The Bucs won't have the only high-powered defensive line on the field Sunday in Miami
Be warned: These aren't your father's Miami Dolphins.
Miami is tied for first overall in the AFC with a 10-3 mark and could beat Tennessee and Oakland to the all-important homefield advantage finish line. They have done it with a formula based heavily on a fast and aggressive defense, a dependency on the running game and a scary pass rush.
This current Miami team looks much more like Tony Dungy's Buccaneers than Dan Marino's flying Dolphins. Marino has retired to the television studio and a former denizen of the 'Black-and-Blue' division is now in charge. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt, who used to coach Tampa Bay's NFC Central rival Chicago, is running a rugged, confident squad that draws Dungy's admiration.
"They don't make a lot of mistakes," said Dungy of the team that leads the NFL in turnover differential (+17). "They're based on executing well and playing hard. Their defense is very much the same where they like the speed guys. They're playing a lot of bump and run coverage with Surtain and Madison than they did up in Chicago. What (Wannstedt) does in his style looks very similar to me and they are enjoying very good success with it."
It is easy to see that Dungy and Wannstedt are taking similar approaches to their games based on the personnel on hand, but a closer look at the numbers reveals just how similar their results have been.
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Clearly, each team has struggled for a rhythm on offense but has played outstanding defense. Both offenses have fared quite well running the ball, but the two defenses have had periodic troubles stopping the run. Neither team is easy to pass on.
Both teams have struggled a bit to convert third downs but have made it just as hard on their opponents to do so. The two teams have even punted and returned kicks similarly, though Miami has somewhat of an edge in punt returns.
Most importantly, both the Bucs and Dolphins have been very difficult to score against.
That's because two of the best defenses in the National Football League play below the 30th latitude. Both are built around disruptive defensive lines that are strong up the middle. Miami's inside pair is comprised of top-grade space-fillers Daryl Gardener and Tim Bowens.
"They're big guys," said Dungy. "They are strong and powerful and they do a lot of damage inside. Our guards are going to have their hands full. I haven't seen all of the guys in the NFL (to compare) but they are certainly tough inside defenders."
Like Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland, those inside pluggers can sometimes make it difficult for opposing teams to get their running games going. However, both teams in Sunday's Sunshine State showdown also feature running backs on a roll.
Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn has 356 rushing yards over the past two Sundays, not to mention four of his five rushing touchdowns on the season. Miami's Lamar Smith has been finding the end zone all season, with a total of 12 touchdowns, and has racked up 937 rushing yards so far. Like Dunn, Smith has emerged from a confusing backfield picture to become the primary runner.
"He's going to be very similar to how Emmitt (Smith) was out there," said Dungy. "He's got very good vision. He hits the cutback hole well. He's tough to bring down. He can make the first man miss a lot. He's just a tough back.
"We played against him when he was with Seattle and he's done a good job. He's given him a lift running the ball. We're going to have to swarm and get a lot of guys around the ball and use our quickness. He definitely has the ability to make people miss."
There's more. Each team has one of the NFL's best kickers. Tampa Bay's second-year man, Martin Gramatica, has made 22 of 26 field goals, nailed five of seven from beyond 50 yards, scored 102 points to rank fourth in the league and succeeded on 16 straight tries. Mare is the league's leader in field goal percentage, having hit 22 of 23, and while he hasn't been given a try from beyond 50 this season, he's 10 of 10 from 40 to 49 yards. Mare has made 11 field goals in a row.
The Bucs and Dolphins also have turned the pass rush strongly to their favor this season. The Bucs have recorded 24 more sacks than they've allowed, the second-best differential in the league behind New Orleans' plus-25. Miami ranks fourth at plus-21.
The Dolphins have been, by far, the most run-oriented team in the NFL, running the ball 419 times and attempting a pass (pass attempts plus sacks) 342 times. That play-calling differential of 77 more runs than passes is more than twice as large as the next most run-oriented differential, which just happens to belong to…you guessed it, the Bucs. Actually, at plus-32 in favor of runs, the Bucs are tied with the Tennessee Titans for the second spot on that chart.
So where are the differences in these NFL twins? What could lead pundits to pick one team over the other?
Well, there are a few. While Dungy credits Miami with being fundamentally sound, they have committed 96 penalties, well over the league average of 85.5. The Bucs, meanwhile, have been flagged just 66 times, second-lowest in the NFL.
On the other hand, Miami has recorded the most interceptions in the league, 25, while the Bucs are just a hair over the league average at 16 picks. And, while Sapp has caused much of Tampa Bay's pass rush to come up the middle, Miami's outside pressure is perhaps second to none in the NFL. Defensive ends Trace Armstrong and Jason Taylor have combined for 28.5 of the team's 42 sacks.
Most importantly, one supposes, is the difference in points scored. Despite the Bucs' relatively low offensive ranking, Tampa Bay stands seventh in the league with 320 total points. Miami is twice as far down the list, at 14th with 270 points scored.
In Dungy's opinion, however, it's not who exploits the differences that will win but which team will capitalize on its strengths the best, even if they are in the same areas.
"Our defense and special teams have to play well to keep us in the ballgame," said Dungy. "Miami has an outstanding defense and they tend to wear you down. We're going to have to do some things well. We're going to have to execute in the passing game. They give up a very low completion percentage. They play a lot of bump coverage. You have to run the ball and you have to be able to throw the ball inside and do some things other than stand up and throw the ball outside. They have outstanding guys on the outside. I think it's going to be important for us to move the ball and score when we have the opportunities."