Dolphins, partly as an acknowledgement of December football, looking to run the ball and stop the run vs. Titans

MIAMI GARDENS — When the calendar turns to December and January, a measure of old-school NFL football is required. Even in this passing era, to a certain extent, teams must be able to run the ball and stop the run.

Those requirements, according to Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, make Tennessee (4-8) the perfect opponent for Miami (9-3) on Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium.

“It jumps off the tape that this team that we’re going to face tries to beat you physically on both sides of the ball,” he said. “It’s a priority of theirs. And I think that’s an element that is steadfast in December and January …

“If you take those types of teams lightly in this part of the year, you will learn a lesson fast and it will not be comfortable.”

He’s right.

Looking ahead a bit, the Dolphins’ final three regular-season opponents — Dallas, Baltimore and Buffalo — each ranks in the top 11 in rushing. The Cowboys are 11th (117.0 yards per game), the Ravens are No. 1 (158.6 ypg) and the Bills are No. 10 (122.3 ypg).

Looking further ahead, Miami, the No. 1 seed in the AFC heading into this week’s games, could eventually have to travel to a cold weather locale such as Kansas City or Baltimore for a playoff game if it falls out of the the top seed, and that thought puts a premium on running the ball and stopping the run. It’s ideal to have those parts of your game honed before the playoffs.

The Titans, as you might guess by their record, aren’t a good team and they don’t do many things well.

Tennessee, which is led by rookie quarterback Will Levis, is 17th in rushing (108.9 yards per game) and 21st in rushing attempts (307). Neither of those numbers is impressive.

However, the Titans run game is led by bruising running back Derrick Henry, whose rumbling, physical style has allowed him to plow his way to 841 yards, which ranks second in the league. He’s impressive.

Henry can wreck the Dolphins defense by himself, and there will be greater concern considering Miami, which is No. 8 in run stopping (96.6 yards allowed per game) is again without edge rusher Jaelan Phillips (season-ending Achilles injury) and inside linebacker Jerome Baker (knee), who were both instrumental in stopping the run. And the defense could again be without hard-hitting safety Jevon Holland (knees), another key run stopper.

Miami’s run defense had held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing before Washington broke loose for 138 yards in the Dolphins’ 45-15 victory last week.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said the defensive line must be effective if the Dolphins are to control Henry.

“You have to do a good job up front, first and foremost,” Fangio said. “You can’t get pushed back. You can’t be blocked out of your assignment and let him get rolling because once he gets rolling, he’s a load.

“That’s why he’s probably headed to the Hall of Fame as a running back.”

There’s a good chance Miami loads up on the run with eight-man fronts, relying on cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard to control Titans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

When it comes to running the ball the Dolphins rank No. 2 (143.3 ypg), led by running backs Raheem Mostert (828 yards, No. 3 in the league) and rookie De’Von Achane (534 yards, 9.5 yards per carry). Miami has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of its past four games.

There’s a chance rookie running back Chris Brooks (knee/injured reserve) gets activated Monday, providing an additional boost to a run game that also has recently-activated veteran Jeff Wilson Jr.

The concerns in the run game are largely because of instability on the offensive line. Right guard Robert Hunt (hamstring) has been ruled out. Left tackle Terron Armstead, who has left the past two games due to injuries, has battled multiple injuries all season and there’s a good chance he doesn’t start. There’s also a chance backup left tackle Kendall Lamm (back) doesn’t start due to his ailment. 

Those injuries mean left tackle Kion Smith, left guard Liam Eichenberg and right guard Lester Cotton could all start along with center Connor Williams and right guard Austin Jackson.

The Titans are a respectable 13th in run defense (106.2 ypg allowed) but most likely the Dolphins’ run game success has more to do with them than Tennessee.

The Dolphins are 17th in rushing attempts (326) but in their past two games they’ve run the ball 34 and 37 times, respectively. On top of that, last week they had a 13-play fourth-quarter touchdown drive and 12 of the plays were runs.

Offensive coordinator Frank Smith said that’s a significant and promising trend.

“If you’re able to run the football at the end of the game to close out games and do it that way and play team football,” he said, “that’s what you want to be doing in December.”