Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7) at Miami Dolphins (3-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX (Ron Pitts, John Lynch, Laura Okmin)
PREDICTION: Dolphins 31-16
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. The series is tied 4-4. Tampa Bay has won the last three games. Five of the eight contests have been decided by six points or less. The two teams have met 23 times in the preseason.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
Bucs QB Josh Freeman displayed impressive poise in his first career start, but the Dolphins have game film now and will do everything they can to stop RB Cadillac Williams and then bring pressure. Look for linemen also dropping back to clutter passing lanes and confuse the rookie. The pressure is on Tampa Bay's offensive line to hold its own against Miami's 3-4 front. Miami's offense is run-based and features the Wildcat, but QB Chad Henne has a strong arm that Tampa Bay's defense must respect because of its propensity to get beat for big plays.
NEED TO KNOW:
Tampa Bay has a five-game road losing streak. ... Dolphins DE Randy Starks has at least 0.5 sacks in five consecutive games.
Sure, rookie QB Josh Freeman won his first start. That's only happened two other times in franchise history, by Steve Young and Shaun King.
But now there is tape on Freeman and he may struggle more this Sunday against the Dolphins' defense.
Freeman, 21, will need more help from his receivers. But Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton are injured and may not play. Right now, his chemistry is with TE Kellen Winslow and rookie WR Sammie Stroughter.
To keep the pressure off Freeman, the Bucs will have to run the ball against Miami's 3-4 front.
The Bucs' biggest challenge on defense will be stopping the run -- from any formation. The Bucs might have created six sacks and three interceptions, but they also allowed the Packers to average 5.5 yards per carry last week.
"We just haven't gotten it done," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "We had some games where we didn't tackle well. We've had some games where we're not gap controlling and playing with power and getting off blocks. And teams have exposed us. I mean you can't give up 170 yards (rushing) in this league and win games. It's something we have to clean up. It's a constant process as far as us working on it ... but the lack of consistency is just killing us."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown vs. Bucs LB Barrett Ruud. Brown has all but mastered the art of playing quarterback in the Dolphins Wildcat formation. It will be on Ruud to get the Bucs organized and in their gaps to stop it.
Dolphins KR Ted Ginn, Jr. vs. Bucs KR Clifton Smith. Two weeks ago, Ginn won a game against the Jets by returning two kickoffs more than 100 yards each for touchdowns. Smith, a Pro Bowl kick returner, brought one back 83 yards against the Packers. Special teams will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game.
Dolphins DE Jason Taylor vs. Bucs LT Donald Penn. The Bucs have a young quarterback in Josh Freeman making his second NFL start. Taylor still is an effective pass rusher and Penn must protect Freeman's blind side.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Bucs experimented earlier this season with a Wildcat formation popularized by the Miami Dolphins.
Call it the WildCaddy?
But because offensive coordinator Greg Olson did not take over play-calling duties from Jeff Jagodzinski until just 10 days before the start of the season, there wasn't enough time to make it a viable weapon in the Bucs' attack.
In the Bucs' version, running back Clifton Smith took the direct snap from center and Cadillac Williams was the other halfback in motion.
Those roles are played by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, respectively, for the Miami Dolphins.
"Early in the year, we did toy with it here and there," Cadillac Williams said. "They actually had Peanut (Smith) at the point and had me as the guy coming in motion. We toyed with it, but that's as far as it went.
"We definitely have the personnel and the potential. But at the same time, Coach Olson kind of got thrown in the fire and it's hard to try to do something else when you're trying to still implement your stuff."
Williams said he believes the Bucs' rushing attack would thrive in the Wildcat.
"It's a lot of misdirection and a lot of people pulling," Williams said. "It seems so simple, like a simple play, but there's a lot that the defense has to account for on just that one Wildcat formation."
Olson said he hasn't ruled out installing the wildcat at some point -- most likely next season.
"Not to say we won’t do it, but it does take a certain amount of time and preparation," Olson said. "I don't just think you put the Wildcat in and in one week go to work with it. Obviously, you're limited in reps during the season. That's the direction most teams have gone.
"We obviously have some personnel who can run that package. We've talked about it. We actually practiced it a little bit early on in the season. We have a small package. But it takes a certain amount of time and preparation to run a package like that."
This week in practice, the Bucs' "look squad" has had to simulate the Dolphins' version of the Wildcat for the starting defense.
"(Quarterback) Josh Johnson is a guy who can do that," Olson said. "Peanut jumped in there and did it (Wednesday). He’s a guy who has the ability to throw the ball a little bit, although he missed on (a gadget play) Sunday."
