By David McDonnell
I’ve decided to go a bit off-road this week and talk about teams I haven’t conversed about recently. There are only so many weeks I can bang on about the plight of the under-performing Rams or Bucs, so this weekend for my own amusement as much as anything else I’m going to focus elsewhere.
Let’s start in the Windy City.
Miami Dolphins @ Chicago Bears
Miami is a whirlwind of excitement and anticipation right now and it must be a joy to follow with the way they are attacking teams. And that was before the arrival of two more bodies in Florida before the close of the trade deadline on Tuesday.
With Tua back at quarterback, the Dolphins are back motoring again with Tyreek Hill almost at 1000 yards before the midway point of the season. With the NFL regular season now 17 games, he is on pace to beat Calvin Johnson’s 2012 single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards. Even when he is double-teamed he is extremely difficult to cover.
That Hill’s partner-in-crime Jalen Waddle has caught for almost 750 yards shows just how explosive this offence has become and they are a threat to take it to the house on every play.
Tagovailoa has always had good timing and accuracy with his throws. This is where the off-season additions of experienced left tackle Terron Armstead and centre Conor Williams have been key, because when afforded enough time in the pocket, Tua has the smarts to consistently pick out the right option.
The dual threat receivers, are in my opinion the two fastest players in the league, often sees tight-end Mike Gesicke single-covered and he has become a redzone favourite of Tua.
What makes this team even more credible is their defence has been competitive all season with Javon Holland at safety playing at an All-Pro level.
Last season the Dolphins were the highest blitzing team in the league and while they still have that in their locker, what has impressed me is that they have been able to put opposing quarterbacks constantly under pressure while only rushing four.
Playing a 3-4 base defence they have now added Bradley Chubb to book-end with the exciting pass-rusher Jalen Phillips and going forward this could be significant in getting teams off the field on third down.
There was an interesting social media post I saw during the week that showed that the Miami Dolphins turned the three first-round picks acquired for trading down with the 49ers in the 2021 draft, who moved up to take QB Trey Lance, into Hill, Waddle and Chubb. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out who won that trade battle.
Miami’s addition of running-back Jeff Wilson again is a clever pick-up as he knows the Mike McDaniel system having played in it at the 49ers last season and won’t need any time to adjust to the playbook.
So, are the Miami Dolphins now realistic Super Bowl contenders? I wouldn’t put them into that bracket just yet but they are certainly the best they have been in years and have the firepower to beat anyone on their day. After a generation in the AFC East doldrums, they are certainly relevant again.
So how will the Bears try to beat them on Sunday?
Very simple. Try to keep that Dolphins offence off the field by running the ball. This is an approach that the Bears are having success at right now.
Through the first quarter of this season Chicago were terrible on offence and it seemed that offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who had spent the last three years as QB coach to Aaron Rodgers, was trying to fit Fields into the Green Bay offence. It didn’t work but there has been a noticeable change in their approach.
Getsy has decided to use the best performing unit on the team, their offensive line and run the ball down the opposition throats. Tevin Jenkins at right guard, in particular, is what you want in a run-blocker. He is mean and aggressive on every play and moves bodies and loves to smash into people in the run game.
Getsy has also introduced more run-option and play action into the game plan, which allows Justin Fields to excel at what he is great at; using his legs to pick up first downs. By having such a strong running threat, the Bears are wearing the opposition down and affording Fields even more space to attack later in the second half.
When Fields gets to plant his leg, his throwing accuracy is much improved but he is still susceptible to being inaccurate when throwing under pressure. The addition of big-bodied wide receiver Chase Claypool during the week could be the safety blanket Fields needs, which should allow him to throw for contested catches in the red zone. The addition of Claypool should also result in Darnell Mooney getting more single coverage.
Although still relatively one dimensional things are looking up for Chicago but they are going to be a work in progress for some time to come. Still with a high performing rookie class, there is plenty to get excited about looking towards the future.
