The Miami Dolphins will be in the desert Sunday afternoon as the Arizona Cardinals look to build on their 27-6 annihilation of the Philadelphia Eagles.
If the Cardinals are able to move to 4-0, they will also secure the franchise's longest home win streak in the process as Arizona has already won seven in a row dating back to 2011. But while most don't see the 1-2 Dolphins as much a of a threat, Miami excels in stopping the run (66.3 YPG, third in NFL) and jamming their run game down your throat (175.7 YPG, fourth in NFL).
Those numbers are quite concerning considering that the Cardinals already struggle moving the ball on the ground (81.3 YPG, 26th in NFL) and aren't exactly the most intimidating defense when it comes to limiting opposing running backs (106 YPG allowed, 18th in NFL).
So before the Cardinal fans get too ahead of themselves, let's take a look at five key matchups for Sunday's game between these two teams:
DE Nick Eason vs. All Dolphins Running Backs
It's looking like the Cardinals will be without the disruptive services of Darnell Dockett (hamstring) Sunday with the veteran lineman likely to miss only his second contest in the past 132 games. Not one of Arizona's reserves has nearly the same amount of explosiveness as Dockett but backup Nick Eason will have to do his best to fill in.
RB Reggie Bush is shaping up to be a game-time decision for Miami but they still have rookie Lamar Miller who is averaging 5.9 yards a carry on 19 totes this season. Regardless of who is back there though, head coach Joe Philbin is going to heavily rely on the run game to take some pressure off his rookie signal caller, Ryan Tannehill.
Calias Campbell can hold his own on one side so the Cardinals can't afford for Eason to be a sieve in the run game. Arizona will hurt in the pass rush department if they have to dedicate a linebacker to assist in stopping Miami's ground attack so Eason will have to make his presence felt.
RB Ryan Williams vs. LB Karlos Dansby
Sunday's game will be Dansby's first time playing the Cardinals since he left the team in the 2010 to take what at the time was the richest contract for an inside linebacker in NFL history. With that in mind, you can surely bet that Dansby will be looking to make every member of the Arizona organization rue the day they didn't pony up the dough for him.
This could be bad news for Williams who is expected to shoulder the load with Beanie Wells being placed on I.R. and LaRod Stephens-Howling likely out with a hip ailment. Working in Williams favor though is momentum, as the rookie finally flashed his difference-making ability this past Sunday against the talented front seven of the Philadelphia Eagles (13 carries, 83 yards). Sure, he might not be able to bust off some of those big scampers he did against Philly in the fourth quarter but Kevin Kolb is going to need something from Williams to avoid those pesky third-and-longs. The question is, will fans get the Williams who averaged 1.22 yards a carry through the first two games or the Williams averaged 6.4 yards an attempt in Week 3?
TE Jeff King vs. DE Cameron Wake
Tight ends Todd Heap and Jim Dray are both beat up, leaving King and Rob Housler as the only healthy players at that position for Sunday's matchup. Heap is more of a blocker than a pass-catcher at this point but that's exactly where the Cardinals will miss him the most with their faulty offensive line.
The Dolphins only have four sacks on the season but that shouldn't be a reason to be any less scared of what Wake brings to the table. By Pro Football Focus' count, Wake had eight QB pressures on 40 snaps last week against the Jets so King, a superior blocker to Housler, will need to slow him down as best as he can.
Luckily for King, his job should be a tad easier with the Cardinals utilizing mostly three-step drops since Kolb has taken over. Still, Arizona must make it a priority for King to tag team Wake with an offensive lineman so Kolb isn't forced to dance around in the pocket. Because we all know nothing good ever happens when Kolb puts on his dancing shoes.
S Kerry Rhodes vs. QB Ryan Tannehill
With Adrian Wilson (ankle/groin) questionable yet again, Rhodes slides directly into the spotlight as the biggest playmaker in the secondary. Rhodes has shined the past two weeks, breaking up a key two-point conversion late in the New England game before forcing the Week 3 fumble on QB Mike Vick that James Sanders turned into a 93-yard touchdown to close out the half.
On the other end, Tannehill hasn't exactly lit up the NFL through his first three games of his rookie campaign, with four interceptions to just one touchdown on 54-of-102 passing. The Dolphins don't have anyone who can stretch the Cardinals defense so Rhodes could be spending most of his time closer to the line of scrimmage. Their defensive backs should be able to handle Brian Hartline and Davone Bess in man coverage most of the time which will allow Rhodes to roam the field and force turnovers.
Fellow rookie Russell Wilson (18-of-34, 153 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) didn't have much luck against the Cards in his first go around so don't count on Tannehill doing anything special either.
WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. CB Sean Smith/Whoever Else The Dolphins May Throw His Way
Following the trade of Vontae Davis, Miami's secondary play has been absolutely atrocious ranking 29th in the NFL at stopping the pass. Smith is big corner in the mold of Patrick Peterson but he's looked the exact opposite of lock down through the Dolphins first three games. Santonio Holmes (nine catches, 147 yards) and Andre Johnson (eight catches, 119 yards, one TD) have both taken advantage of Smith's stiff hips in their matchups and now it's Fitzgerald's turn to do the same.
Fitzy got back on track last week against one of the leagues finest secondaries, racking up nine catches for 114 yards and one touchdown thanks to some precise route-running. The Cardinals finally figured out how to get him involved in their quick-release passing attack so expect some more slants and drags from the veteran playmaker on Sunday. The Dolphins are sure to bring a safety over the top to assist Smith in his unenviable plight but Arizona is still going to force feed Fitzgerald the ball no matter what they send at him.