(Sports Network) – The Miami Dolphins came out of their most recent game awfully battered and bruised, but they’ll have little time to lick their wounds.
Expected to start their third quarterback in the span of three weeks, the Dolphins try to improve their present standing in the AFC when the banged-up club hosts the NFC North co-leading Chicago Bears this Thursday in a key interconference clash from Sun Life Stadium.
The quarterback position was also the primary focus of Miami’s Week 9 matchup with Tennessee, with head coach Tony Sparano opting to start cerebral veteran Chad Pennington over struggling incumbent Chad Henne after the latter threw three interception in loss at Baltimore the previous Sunday. The brittle Pennington lasted only two plays, however, before suffering a season-ending dislocated shoulder, and Henne was forced to exit later on due to a knee injury that will likely keep him out of Thursday’s tilt as well.
Third-stringer Tyler Thigpen finished up the 29-17 win over the Titans and went 4-for-6 for 64 yards and a touchdown in a sharp relief effort. The fourth-year pro is the favorite to be under center against the Bears, with newly-signed journeyman Patrick Ramsey in line to serve as the backup.
Thigpen does have prior starting experience, having began 11 games with Kansas City in 2008. The 26-year-old threw for 2,608 yards and 18 touchdowns that season, though the Chiefs prevailed in just one of his 11 starts.
Miami also sustained another significant injury in the Tennessee game, with standout left offensive tackle Jake Long reportedly tearing the labrum in his left shoulder. The 2009 All-Pro’s status for this week’s test figures to be in question up until kickoff.
Chicago will be entering in better shape, both health-wise and in the standings. The Bears are presently tied with Green Bay for first place in the NFC North with a 6-3 record and moved to 3-0 in divisional play after disposing of the turmoil-laden Minnesota Vikings last Sunday at Soldier Field, getting three touchdown passes out of quarterback Jay Cutler and another excellent performance on defense to deal their longtime rivals a 27-13 defeat.
The Bears limited Minnesota’s dysfunctional offense to 240 yards and intercepted Brett Favre three times in another impressive display from a unit that’s yielded the second-fewest points and fourth-fewest yards in the league.
Chicago has also handled itself well on the road this season, having won three of its first four games as the visitor. Miami, on the other hand, had lost its initial three 2010 contests at Sun Life Stadium before last week’s besting of the Titans.
The Dolphins come in 5-4 overall and are one game off the pace in the race for the last of the AFC’s two Wild Card berths. Miami sits in third place in the competitive AFC East, two games behind co-leaders New England and the New York Jets.
The Dolphins lead the all-time series with the Bears, 7-3, including a 31-13 road victory when the teams last met, in 2006. Chicago, which would eventually represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, was 7-0 heading into that matchup at Soldier Field. The Fins won the previous meeting between the clubs as well, a 27-9 win in South Florida in 2002. Chicago’s last win over the Dolphins came in 1997, a 36-33 overtime road triumph.
The most memorable meeting between the teams took place during the 1985 regular season, when the Dolphins handed the Bears their only loss of the year in the form of a 38-24 Monday night victory at the Orange Bowl.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 0-1 in his career against the Dolphins. Sparano will be meeting both Smith and Chicago for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The intricate pass-heavy offense installed by first-year coordinator Mike Martz is finally starting to make some strides after a rough beginning to the season. Cutler (1908 passing yards, 12 TD, 9 INT) completed passes to nine different receivers in a 237-yard, three-touchdown outing against the Vikings, while a troublesome front line that’s struggled in protection throughout the year surrendered just one sack. What was perhaps more startling, though, was Chicago’s concerted effort to mix in the run with the pass last week and finding some success in doing so. Running backs Matt Forte (470 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 6 total TD) and Chester Taylor (206 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) combined for 102 yards on 32 carries as the Bears compiled a season-best 130 rushing yards, 35 more than the team’s per-game average. The versatile Forte is also one of Cutler’s top receiving targets, with second- year wideout Johnny Knox (32 receptions, 617 yards, 1 TD) the primary deep threat and tight end Greg Olsen (24 receptions, 4 TD) often the go-to guy within the red zone. Despite last week’s improvement in that area, the Bears have still allowed 33 sacks on the year, tied for the most in the NFL.
