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Keys to the game: Dolphins versus Falcons

As I said on my NFL Network segment Friday evening, the Falcons promised to be a bangin' team this season. Now, they're mostly a banged up team.

Kroy Biermann is out, Sean Weatherspoon is out, Steven Jackson is out and news came Friday that left tackle Sam Baker is out. Meanwhile, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are questionable and although they are expected to play, they clearly are not 100 percent.

So who has the edge?


When the Dolphins pass the football: The Dolphins have shown in the first two games they can put
a diverse passing game on the field. They can beat you with Brian Hartline leading the way. They can beat you with Mike Wallace leading the way. And, increasingly, Charles Clay is becoming a weapon for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The only issue in the passing game so far has been the ability to keep
Tannehill healthy. He’s been sacked nine times in two games and that is no way to have your starting quarterback live. At that rate, Tannehill would be sacked 72 times in 2013. The most sacks the Dolphins have ever allowed in a season is 53 in 1969. Osi Umenyiora is the most accomplished pass rusher for the Falcons but he doesn’t have a sack this season. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins averaged 3.7 yards per rush last week against
Indianapolis and that was considered an epiphany. That speaks to how far the Dolphins have yet to go before they feel comfortable with their running game. Simply, it is not very good right now and has a long way to go to be merely mediocre. Blocking has to get better. Running has to get better. The Falcons are rated ninth in the NFL in rush defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan stresses the importance of stopping the run, but without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Kroy Biermann in the lineup this week due to injuries the challenge grows. ADVANTAGE: Falcons.

When the Falcons run the football: The Falcons didn’t scare anyone running the football the first two games and then they lost starting running back Steven Jackson to injury. Now a team that has gained only 62 yards rushing per game is without the player who was averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Atlanta must rely on Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers, who have 15 rushes between them. The Dolphins will be without defensive tackle Paul Soliai and that hurts because he’s their best interior run stopper. But because Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are on the roster, Miami loses very little in the starting lineup. The issue will show up in the drop in talent when the Dolphins substitute. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.

When the Falcons pass the football: Julio Jones is one of the NFL’s best and most explosive receivers. He is a matchup nightmare for the Dolphins. It also is troubling for Miami that Roddy White, although slowed by injury, is also talented while Harry Douglas has elite speed and is leading the team with a 17.0 yard per catch average. The problem for the Falcons is they’re having trouble protecting Matt Ryan. Ryan has been sacked five times, but he gets hit a lot more than that. And it gets worse: Starting left tackles Sam Baker is out this game. That means Lamar Holmes, a first-year starter, moves from right tackle to left tackle. Holmes, by the way, was starting at right tackle only because Mike Johnson was injured during training camp. And now he's the left tackle? Anyway, Jeremy Trueblood takes over the right tackle position, which is interesting because he wasn't even on the team three weeks ago and when he was signed it was for depth purposes. Now Trueblood matches up versus Cameron Wake. The Dolphins, meanwhile, rush the passer in waves led by Wake and Derrick Shelby. That’s right, Shelby. He has so far been the second-most productive Dolphins pass rusher. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.

Special teams: Matt Bryant can make the clutch kick as evidenced by his 49-yard game-winning field goal with 13 seconds to play in last year’s playoffs. But he is 38 years old and his range outdoors in the elements is a question. Matt Bosher, formerly of the University of Miami, leads the NFL in net punt average. The Dolphins have no issue in the kicking and punting department so far but need to get more production out of their returns. The Dolphins are 28th in the NFL in punt returns.

Coaching: Joe Philbin has his team playing at a high level as Miami is 2-0 for the first time since 2010 and this home opener will be a great opportunity to win the home crowd’s trust. The Miami staff must solve their team’s issues containing tight ends and fix the running game but has done a great job improving the passing game and defense against the pass so far this year. Mike Smith became Atlanta’s head coach in 2008 and has become among the most successful coaches since, compiling a 57-25 regular season record. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, no stranger to Dolphins fans, is excellent at resolving problems and hiding deficiencies. ADVANTAGE: Falcons.

Intangibles: Not having Soliai would be a big deal for the Dolphins but not nearly the issue the Falcons seem likely to have with the loss of Baker, Jackson, Weatherspoon, and Biermann. OVERALL ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.