After a sluggish start to the season, the Miami Dolphins are 5-2 in their last seven games. Tony Sparano was fired after Miami’s Week 14 loss to the Eagles, despite winning four of his prior six games with Matt Moore starting at quarterback.
Sparano’s (very) short-term replacement is former assistant head coach/secondary coach Todd Bowles, who won his debut last Sunday in Buffalo behind 203 rushing yards from Reggie Bush. Miami’s defense, underachievers through the first half of the season, has come on strong of late, while Moore has thrown 11 touchdowns and two interceptions since Week 9. Here are three areas to watch for on Saturday afternoon:
* The Dolphins’ pass defense looks like a different unit statistically than the team that surrendered over 600 yards of offense in Week 1 to the Patriots. The Miami D is tied for the league lead in touchdown-to-interception ratio since Week 9, but a look at its improvement can start with examining the schedule. The Dolphins struggled through their first seven games, five of which came against Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow and Eli Manning. However, their improvement as a pass defense has coincided with facing Matt Cassel, Rex Grossman, Ryan Fitzpatrick (twice), and Carson Palmer, plus losses to Tony Romo and Michael Vick. That being said, the Dolphins’ defense has been far more effective with a four-man pass rush.
* Reggie Bush has been excellent in Miami this season, establishing himself as the featured running back for the Dolphins. He’s been especially effective in December, averaging 135 yards rushing per game (and 6.6 yards per carry) this month. While he’s always been considered a dual-threat and an elusive open-field runner, Bush has been vastly improved rushing inside the tackles. Additionally, Bush has 10 carries inside the 10-yard line this season after carrying the ball twice inside the 10 over the last three seasons. Nine of those carries have come in the last seven weeks, three times as many as Daniel Thomas has. The 228-pound rookie Thomas was expected to shoulder the goal-line workload this year, but Miami has been giving the ball to the 203-pound Bush near the goal line.
* The Dolphins stumbled to an 0-3 start with Chad Henne as the starter before Henne hurt himself in Week 4 against the Chargers. Miami has been a more palatable 5-5 with Moore as the starting quarterback. Moore hasn’t taken the shots downfield that Henne did. Against four or fewer pass rushers, Henne averaged 10.4 air yards per attempt this season compared with Moore’s 9.5, and as a result Moore posted a higher completion percentage (64.5 to Henne’s 54.7) and lower yards per attempt (7.4 to 8.3) than Henne. Overall, Moore’s comparatively conservative approach has yielded a plus-6 TD-Int differential this season, while Henne was even (4 TD, 4 Int) before his Week 4 injury.