Atlanta’s got the better record, which we didn’t see coming.
When we first got a look at the 2021 schedule, the Dolphins game loomed as one of the tougher matchups of the early going along with the Buccaneers and Washington Football Team. Washington hasn’t been quite as good as expected but did beat the Falcons regardless, but Miami has been far worse than I would have expected.
We are talking about a team that went 10-6 last year, finishing with a middle-of-the-pack offense and solid defense that finished top 10 in the NFL in scoring. We’re talking about a team with a well-regarded head coach and frankly enviable talent at several key positions, including receiver, along the defensive line and at cornerback. Maybe some regression could be expected after Miami mostly beat who they were supposed to last year outside of the Rams, but this still looked like a team on the rise. Now they’re 1-4 and in freefall, and that’s as baffling as it is disappointing.
I suggested the injury picture for both teams could transform this matchup, but that appears to be more true for the Falcons than the Dolphins, who welcomed back Tua Tagovailoa in London and promptly lost to the Jaguars. If Miami is going to continue to be this shaky and the Falcons get healthy, this is easily one of the most winnable games left on their schedule, and I really did not see that coming.
Let’s take a closer look at the Dolphins and the matchup ahead.
Miami is genuinely, shockingly bad thus far. They aren’t a good offense, they haven’t been a good defense outside of a handful of individual performances and turnovers, and nothing seems to be working as it should for them. I still believe they’re too talented to play like this all year, but they’re more than a third of the way through the season and this is who they are.
The Falcons are heading in the opposite direction, having won two of their last three and finally putting a competent—dare I say even good—offense on the field the past two weeks. Atlanta’s still not a good football team or anything close to it, but they’re showing they can hang around with and beat bad teams, and Miami certainly qualifies. With Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage potentially coming back and the offense looking so crisp against the Jets and getting a bye, Miami’s going to need to be aggressive about trying to get turnovers to slow this team down.
The Dolphins offense, meanwhile, needs a get-right game and could always find one against the Falcons defense. Atlanta could be down Erik Harris and Avery Williams again and we’re waiting to find out if Marlon Davidson and Fabian Moreau are back, so this is not a defense likely to be at full strength. Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett haven’t exactly been able to steer this Dolphins offense to relevance, the three-headed backfield has exactly one player consistently doing well in Myles Gaskin and Miami’s pass catchers have been good but haven’t been able to lift this passing game out of their current doldrums. If Tua gets hot and Mike Gesicki can continue the time-honored tradition of tight ends beating this Falcons defense, Atlanta’s probably got some problems. It’s just not clear whether Miami can do enough to keep up with the Falcons if Atlanta’s offense is humming as it should be.
This really is a straightforward matchup in so many ways. Try to get pressure on Tua, concentrate on shutting down Gesicki and DeVante Parker downfield and go right at a Miami defense that hasn’t proven capable of slowing opposing passing games in 2021. If that’s all successful, this is a win.
How the Dolphins have changed in 2021
Not a ton, which makes their current predicament unfortunate.
They added talent through free agency, but for one reason or another that talent mostly hasn’t panned out. Will Fuller was a savvy free agent signing but hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and he’ll be out Sunday against the Falcons. Jacoby Brissett is a quality veteran backup and had to fill in for Tua, and while he played solidly he wasn’t able to push this Dolphins team to any wins. Matt Skura joined the team as the presumptive starting center but has only played in three games, and has only played 100% of the offensive snaps in one of those. Justin Coleman was another quality addition to a deep cornerback group, but he’s been merely so-so to this point per Dolphins fans and Pro Football Focus. Michael Palardy has been merely a decent punter to this point, and Malcolm Brown has been a solid but unspectacular contributor at the running back position. Adam Butler has been done a nice job as a rotational player on the Dolphins defensive line even if his statistics aren’t eye-popping, and Duke Riley has been customarily solid on special teams.
I may be forgetting a name or two, but you get the picture. This team treated free agency like a contender should, by shoring up weaknesses and adding depth to strengths, but none of those additions have proven capable of making a big difference for a team that wound up really needing difference makers.
The draft was more impactful. Jaylen Waddle was one of my favorite players in this class, and while he’s mostly being used as a short-range option in this passing game, he leads the team in targets, catches, and touchdowns already and is showcasing his sure hands. Waddle figures to be the team’s long-term top receiver and is off to a terrific start in that role. Fellow rookie Jaelen Phillips has 1.5 sacks and is active, disruptive pass rusher who figures to be a terror off the edge for years to come in Miami. Rookie safety Jevon Holland has a ton of promise and has drawn three starts in the early going, and rookie tackle Liam Eichenberg is already a full-time starter, albeit one who is struggling early on.
That draft class is going to be critically important given how far away Miami now seems from contending again, but the talent on hand is certainly better than the results to this point, either way. Perhaps Miami should have taken a more critical look at their roster after a 10-6 season, but honestly, this felt like a good offseason in the spring and still looks like a pretty solid one all these months later.
What to know for Sunday
This is probably the weakest passing attack Atlanta will get to face until Detroit, and is thus a good get-right game for the pass rush and secondary. Tua Tagovailoa looked pretty sharp in his return against Jacksonville, but Dolphins fans will tell you that this offensive gameplan is frustrating and limiting, making Waddle a chain-mover and doing no favors for the ground game. They are, essentially, the Falcons from the first couple of weeks of the season, minus the abjectly depressing results. There are no sweeping changes coming to offensive coordinator or the team’s gameplan ahead of this game with the Falcons, as far as we’re aware, so it’s unlikely that Miami’s suddenly going to become a high-flying offense just because they draw Atlanta.
I mentioned this above, but I am concerned about what Gesicki and Parker can do against this team deep. Duron Harmon hasn’t been stellar at safety and Fabian Moreau can be picked on at times, not to mention that the safety and linebacker group as a whole has scuffled a bit in coverage. Couple that with Gaskin being at least a capable back and the Dolphins are likely to be annoying, even if they’re not great.
The defense hasn’t been as good as their overall talent level would suggest, either. A pass rush featuring Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jaelen Phillips should be excellent—and it has been good—but has fallen a bit short of that. The secondary has been a bigger problem, as all that talent on the back end hasn’t prevented the Dolphins from being one of the least productive groups in the league, allowing Tom Brady, Derek Carr and Trevor Lawrence to buzzsaw them. Couple that with a run defense that has only held one team under 100 yards on the young season and you have a (again) baffling lack of results for a team that doesn’t seem like it should be this bad.
On top of that, DeVante Parker, Preston Williams and Adam Shaheen are all somewhat questionable for this week, as are Xavien Howard and Byron Jones on defense. They may very well all play but aren’t necessarily completely healthy, and if they have to go without Howard Miami is in real trouble.
What you need to know, then, is that Miami is a bad team despite their talent, and they’ve shown no signs of getting this thing turned around as they lost each of their last five games. They now have to come back from losing to a winless team in London and play a Falcons team coming off a bye, which legitimately seems a bit unfair.
We should remember, of course, that the Falcons did not magically transform into a great team by beating the Jets in London. Nobody should be particularly surprised if a work-in-progress team with a pretty so-so defense winds up struggling a bit with a desperate Miami team that is extra dead in the water if they drop to 1-6 this weekend. This is one of the two most winnable games left on the schedule alongside the tilt with the Lions later this season. So long as Atlanta shows up and continues to build on their progress to this point, they ought to win.