Sizing up Sundays game between the Eagles (4-8) and Miami Dolphins (4-8) at Sun Life Stadium, Miami.
When the Eagles have the ball
Mike Vick will return at quarterback and Jeremy Maclin will be back at wide receiver, so the Eagles have their offense intact for the first time in awhile. Thats the good news. The bad news is they are up against a Miami defense that is playing as well as any defense in the league.
The Dolphins are on a roll, winning four of their last five games after an 0-7 start. The key to the hot streak is a defense that has allowed an average of 10.8 points in the five games. The Dolphins did not allow a touchdown in 13 consecutive quarters during the streak and last week they smacked down Oakland, 34-14, and held the Raiders to 46 yards rushing.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Philadelphia sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Miami ranks fifth in the league in rush defense, allowing an average of 93 yards per game (3.7 yards per carry). They rank 24th against the pass, however, and that is usually the cue for Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg to ignore the run (and LeSean McCoy) and throw the ball all day. Thats what I expect Sunday, especially with Vick and Maclin back in the lineup.
The biggest factor in Miamis run defense is its biggest player, tackle Paul Soliai. He is 6-4 and listed at 355 pounds but he appears even heavier than that. To show how much the team values Soliai, they put the franchise tag on him. He is earning 12 million this year, making him the highest paid defensive player in Dolphins history. They think he is worth every penny.
Soliai ranks with Haloti Ngata (Baltimore) as the best defensive tackle in the league. The only difference between the two is Ngata can play every snap, while Soliai will come off the field in passing situations to catch his breath. But they are the same kind of player, a dominant force against the run, tying up blockers and allowing the linebackers to flow to the football.
Miami has two good inside linebackers, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, but they can usually be found riding on the ample back side of Soliai while he clears the way for them to make the tackle. Rookie center Jason Kelce, who is playing well, faces a real challenge this week. Soliai outweighs Kelce by at least 80 pounds. It will be very hard for Kelce to get any push against Soliai even if he has double-team help from guard Danny Watkins.
I still believe the Eagles can have some success running the football because their best running play is the stretch. The line is getting better at blocking this play, which is why McCoy is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. With McCoy running to the edge, it forces the defensive line to move laterally. That means the hulking Soliai would have to run from hash mark to hash mark instead of just anchoring his wide body in the middle. That will make him easier to block and also tire him out faster.
Im just throwing it out there, but I really dont expect Reid and Mornhinweg to go there. I think they will come out throwing the ball, especially now that Vick and Maclin are back on the field. Miami has two good cornerbacks, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, and a good pass rusher in linebacker Cameron Wake (6.5 sacks). Jason Taylor, who has been around forever, is back with the Dolphins as a nickel pass rusher (four sacks).
When the Dolphins have the ball
Reggie Bush has contributed to Miamis resurgence. The former USC star, who saw his role diminish in New Orleans was traded to the Dolphins, and did very little early in the season. He had six carries for 18 yards against Houston, 10 carries for 13 yards against Cleveland and so on. Meanwhile, the team kept losing.
But when Matt Moore replaced Chad Henne at quarterback, the offense changed and the coaches decided to see what Bush could do with a heavier workload. Bush has responded by rushing for 667 yards, a career high. He had 22 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown in last weeks win over the Raiders.
In Miamis current 4-1 spurt, Bush has scored a touchdown in each of the four victories. The only game in which he didnt score was the one game Miami lost20-19 at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
The Eagles defense had shown some improvement against the run, but it was shredded once again in Seattle as Marshawn Lynch rolled up 148 yards on 22 carries, a 4.8 yard average. If the Eagles tackle as poorly in Miami as they did in Seattle, Bush could have a huge game because he is the most explosive back they have faced all season.
The Dolphins use three different backs. Bush gets most of the carries, but when head coach Tony Sparano wants more power he sends in rookie Daniel Thomas, a 6-0, 230-pounder from Kansas State. When it is short yardage, Sparano calls on Lex Hilliard, who is perfect (7 for 7) in picking up the first down on third-and-one.
Bush is also a dangerous receiver (35 catches) and with his speed he could hit some big plays in the passing game because the Eagles linebackers cant stay with him in coverage.
Moore was beaten into the ground during last seasons 2-14 disaster in Carolina, but the five-year veteran has found new life in Miami. He is playing more than respectablyhe is the 10th-ranked passer in the leaguecompleting 61 percent of his attempts. Most of all, he is not making mistakes. He has not thrown an interception in the last three games, while passing for five touchdowns.
The Dolphins best receiver is Brandon Marshall, who has the size (6-4, 230) and speed to light up the Eagles secondary. This is one of those games where you would expect to see cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha covering Marshall one-on-one from first snap to last, but defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has rarely done that. It would make sense, however. Arizonas Larry Fitzgerald made a joke of the Eagles coverage (seven catches, 146 yards, two touchdowns) last month and Marshall could do the same.
The Eagles lost their best special teams player, Colt Anderson, in the Seattle game so the coverage units, which have been solid all seasonthird in the league on punts, fourth on kickoffswill take a hit. Thats not good news because Miami has two dangerous return men, Davone Bess (10.8 yards on punts) and rookie Edmund Gates (24.9 on kickoffs).
Miami has the edge in the kicking department. Punter Brandon Fields ranks fourth in the league with a 40.4 yard net average. He has placed 25 punts inside the 20-yard line, most in the NFL. Placekicker Dan Carpenter made 18 of his last 19 field goal attempts.
These are two teams with identical 4-8 records but they are going in opposite directions. The Dolphins started the season with seven consecutive losses but they have rallied and now are playing well. The Eagles, who started the season with inflated expectations, have been a total flop. The listless performance in Seattle was an embarrassment.
The Dolphins finally have regained their home-field advantage, winning three in a row at Sun Life Stadium, defeating Oakland, Buffalo and Washington. Prior to that, they lost 12 of 13 games at home dating back to the 2009 season. The Eagles do not have a great track record in Miami, losing five of six games. The only victory came on the last trip, a 34-27 win in 2003.
Vicks return may give the Eagles a lift, but how long will it last if he is ineffective? The Dolphins arent great, but at least it appears they still care. Thats more than I can say for the Eagles.
Dolphins 24, Eagles 17.
E-mail Ray Didinger at email@example.com.