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  Ten Keys to Success for 2010
    | Home | News Wire | Roster | Depth Chart | Schedule | Links |  
         

by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Over beers with friends, the subject of Sport is often discussed. This is not a homogenous discussion, for many of my friends come from different countries. Inevitably, American football (“football”) comes to task.

My take is that football is the greatest of team sports; eleven men on the field at once, all performing in precise coordination to achieve a desired goal. All must do their jobs well, or the team fails. My argument is that no other sport relies on this violent ballet to the degree that football does.

This is the idea of my annual Miami Dolphins “keys to success” column; to identify the most important things that will make the difference between team success and failure.

This season the Dolphins went through OTAs and training camp as a team looking to build on a solid veteran base. But that thinking went squarely out the door this past week, along with a shocking slew of cuts that dug sharply into the depth of the roster.

Today, only eight starters remain at their posts from 2009’s season opening crew. This is both unexpected and troubling, because it gives the appearance of a team still in the throes of rebuilding three years after the current regime took power.

Nevertheless, coach Tony Sparano has professed unwavering confidence in what he calls his most complete team as Dolphin coach. That profession of faith is a bit difficult for me and others to swallow, but that will be washed away if his team wins. This is how Sparano and the 2010 Dolphins will ultimately be judged.

And so, with the season opener on hand versus the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium (1pm ET, CBS), the time has come to share my ten “keys to success” for the 2010 Miami Dolphins.

1) Get a Fast Start

Under the first two years of the Sparano era, the Dolphins have started their campaigns 0-2 and 0-3. The result both times was an uphill grind that left the team 1-1 in terms of playoff berths. They cannot afford another slow start, not with three divisional games over the first four weeks and certainly not with the red hot Miami Heat starting their season in November, threatening to make a bad Dolphins team irrelevant before Thanksgiving.

2) QB Chad Henne

It’s Year Three for Henne and the time has come for us to find out if he is indeed the Chosen One, the man who will lead the Dolphins to their first world championship in 36 years. If he plays well, the Dolphins are talented enough to be a playoff team. If he is just average, the postseason will be a question mark through December and people will begin to doubt him.

3) The Cohesion of the Offensive Line

Sparano may be able to sleep at night, using the thick book of stats he compiled during the preseason as a pillow. But the cost in obtaining that information, so he could make the most well-informed player decisions possible, cost the offense dearly in terms of cohesion time and a stupid knee injury to LT Jake Long that could nag him all season. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning called it a “necessary evil”, but he and Sparano won’t be so dismissive if the line cannot protect Henne and is unable generate a respectable run game over the course of the next month. The line is the engine that makes the offense go; they need to quickly get it together or the season will be ruined before Halloween.

4) The Wildcat

If the Dolphins enjoy an unmatched advantage over the rest of the NFL, it’s that they run the Wildcat better than any other team. This season they take it up an extra notch with QB Tyler Thigpen, a legitimate dual threat triggerman, as well as WR Brandon Marshall, a man most teams cannot single cover. But it’s really Thigpen who will force defenses to back out of the 8 and 9 men fronts that opponents have employed to stop the Wildcat in the past. Expect to see broader use of the Wildcat at some point this season.

5) Manufacturing a Pass Rush for 16 Games

I use the verb “manufacture” because the Dolphins just aren’t talented enough to bring consistent heat out of base defensive looks. It will be up to coordinator Mike Nolan to employ a variety of blitzes and dogs to confuse and neutralize opposing quarterbacks and runners. I expect Nolan will have good success in doing this over the first half of the season. The worry is the second half, once opponents figure out the tricks. Will Nolan be able to keep opposing offenses guessing?

6) The Play of DBs Chris Clemons, Jason Allen, and Sean Smith

Clemons is the new starter at free safety, while Allen has surprisingly wrestled a starting CB job away from Smith. Clemons, though talented, is inexperienced. Allen is seasoned, but has seen limited duty on defense. Smith started all 16 games last year, the first Dolphin rookie CB to do so, but has struggled lately; he’ll come into the game in extra DB situations along with Benny Sapp. While logic tells us that the secondary should be better simply with the departure of Gibril Wilson, it’s not as easy as that. Clemons must continue to show that he is a sure tackler and cover man, something Wilson couldn’t accomplish. Allen, probably the team’s most physically-gifted defensive back, must prove he can stay sound fundamentally. And Smith must prove he is tough mentally, that he won’t let setbacks or distractions knock him off his game. With the bevy of talented receivers in the AFC East, these three need to be up to the challenge.

7) The Play of the Dolphin OLBs

The glaring weakness on the defense is the OLB position, as none of the players there are completely well-rounded. Cameron Wake, the team’s best pass rusher and starter at the Will position, is not the stoutest when it comes to stopping the run. Veteran Ikeaika Alama-Francis, the starter at the Sam position, is good at setting the edge but is slow of foot in defending the passing game. Speedy rookie Koa Misi is better at defending the pass, but has struggled to stand firm against the run. Opposing teams will chose to target them until they prove they can stop people.

8) Win the Turnover Battle

When asked this week what the top key to victory over the Bills was, Sparano cited winning the turnover battle. This shouldn’t be a surprise; the Dolphins were amongst the worst in the league last year with a -8 ratio. For the sake of comparisons, Super Bowl champ New Orleans was +11. Enough said.

9)  The Coverage Teams

For the third year in a row, we are worried about the effectiveness of the special teams…especially the coverage teams. Field position is so important to winning in the NFL, and porous coverage units have cost the Dolphins dearly under Sparano’s tenure. The dogs haven’t been eating what special teams coach John Bonamego is serving. Will Year Three be the charm?

10) Avoiding the Injury Bug

The Dolphins were a much deeper team before the latest and very surprising wave of veteran cuts and assignments decimated the roster. These cuts did nothing to help the 2010 Dolphins win games. In fact, the primary purpose of those cuts was to save money. Will these moves rebound to hurt the Dolphins during the second half of the year? Given the quality of the talent now in those positions, Sparano better hope (no, pray) that his starters stay healthy….especially on the offensive line and across the defensive front seven.

 
     
   
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