Of the 16 players listed on the Dolphins’ injury report this week, 11 either were limited in or did not practice Wednesday. Nine of the walking wounded are starters—10 if you count first-string center Mike Pouncey (out, knee) and his replacement, Anthony Steen (doubtful, ankle).
The short week forced by the NFL’s Thursday games can be brutal from the perspectives of travel and game planning, but it’s the lingering bumps and bruises that often present the toughest challenges.
“We’ve got a couple of moving pieces, obviously, with our injury situation,” Miami coach Adam Gase said during a press conference this week.
Pouncey, TE Jordan Cameron, RB Arian Foster and LB Koa Misi all are no-gos for Thursday, and Misi likely will be joined on the sideline by fellow starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins. The drop-offs from Misi and Jenkins on the depth chart may not be massive, but a lack of depth in the second level bodes poorly for a team already sporting the league’s second-worst rush defense.
Veteran Donald Butler and Neville Hewitt figure to join the team’s lone relatively healthy linebacker, Kiko Alonso, in holding down the fort behind Miami’s line. Cincinnati, despite its early statistics pointing to the contrary, will want to get its backfield duo of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard rolling Thursday night. Andy Dalton currently is attempting 38.3 passes per game, which is far too high of a number.
Of course, Cincinnati has its own injury woes. Tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) is listed as doubtful after sitting out his team’s first three games, meaning that Dalton again will be without one of his favorite targets.
Without Eifert, the Bengals have found it difficult to establish a true second option in the passing game. Even superstar A.J. Green has found the sledding difficult in the meantime—he’s averaging just 57.5 yards over the past two games, both Bengals’ losses, and is without a TD since Week 1.
Another “moving piece” for this game comes at the cornerback spot for Cincinnati. Dre Kirkpatrick, off to an excellent start this season, joins Eifert under the doubtful designation with a calf injury. His absence would put Darqueze Dennard under the gun as the fill-in for Kirkpatrick on the outside; Josh Shaw, off to a surprisingly strong start in 2016, likely would stay in the slot.
Depending on how all that comes together, Miami QB Ryan Tannehill could find some holes downfield. Two key members of his receiving corps, Jarvis Landry (shoulder) and DeVante Parker (hamstring) are questionable for Thursday’s game, but keep in mind that the NFL did away with its probable tag. Parker practiced in full all week.
This is almost a must-have game for the Bengals. Like the Dolphins, they are off to a 1–2 start on the year. But while their Thursday night foes will head home for three straight games after this, Cincinnati visits Dallas in Week 5 and New England (with Tom Brady) in Week 6. Taking on a third loss prior to that road trip would be rough.
The arrows do point Cincinnati’s way, though, for reasons beyond Miami’s myriad of injuries. The Dolphins’ defense has holes all over its back seven, and those problems were revealed repeatedly in Weeks 2 and 3.
The Bengals should be able to keep Tannehill uncomfortable, hit a handful of big plays on offense and get back to .500.
Key player: Vontaze Burfict, LB, Bengals
After serving a three-game suspension to start the year, Burfict makes his 2016 debut Thursday night. Cincinnati’s run defense tends to be fiercer with Burfict in the lineup, which is even worse news for Miami, as that’s a spot where Miami has its hands full as it is—Tannehill actually leads an unsettled backfield with a paltry 54 yards rushing this season.
Bold prediction: Brandon LaFell catches his first TD pass as a Bengal
Rookie Tyler Boyd played 60 snaps in Week 2 but just 24 during a Week 3 loss to Denver. Whether that was because of Cincinnati’s desire to run the ball or because Boyd fumbled late against Pittsburgh (albeit controversially since his knee appeared to be down), it could point toward a heavier workload for LaFell. The ex-Patriot saw just three targets vs. the Broncos, but this is a much more favorable matchup.