Chicago’s shaky offensive line will be tested by a formidable Miami pass rush headed up by playmaking outside linebacker Cameron Wake (32 tackles), who leads the AFC with 8 1/2 sacks, and promising rookie counterpart Koa Misi (21 tackles, 3.5 sacks). The duo helps support a secondary that’s currently going through a bit of a transitional phase, with the Dolphins having surprisingly waived cornerback Jason Allen prior to the Tennessee game while signing oft- injured veteran Al Harris to serve as the nickel back behind young starters Vontae Davis (31 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) and Sean Smith (30 tackles, 1 sack). Allen had three of the team’s rather low sum of six interceptions for the year. The Dolphins rank in the middle of the pack in run defense, having allowed an average of 110.2 yards per game on the ground (16th overall), but Titans speedster Chris Johnson put up 117 yards and a touchdown on only 17 attempts on a group led by inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (68 tackles, 1 sack) and strong safety Yeremiah Bell (68 tackles, 1.5 sacks), each of whom had eight tackles and a forced fumble in last week’s win.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
With Thigpen (79 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) having played sparingly over the past two years, it would be no surprise if Miami leans heavily on its talented backfield tandem of Ronnie Brown (444 rushing yards, 3 TD, 18 receptions) and still-dangerous veteran Ricky Williams (400 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 2 total TD) on Thursday. Despite both players’ strong track records, the Dolphins haven’t been overly effective running the football, having averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per attempt on the year. The athletic Thigpen could lend an added dimension due to his mobility in the pocket, but he’s only a 54 percent career passer who’ll probably be asked to be more of a game manager than a vertical presence this week. If the Dolphins do decide to open up the offense, Thigpen will have some tantalizing options to work with. Top wide receiver Brandon Marshall (55 receptions, 652 yards, 1 TD) is a two-time Pro Bowler and matchup nightmare due to his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame, with sophomore Brian Hartline (34 receptions, 1 TD), shifty slotman Davone Bess (48 receptions, 3 TD) and steady tight end Anthony Fasano (25 receptions, 3 TD) all capable pass-catchers as well. Hartline is coming off an outstanding day against the Titans in which he registered a career-high 98 yards on five grabs. The status of Long, the team’s best pass protector, and center Joe Berger (questionable, knee), will also have an impact on how Miami decides to attack the Bears.
The Dolphins can’t afford to be too run-reliant this week, as Chicago is one of the best in the business at stopping opponents’ ground games. The Bears are permitting a scant 82.3 rushing yards per week (2nd overall) and held Vikings All-Pro Adrian Peterson to a modest 51 yards on 17 totes last Sunday, with accomplished linebackers Brian Urlacher (62 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (45 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) once again leading the charge. Thigpen doesn’t figure to have an easy time of it either, as Chicago tops the NFL in pass efficiency defense at the moment and has given up a league-low six touchdown throws as well, while coming up with 13 interceptions and an outstanding total of 24 takeaways. Charles Tillman (49 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) and Tim Jennings (39 tackles, 1 INT) continue to be sound football as the starting corners, while young nickel back D.J. Moore (21 tackles, 6 PD) has developed into a reliable ballhawk who notched his team-leading fourth interception of the year last week. Long’s availability will be crucial for the Dolphins, as the left tackle will have to take on one of the game’s premier up-front disruptors in Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (24 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT).
Few fantasy defenses have been better than Chicago’s this season, and that cast looks like an excellent play again this week against a Miami team that’s often struggled to consistently put up points regardless of who’s been the quarterback. That being said, Thigpen isn’t a very desirable pickup for this game, and the change under center will likely have an impact on the production of complementary contributors such as Hartline and Fasano. Still continue to start Marshall and Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who’s tied for the league lead with 22 field goals, but the backfield timeshare between Brown and Williams combined with a tough matchup makes both players nothing more than flex alternatives. Forte’s the most appealing choice on the Chicago side, with Knox offering some value at the wide receiver spot and fellow wideout Devin Hester (24 receptions, 2 TD) a worthy option in leagues that count return yardage. The erratic Cutler carries some risk at quarterback, so explore other avenues if at all possible. Since the Bears can be turnover-prone and often give up sacks in bunches, the Miami defense won’t be a bad selection here.
This looks to be a tough spot for the Dolphins, who’ll be forced to send out a third-string quarterback on a short week against a Chicago defense that’s been one of the unsung standouts of this 2010 season. The possibility of Long being held out or limited won’t help Thigpen’s cause either. Turnovers and special teams could very well play a imperative role on the outcome of this game, and the Bears have been tremendous in both inducing mistakes out of the opposition and getting big plays out of the return game. While the Chicago offense has been hardly a juggernaut and Cutler’s been known to turn in a clunker performance or two, the Bears’ advantages on defense and in the health department outweigh Miami’s home-field edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Dolphins 13