The kickoff to the 2006 NFL Season is here, and lo and behold, our Pittsburgh Steelers are slated for the league's opening game. Pittsburgh plays host to the Miami Dolphins this Thursday, a game that will start at 8:30 pm EST airing on ESPN.
When Miami Has The Ball...The Dolphins hope the arrival of Daunte Culpepper will improve a pass attack that was relatively pedestrian last year . Miami was the 16th rated pass offense in passing yards, 11th in TDs, and dead last in completion percentage. Among all qualified quarterback ins NFL history (at least 1500 passing attempts), Culpepper ranks 5th in passer rating, and 3rd in completion percentage . With Marty Booker, TE Randy McMichael, and the acrobatic Chris Chambers to throw to, Culpepper should help turn Miami into a top-10 passing offense.
Sure Culpepper will make plays, but the bread and butter of Miami's offense will continue to be the running game, with 2nd year back Ronnie Brown primed for a huge year. Last year, the rookie out of Auburn started 14 games for the Fins, rushing for 907 yards on 207 attempts, an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Remember, he was sharing running duties with Ricky Williams, so those numbers are quite a bit lower than they would be had Brown been alone in Miami's backfield. With Ricky out of the way, I fully expect Brown to amass at least 1200 yards. This could be a very balanced, and at times explosive, offense.
Miami's offense will have to cut down on the turnovers if they hope to remain competitive in the deep AFC. They gave the ball away 30 times last year (16 INTs and 14 fumbles), the tenth worst clip in the entire NFL. Culpepper had a strong proclivity to throw the ball into traffic last year before getting hurt, and he's had a history of fumbling the football, so turnovers are definitely going to be a major concern for this team throughout the entire season.
The Dolphins were also the 7th most penalized team in the NFL last year. That's uncharacteristic of a Nick Saban coached football team, and I expect that number to improve this year.
When Pittsburgh Has The Ball ...I'm not sure what adjustments Miami will have to make preparing for Charlie Batch instead of Big Ben. For starters, it's more than likely that our play calling will be more conservative and limited with Batch at the helm. We can also kiss the no-huddle `Texas' offense goodbye for a few weeks.
Miami was slightly better against the run than they were against the pass a year ago. They are led defensively by the tackle machine Zach Thomas, who despite not being the tallest or fastest guy on the field, still finds ways to make plays with astonishing frequency. On the line, they count on Keith Traylor to clog up the middle and on Jason Taylor to rush the quarterback. Even though Taylor was 31 years old last year, he still recorded 12 sacks and 74 tackles. In the secondary, Miami is hoping the additions of Renaldo Hill at SS from Oakland and CB Will Allen from the New York Giants will help shore up a pass defense that was porous at times last year. They are also counting on 2nd year CB Travis Daniels to improve from a year ago.
The Dolphins did improve significantly in the second half of the season record wise, but as you can see here , they actually gave up quite a few points during that late 6-game winning streak (no games with fewer than 20 pts allowed). I expect the Steelers to give the Dolphins a hefty dose of Willie Parker throughout this game, with Duce Staley and Verron Haynes each carrying the ball 5-10 times a piece as well. Unfortunately, I believe Batch and Hines Ward will struggle getting on the same page early on. Remember, even though Batch spent lots of time working with the first-team offense, he wasn't able to work with Hines, who missed almost all of camp with a hamstring injury. Instead, I see Whisenhunt finding a way to get Heath Miller the ball over the middle off of play-action, and I see Cedrick Wilson having 7-10 balls thrown his way. I'm also anxious to see if Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid, and Nate Washington can help take the pressure of Batch and Ward by making a few plays. Let's not count out the possibility that Mr. Whisenhunt will have a gadget play or two tucked up his sleeve.
Ultimately, this game, like so many others in the NFL, will come down to turnovers. The Steelers are going to have to force a couple in order to give Batch the short field he may need to put points on the board. Fortunately this one's being played at Heinz Field. Opening game of the season at Heinz? Sounds like a rowdy environment to me. A botched snap, a few timely false starts or delays of game all may halt Miami's momentum just enough to allow Pittsburgh to squeak by a much improved Miami team.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins the turnover battle, Parker runs for 100+ yards, and we escape with a 20-17 win to start the 2006 season.