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Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans

Remember way back (five weeks ago) when everyone, including me, thought the Miami Dolphins were a playoff contender and possibly a 10-win team? Back then, this Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans was supposed to be a walk on a cake, as you Americans like to say.

Well, the Dolphins instead are eating humble pie after four weeks and their bye. They're 1-3. The head coach got fired. The defensive coordinator got fired. The running game is second-worst in the NFL. The run defense is worst in the NFL.

Oh no, we suck again!

Anyway, the hope for Dolphins fans and the organization is that playing the struggling Titans, a team that hasn't won at home in a year -- they were 1-7 at home last year and are 0-2 there this year -- will cure a batch of ills for Miami.

But then I did the matchups below. And slowly this began to feel like a hard-fought game on the horizon even though the Titans are also 1-3. This promises to be a tough one that may require fourth-quarter heroics, folks.


When the Dolphins pass the football: The Dolphins stressed competition in practice this week but what good is competition if there is no prize for winning? Well, the right to play is the prize and Kenny Stills seems to have won that after a good game against the New York Jets and good week of practice. So Stills is expected to make his first Dolphins start ahead of Greg Jennings. The entire Miami offense has been under fire for being pass-heavy and that might not be the best approach this week because the Titans have the NFL's No. 1-ranked pass defense. This team attacks the quarterback, which is the reason Tennessee is first in the NFL in sacks per pass play, and is the third-best defense in third-down efficiency. Dolphins receivers have 10 drops this year. That's one-third as much as all of last year and we're only a quarter of the season in. And remember the group that dropped those passes last year got blown out of town. Just saying. ADVANTAGE: Tennessee.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins are making changes along the offensive line with Billy Turner expected to start at right guard after watching Jamil Douglas play the position the first four games. The idea is to make the Miami front more aggressive and physical. The Dolphins seem to be in major need of committing more to the running game. They are 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game but are 10th in rushing yards per attempt. Simple math suggests more rushes will address the sagging rush attack. This is especially true against a team that struggles to stop the run. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Titans pass the football:  Quarterback Marcus Mariota, the team's first round pick, and rookie receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who is 6-5 and 237 pounds with sprinter's speed, were supposed to combine to transform the Tennessee passing game. It has not quite worked out yet. While Mariota has been careful with the football and has only three interceptions, he is missing reads that would lead to big plays in the passing game. Green-Beckham, meanwhile, has all of three catches. This passing game relies more on the safer passes to tight end Delanie Walker and possession receiver Kendall Wright. The Dolphins are hoping to unleash what is supposed to be a very good pass rush which so far has been disappointing. The status of cornerback Brent Grimes, meanwhile, bears watching because while he is expected to play, he definitely is not 100 percent after praining an MCL ligament two weeks ago. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Titans run the football: Quickly, name the starting running back for Tennessee. Eddie George? Chris Johnson? Nope, Bishop Sankey, a second-year former second-round pick from Washington. Sankey isn't big like George or exceedingly fast like Johnson. But he's solid as his 4.1 yard per carry average suggests. The versatile Dexter McCluster is the change-of-pace back who is also a threat out of the backfield. The Tennessee running game has been middle of the road (ranked 14th) but it has more than enough potential to threaten a Dolphins defense that so far this season is ranked last in the NFL against the run.  The fewest rushing yards the Dolphins have allowed in any game this season? It was 123 yards against Jacksonville. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: The Titans are last in the NFL in gross punting but have the best field goal percentage in the NFL. The team that once authored the Music City Miracle on a kickoff return has been unspectacular in both punt and kickoff returns. Dolphins rookie punter Matt Darr leads in the NFL in net punting average. One issue with the Miami special teams: Too many penalties. Those need to be cleaned up. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Ken Whisenhunt is in his second season with his second team as head coach and has yet to gain the traction he's hoped for. The Titans are usually well prepared and start fast and come out of the halftime locker room with good adjustments, as evidenced by their 38-7 third-quarter scoring advantage. But the team simply has not succeeded in closing out games -- losing two times this season after leading in the fourth quarter. Dan Campbell is Miami's new interim head coach and his staff is remade with a new defensive coordinator, new offensive assistants and new vibe. The question is can he get the most out of what is supposed to be a talented roster? It was an assignment predecessor Joe Philbin failed to accomplish. ADVANTAGE: Tennessee.