Dolphins: Affable left guard Justin Smiley shoulders the load in the Dolphins' fourth-ranked running game, but it appears chronic shoulder injuries will again force him to the sideline this week against the defensively challenged Bucs.
Smiley, who has finished the last two seasons on injured reserve with shoulder and ankle injuries, re-aggravated his surgically repaired shoulder last week against the Patriots. He went to a specialist on Thursday and judging from coach Tony Sparano's grim responses to questions at the team's press conference, the news wasn't good.
"I think Justin's done a good job while he's been in there, to be honest," Sparano said. "We've kind of been up and down as you know. He's played next to Jake (Long) for quite a while. Nonetheless ... next guy has to be ready to go. That's an area where that happens, offensive linemen take a good pounding, so if he doesn't play in the game, next guy will step up and be fine."
Although the Bucs allow an average of 163.4 rushing yards per game, the Dolphins' ground game, including the Wildcat, has faltered the last three weeks, dropping from first (177 yards) in the NFL to fourth (150.9). However, thanks to the Wildcat tweak to become the "WildPat," the Dolphins gained 133 yards against the Patriots. Rookie quarterback Pat White gained 33 yards on an option run, and then pitched to Ricky Williams for a 15-yard rushing touchdown.
But dating back to halftime of the Saints game, the Dolphins' base run game has averaged just 3.36 yards per carry. Running back Ronnie Brown, in particular, is slumping with just 123 yards on 42 attempts (2.9 per carry) the last three games. None of Smiley's potential replacements have much experience or success, including converted tackles Nate Garner and rookie Lydon Murtha or center/guard Joe Berger. Garner and Murtha are massive at 6-feet-7, 320 pounds, not an ideal weight for pulling guards.
Even with Smiley, the Dolphins have allowed 10 sacks in the last three games and 23 overall, which is ranked 26th in the NFL. The Bucs have 17 sacks, including a career-high 5.5 by defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson. Compare that to Miami's 21 sacks, including 5 by linebacker Jason Taylor and 4.5 by defensive end Randy Starks.
"I want to see less sacks, less minus plays, and more of us on the other side of the line of scrimmage," Sparano said. "I want to see us finish blocks and do some of the things that are necessary for us to win. That's something they can do. I told you before, I believe a good line can take over a game, can be the personality of the team, and that's what I'd like to see out of that group."
--DE Stylez G. White (shoulder) did not practice again Friday and is doubtful for Sunday's game at Miami. White had 1.5 sacks last week against the Packers.
--WR Antonio Bryant (knee) did not practice again Friday. He is doubtful for Sunday's game at Miami even though he has had about 10 days off since his knee experienced more swelling.
--WR Michael Clayton (knee) returned to practice Thursday and had full participation.
--WR Maurice Stovall took the first-team reps in place of injured starter Antonio Bryant.
--G Davin Joseph (ankle) was limited in practice Thursday but had full participation on Friday. He is expected to play Sunday.
--CB Aqib Talib (hamstring) was limited in practice Thursday and Friday but is probable for Sunday’s game. Talib leads the Bucs with five INTs.
--OLB Joey Porter, hindered by hamstring and knee ailments, is extremely doubtful for Sunday's game. Cameron Wake is in line to get plenty of action, especially after a solid effort against the Patriots in which he notched a sack and two pressures.
--LG Justin Smiley, considered the Dolphins' best run-blocker, has been out all week with a recurring shoulder injury that has already been surgically repaired twice.
--OT Nate Garner, a converted tackle, has been practicing in Smiley's spot, and may get the start. He was in the rotation last week at right guard behind Donald Thomas. Joe Berger is also a possibility.
--OT Lydon Murtha, a recent pickup from the Lions, is also a tackle who has been taking some snaps at Smiley's spot this week.
--MLB Channing Crowder, who has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, is practicing without limitations and desperately wants to play. However, his fill-in, Reggie Torbor, has been solid in his absence with 14 tackles the last two games.
--TE Anthony Fasano, in the midst of a season-long slump, practiced with limitations due to a hip injury. Backup Joey Haynos has been more productive recently with two touchdown catches in the last two games. Fasano has one touchdown grab after a career-high seven last year. The Dolphins could activate rookie TE John Nalbone.
--NT Paul Soliai is sidelined with an ankle injury.
--Starting NT Jason Ferguson, who missed last week with an elbow injury, is back practicing without limitations.
--LB Erik Walden, a special teams stalwart, has been out all week with a hamstring injury, which could hurt the Dolphins' improving kick-punt special teams units.