For the present, beating Miami in Soldier Field would be a statement win of sorts but I don’t believe it will happen this weekend.
Vikings @ Commanders
This should be a good match-up as these are two sides whose record I would suggest is better than they are currently playing.
Minnesota has a 6-1 record and a three game lead in the NFC North. As it stands they are looking like post-season certainties but I remain unconvinced by anything I have seen from them this season. They do have a tendency to start games well but tend to fade out in the second half and they have come out the right side of a number of close encounters.
They do have talented players none more so than Justin Jefferson but he must be frustrated having not caught a receiving touchdown since the opening game of the season. Dalvin Cook at running-back has played well and on defence the signing of Za’Darius Smith from the rival Packers has been a significant addition for the Vikings and an equally telling loss for Green Bay. I have been impressed with their offensive line and they have a young unit that is performing consistently well.
Cousins in my opinion throw a lovely deep ball but he is what I consider a play-action specialist. I would tar Ryan Tannehill with the same brush. Get the run game going, and Cousins can really hurt you from play action. When he has to stand in the pocket and pick a defence apart he struggles and I haven’t seen any noticeable improvement in his game since he left the Washington Redskins in 2018.
Since he left there have been two changes in the name of the franchise and a revolving door at QB.
Cousins is not fondly remembered mainly due to the instability he added to a highly unstable franchise when he wouldn’t sign a long term deal and played out two years on the franchise tag. Ultimately, it cost him a move to rejoin his former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan at the San Francisco 49ers, who ultimately got impatient waiting for him to become a free agent that he took a punt with Jimmy Garropolo. If Cousins hadn’t played the franchise game, would he have two Superbowls in the Bay Area? I’m not so sure.
Washington have recently turned their season around and are now 4-4 in the NFc East, the highest performing division in football.
Since they turned to Taylor Heineke after Carson Wentz’s injury, the team is playing better particularly on defence and they have conceded an average of less than 15 points in their last three wins. This bodes well for a unit which will add the returning Chase Young in Week 12.
On offence the big difference with Heineke is that he can move well in the pocket and he knows how to find his two best receivers Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel on third downs. That has kept the Commanders on the field and allowed them to extend drives. Heineke has proved to be a good player to have around and an ideal back-up QB who his teammates rally behind. Where the team has struggled all season is their offence line when running the ball and they need to add more difference makers in the off-season.
This should be a close game and I am expecting a low scoring affair. I think the home town Commanders will keep this game close and I can see them taking a fourth-quarter lead as has been their forte recently.
Titans V Chiefs
The late game on Sunday night sees Derek Henry v the Kansas City Chiefs.
There is no team playing more one-dimensional football in the league than the team from Tennessee and why wouldn’t you when you have the big man in top form. Last Sunday, Henry ran for 219 yards and two touchdowns as a repeat performance would certainly make things interesting.
It will be good to see how the Chiefs D-line stand up to this physical challenge as many teams will try to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field using a run-heavy scheme in future contests. If they can hamper the juggernaut that is King Henry, it should bode well for men in red.
What I will be looking out for is how the Titans will use rookie QB Malik Willis, who possesses extreme athletic talent. Hopefully he will be asked to dip further into the playbook as he only managed 55 passing yards and ran for only 12 yards against the Texans. That day, they didn’t need him to do much more.
It is hard to see past the Chiefs for this contest with the form of Mahomes who is playing at an MVP calibre level. Whatever time he is afforded, should be enough for him to navigate his way up the field for a few touchdowns.
This week the Chiefs added Kadarius Toney and hands up I didn’t have a first-round grade on him coming out in 2021 mainly due to the fact that I never saw him winning contested catches for the Gators at the University of Florida. I thought he would struggle in this regard in the NFL but getting traded to play with Kansas City is a Godsend for him as Mahomes can put the ball on a postage stamp. Hopefully we will now get to see what this human joystick of a receiver can really do at the NFL level. He is expected to suit up on Sunday night.