Week 8 of the 2018 NFL season gets underway with a matchup of two teams that are somewhat surprisingly in the mix for AFC playoff spots.
The Miami Dolphins are 4-3 despite playing without their starting quarterback for the past two weeks and getting outscored by 26 points through the first seven games of the season. The Houston Texans are also 4-3, but they only got there after starting 0-3 and being gifted consecutive victories by the Colts, Cowboys and Bills before defeating the division rival Jaguars last week.
Both teams are experiencing serious injury issues on both sides of the ball, while the Dolphins can't manage to figure out their running game and the Texans can't block to save their lives. And yet, again, they are both 4-3. And that means whoever wins Thursday night's game (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, Stream on FUBOTV) is going to have a pretty good shot at a playoff berth in the hard-luck AFC.
Let's break down what to watch out for.
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When the Texans have the ball
The Texans lost slot wideout Keke Coutee last week to a recurrence of his hamstring issue and with tight end Ryan Griffin also expected to miss this game, it will likely be up to Deshaun Watson's top two receivers to do pretty much all of the heavy lifting for the Houston offense in this game.
Watson has an extremely narrow pass distribution, targeting Hopkins on 29.4 percent of his pass attempts. Fuller is the next closest player at 16.2 percent while Coutee is after that at 12.4 percent and he is followed by Griffin at 10.4 percent. That quarter of players accounts for 68.4 percent of Watson's throws -- and Coutee really only played in three games, while Fuller has been playing gimpy for several weeks and Griffin missed the last game.
With Coutee and Griffin out, the Texans turned to running back/kick returner Tyler Ervin to man the slot, and he should be expected to fill that role again on Thursday night. Needless to say, Watson is likely to be targeting his top two guys even more often than usual. When he does throw their way, he is usually pretty successful: Watson has completed 74 of 110 passes to Hopkins and Fuller, for 1,086 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. On throws to all other players, Watson is 78 of 131 for 851 yards, three touchdowns, and four picks.
The issue with such a narrow target distribution against Miami is that cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain have performed quite well this season -- as have safeties Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald, and rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins have an NFL-high 11 interceptions and despite allowing 8.3 yards per attempt, their opponents have the NFL's seventh-worst passer rating. Against the five defensive backs who have been targeted at least 10 times in coverage, opposing QBs are just 60 of 110 for 829 yards, three touchdowns, and nine interceptions. That's a 53.9 passer rating, essentially the equivalent of turning every quarterback into Heath Shuler.
It is much easier to move the ball through the air against Miami's linebackers, but all of Houston's interior receivers are hurt. Expecting Watson to matriculate the ball downfield by throwing passes to Ervin, Vyncint Smith, and rookie tight ends Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas is unrealistic.
Perhaps, then, a better bet would be to lean on the run game. Lamar Miller has been wildly ineffective this season, though, and Alfred Blue has not been much better when filling it. Second-year back D'Onta Foreman is still not ready to return from the physically unable to perform list, so Houston is stuck with its two plodding backs who are averaging a combined 3,7 yards per rush on 159 attempts this season. Realistically, Watson is the team's best rushing threat, but the Dolphins have allowed quarterbacks only 71 yards on 11 designed runs or scrambles this season, per Sports Info Solutions.
It figures to be fairly tough sledding for the Houston offense overall.
When the Dolphins have the ball
As banged up as the Texans are, the Dolphins may be even more so. Miami comes into this game missing several important offensive contributors.
Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is still out, dealing with the shoulder injury that has kept him on the sideline for Miami's last two games. Last Sunday against the Lions, wide receivers Albert Wilson and Kenny Stills suffered injuries as well. Wilson does not need surgery on his hip but was still placed on injured reserve and is out for at least eight weeks. Stills has a groin strain and will not suit up on Thursday night. Additionally, rookie tight end Mike Gesicki left the Lions game with a shoulder injury and his status is up in the air. Fellow tight end A.J. Derby has missed the past four games and it's unclear if he will return in time to face the Texans. All of this is in addition to the season-ending injury sustained by guard Josh Sitton earlier in the year.
With Wilson and Stills out, DeVante Parker will step back into the lineup. Parker seemed like a lock to be traded as recently as Sunday morning and is dealing with an injury himself, but instead he'll be right back in the mix. He'll presumably work in three-receiver sets with kick returner Jakeem Grant and (also banged up) slot man Danny Amendola. That trio will catch pass from Brock Osweiler, who is still starting in place of Tannehill.
Got all that? Good. Because there are so many moving parts in the Miami passing game right now, it's hard to know what to expect from them on Thursday night. Osweiler has actually performed admirably in relief of Tannehill, completing 54 of 80 passes for 654 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions so far. That's a passer rating of 107.0, far better than anything Osweiler has done elsewhere in his career. His favorite target through the air has been Amendola, who has 14 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown during the past two games.
Amendola primarily works out of the slot -- an area the Texans have struggled to cover without injured cornerback Aaron Colvin. Opposing teams have completed 66 of 99 passes to slot receivers, according to Sports Info Solutions, while gaining 756 yards and scoring five touchdowns without being intercepted. That works out to a passer rating of 106.3, 22nd in the NFL. Parker and Grant will presumably face tougher tests on the outside. Passers have been far less effective targeting perimeter receivers against Houston, per SIS, completing 47 of 82 passes for 627 yards, five touchdowns, and three picks (86.8 passer rating). Considering Parker has been inactive and Grant is primarily a return man, it would not be a surprise if they could not really get going -- especially considering the Texans' pass rush will likely force Osweiler to get rid of the ball quickly. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are extremely difficult to deal with, especially for an offensive line that is not at full strength.
Still, it is far easier to move the ball on Houston through the air than it is on the ground, indicating that the Dolphins are likely to work Kenyan Drake into their backfield more often than Frank Gore. Gore has maintained a hold on the early-down role for the Dolphins, while Drake has become more of a space back. His presence could help Osweiler find quick outlets if the rush appears to be bearing down on him.
Prediction: Texans 17, Dolphins 13