This weekend's game will be an interesting proving ground for both teams in a game that many thought would be a complete dud during the preseason.
The Dolphins have quieted their critics by playing a stingy brand of defense, both against the run and the pass, while also complementing that with an efficient offense that doesn't make many mistakes.
How much of their early success was real and how much of it was a mirage. I'll give you a hint: a lot of the former, not much of the latter.
In any case, let's take a look at the progress report through Week 8 to see where the team stands as we near the midway mark of their season.
Olivier Vernon: I can't believe I haven't given Vernon more praise this season, but he has been phenomenal almost from the very beginning. In the past two games, he has logged two sacks, three hits and two hurries of the opposing quarterback. He remains a role player in the defense, never playing more than 50 percent of defensive snaps, but those players are important to a team.
He proved just how important when he recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown, and again when he blocked a field goal try at the end of the first half against the Jets. He was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for those efforts. He has even made some solid plays in coverage, deflecting a pass by laying out for the tip against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cameron Wake: It took a few tries before Cameron Wake finally landed on the stat board with his first sack of the season, but he hasn't looked back since then and has now logged 7.5 on the season. He has been one of the most productive pass-rushers in the league, according to ProFootballFocus.com, generating some sort of pressure—a quarterback hit, a sack or a hurry—on a league-high 48 total snaps, earning him the league's highest Pass Rushing Productivity rating among 4-3 DEs.
With Wake coming off the edge, the Dolphins defense can almost always be counted on to get stops, especially if he's rushing the passer.
Jared Odrick: With two sacks, three pressures and no QB hits in the past four games, Odrick is on the downswing. After being drafted to plug a hole on a 3-4 defensive line, he has been miscast as a 4-3 defensive end, and his struggles show it.
He hasn't been a solid pass-rusher as he was when he was collapsing the pocket up the middle at Penn State, and his struggles in that area are exaggerated further by the fact that he's rushing the passer on 96.9 percent of his snaps this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He ranks 41st out of 43 in PFF's Pass Rushing Productivity metric, which measures sacks, hits and pressures in relation to the number of snaps played. He is still, however, one of the better run-defending defensive ends in the league.
Ideally, Odrick would move inside with the acquisition of another "true" 4-3 defensive end. It hasn't been all bad for Odrick, but given the way he has played, finding a true 4-3 end may be a priority in the offseason.
Anthony Armstrong: The veteran wide receiver was released on Wednesday, as announced by the team. He played 70 snaps in five total games, catching three passes and just one-third of the balls thrown in his direction, including three drops against the Jets in Week 3.
The Dolphins are hoping to get a bit more out of Jabar Gaffney, who had his first reception as a Dolphin this past week against the Jets with a 30-yarder.
Offensive Efficiency Trumps All
Here are some rather simple stats for you: The Dolphins are 4-0 when they win the turnover battle. They have won it by just one turnover in each of their victories.
They are 0-3 when they lose the turnover battle, and lost it by four to the Texans (20-point loss), drew even with the Jets (three-point loss) and lost the turnover battle by two to the Cardinals (three-point loss).
To say that turnovers have been the difference-maker for the Dolphins would be an understatement. At this point, it has virtually determined whether they will win or lose.
The defense has forced 11 turnovers, ranking 13th in the league, but the offense has given up 13 turnovers of their own, which is the 10th-most in the league through eight weeks.
Matt Moore's performance against the Jets was efficient, but far from dominant. The reason it looked so impressive was because the Dolphins didn't turn the ball over for the first time until they were winning by 24 points in the third quarter.
The Dolphins rode their efficiency in the turnover battle all the way to the playoffs in 2008, and while this offense isn't as protective of the football as the record-setting team of that season, their ability to win the turnover battle could spell the difference in their playoff hopes.
Run Defense Gets the Credit, but Pass Defense is Stingy
Allowing just 3.5 yards per carry, the Miami Dolphins run defense is the second-best unit in the league on a per-play basis.
That is certainly worthy of praise, but while we're busy talking about the great front seven, the pass defense has been largely overlooked. Yes, the Dolphins rank 27th in total pass defense, a statistic that's about as relevant as the number of days Kim Kardashian was married to Kris Humphries. (For those wondering, it's 72 days. Now we've all lost a little bit of our soul with that piece of knowledge.)
The numbers that really matter are their efficiency ratings, which are among the best in the league.
- 56.5 completion percentage ranks fourth-best in the NFL.
- 75.4 defensive passer rating ranks fourth-best in the NFL.
- 6.8 yards per pass attempt ranks 10th-best in the NFL.
Now, that's not to say that the Dolphins pass defense is perfect; in fact, they have allowed 26 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which is the ninth-highest total in the league.
Their penchant for giving up big plays is something to be concerned over, but with a front seven that is getting as much pressure as the Dolphins, the deficiencies on the back end could become an afterthought.
Stats to Build On
26.42: That's the Dolphins' third-down conversion rate allowed on defense. It is currently the lowest percentage in the NFL, according to TeamRankings.com.
As indicated by their gaudy passing yardage totals on defense, they haven't gotten stops on every single play, and as a result, they've had some pressure situations to respond to. Not only are the Dolphins at the top of the league on third down, they're also No. 2 in the red zone, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 36 percent of their tries.
The ability of the Dolphins defense to make clutch stops has helped them win at least two games—against the Bengals and Rams—and with continued clutch play, it could result in more wins to come.
.500/50 percent: That's the number of drives against the Dolphins which end in a punt, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
The Dolphins may not be generating turnovers at a crazy rate, but the ability of their defense to get the ball back into the hands of their offense has directly resulted in their ability to hang onto late leads and close out wins.
Stats to Improve On
77.6: That's the Dolphins' passer rating through seven games, which ranks 25th in the NFL. The Dolphins haven't had to dominate through the air because their defense has been stingy in holding opponents to just 18 points per game on average, but the running game has tailed off recently and hasn't produced over four yards per carry in four weeks.
The Dolphins have become more efficient throwing the football in the past few games, and that trajectory stayed the course when Matt Moore came in for the injured Ryan Tannehill. Those performances will have to continue, and even improve, if the Dolphins want to win and win comfortably.
Minus-two: That the Dolphins' turnover differential through seven games, which ranks 18th in the NFL.
As mentioned earlier, the Dolphins are at their best when they win the turnover battle, and they have won every game they've played where they've held the final advantage in turnovers.
Improved ball security has gone a long way in helping the Dolphins turn what was a 1-3 season into a 4-3 shocker, but in order to continue the winning ways, they must consistently protect the football and help their defense by not putting the pressure square on their shoulders.
At 4-3, the Miami Dolphins are well ahead of where most had projected them to be at this stage. They are still in contention for a playoff spot, and now, with their first win over a division opponent, they are trending in the right direction toward playing games in January.
The next four games on the schedule offer a great opportunity for the Dolphins to capitalize and better their positioning to play games when they matter most.
The way the team is playing right now as a whole, there's no reason to think it can't do it.
The offense is finding its consistency and remaining efficient.
The defense is elite against the run, underrated against the pass and is built for postseason success.
The Dolphins have every reason to be excited about their current position, but if they get content, they could lose their ground faster than you can say "Dan Marino."
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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