. Miami’s offense isn’t nearly as explosive as Indy’s. Defensively, both teams are inconsistent. The Colts are carrying in a head of steam but the Dolphins are coming off of their bye and should be fresh. Miami is also getting their starting quarterback back from injury.

Let’s take a look at the keys to the game.


ESTABLISH THE RUNNING GAME

While the Colts have been so prolific passing the ball that it makes this appear trivial, it’s important that Indianapolis run the ball against opponents who are particularly susceptible on the ground. Before their bye in Week 9, the Colts put together back-to-back 200+ rushing yard games. Since the bye, things have slowed down considerably. Marlon Mack hasn’t been as effective and Nyheim Hines hasn’t looked as dynamic.

The offense needs to find a way to maintain both phases of the game. Evan Boehm’s job will be made a lot easier if the Dolphins are forced to honor the running game. If you want to keep Luck upright and keep the sack-less streak alive, run the ball.


KEEP THE PRESSURE COMING

After failing to effectively generate a pass rush for weeks, Matt Eberflus dialed up pressure against the Titans. Marcus Mariota took such a beating that he was unable to finish the game. The speed of the defensive line and well-timed blitzes from the corners and linebackers created negative plays and opportunities for turnovers.

There is no doubt that Tennehill is would prefer to not immediately find his way back to the trainer’s room. He will be susceptible to pressure in his face and may be quick to avoid it in the pocket. The results could be quite favorable. This will be the first game where every one of the Colts primary pass rushing threats will be available in the same game. Ballard says he wants to throw the defensive line at opponents in waves.

Let’s see what that looks like.


THE GHOST NEEDS TO MAKE ANOTHER APPEARANCE

T.Y. Hilton has not had as prolific of a season in 2018 as he has had in the past when Andrew Luck is healthy. There are a lot of reasons. He is drawing the top defensive back for each opponent, often draws double teams, he has very little by way of other threats in the receiver room to draw attention away from him, and Frank Reich’s offense is more heavily tilted to quick release passes. Hilton is a deep threat. These attributes conflict.

However, the Colts offensive line is protecting Luck at historic levels. He has more time to sit in the pocket and allow routes to develop than he has at any other time in his career. This should make Hilton even more dangerous.

Tight ends Mo Alie-Cox and Erik Swoope are both unable to go today. This could limit the tight end heavy approach Reich has used throughout much of the season. Someone has to make up for that production in the traditional passing game and it would be nice to see the Luck-Hilton connection keep rolling as the team heads into the the back half of their divisional schedule.


CATCH THE DAMN BALL

This will stay a recurring theme in our keys to the game. The reality is that batted passes have gone for back-breaking interceptions too often this season. Dropped passes have ended drives and killed momentum. Early in the season, Zach Pascal had a lot of struggles. Now, Nyheim Hines has regularly put the ball on the ground.

Hines has a great deal of potential in Reich’s system. If he can put it all together and start hauling in easy passes, he has the opportunity to fill an important offensive role. He can be become a Darren Sproles, Austin Ekeler, Dion Lewis type of weapon. This is only possible if Luck and Reich feel he is reliable.

He has work to do in this area.


AGGRESSIVE PLAY IN THE SECONDARY

One of the most confusing parts of the Tampa 2 defense for fans is that it often appears like players give so much cushion that Matt Eberflus’ plan is to allow long, time-killing drives down the field. This is partially true, the defense is predicated on the idea that the more plays an opponent has to make on offense, the more likely it is to take advantage of a mistake. This is also partially a function of players who need to be very quick to react and come downhill to separate an intended receiver from the ball or to jump into passing lanes to create turnovers.

If players in the secondary can become comfortable playing together and more quickly read the quarterback’s eyes, they can do more damage and the cushion will be gone by the time the ball arrives. Kenny Moore II has made a couple of plays in this regard sitting in his zone, breaking on the ball to cut a tight end in half or to pick off a pass. Malik Hooker came all the way across the field to pick off a pass intended for his deep half of the field.

Separating receivers from the ball on passes and doling out punishment on each attempt can be as demoralizing and effective as batting a pass down in the air. Over the course of a game, this will help increase the chances of creating turnovers as offensive players brace for the hit. To accomplish this, the players must react early and stay aggressive.