Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 2 match between the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins:
1. The Wild Card – That's what Head Coach Anthony Lynn dubbed quarterback Jay Cutler, who came out of retirement to join the Dolphins as Ryan Tannehill was lost for the season during training camp. Cutler had one of his most successful years playing for Miami Head Coach Adam Gase when he was the QB's offensive coordinator in Chicago. In addition, the veteran passer has shown the ability to get hot at a moment's notice. Still, with only about a month's worth of practice and limited action during the preseason, nobody is sure what to expect when Cutler takes the field. Still, Lynn knows his team is in for a challenge:
"Jay's a heck of a quarterback. He's got a big arm. He has some escapability. I remember him running around in Denver, keeping the ball. He made a lot of plays off schedule. To me that's when he's most dangerous. Those are the plays you can't prepare for. He's kind of a wild card. He didn't play a lot in the preseason. I expect him to pick up where he left off when he left the league."
2. Who Wins on the Ground? – The Bolts expect a heavy dose of Jay Ajayi, which is to be expected as the running back thrives in a smash mouth attack. One of the best in the league at breaking tackles, the third-year rusher can also truck would-be defenders. Ajayi is another Dolphin dangerous when he gets on a roll, evidenced by back-to-back 200-yard games on the ground a year ago. Meanwhile, the Chargers look to get Melvin Gordon rolling in a similar fashion. With a rare blend of power and athleticism, Gordon is another back who gets better as the game goes on. Whichever team is able to sustain the stronger rushing attack will have a leg up. For the Chargers defense, that means bringing down one of the hardest players in the NFL to tackle according to Gus Bradley:
"Trying to look at his style, and what makes him unique (is) he's strong. A very strong runner. He does a good job. He's more of a one-cut runner. Gets north and south real fast. Does a good job with their offensive line. They do a good job of holding their blocks, and trying to get you to really run and get your shoulders turned. So setting the edge on the perimeter and keeping him confined (is important), but there is a reason he's had 200-plus yard games rushing. He's very talented."
3. Tighten Up on Thomas – L.A. struggled to contain the tight end at times in Denver. Now they face Julius Thomas, a former Bronco in his first year in Miami who has established himself as one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league. Just like Cutler, Thomas is back with Gase, who brought the best out of the tight end while paired together in Denver. Ultra-athletic, Thomas is at his best in the red zone, so the Bolts will need to be wary of where he is at all times. No one knows Thomas' ability better than Bradley, who coached him the past two seasons in Jacksonville:
"For him, he's back in Adam Gase's system and Adam will try to utilize his strengths. (He'll) put him in situations where he can be successful. So we anticipate seeing him move around quite a bit for matchups. They have him in there in 11-personnel. They'll pick and choose their spots for him."
4. Third Down Improvement – The Chargers have traditionally been one of the best teams on third down with Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt at the helm. However, while it's been a trademark in the past, the team struggled mightily in the season opener, converting only 25-percent (3-of-12) of their chances. Whiz isn't concerned about the team's fortunes going forward, but stressed the offense must do a better job setting up more manageable situations on the money down:
"We were talking about that, and I was looking at my call sheet. You have so many plays for each section of that for down and distances. We used all of them. Sometimes we had to repeat in that 3rd-and-7 to 10 area, and that's tough. If you look at the league statistics for success in that down and distance, it's not real good. So, how can we do better? Stay out of the 3rd-and-seven to 10. That will help."
5. Contain the Three Headed-Monster – Few teams boast a better three-headed monster at wide receiver than the Miami Dolphins. Leading the way is Jarvis Landry, fresh off two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons including a monster 2016 campaign in which he caught 94 passes for 1,136 yards and four touchdowns. Then there's DeVante Parker, a big 6-3 target who hauled in 56 passes last season for 744 yards and four TDs. Rounding out the trio is Kenny Stills, a speedster who is one of the NFL's biggest deep threats. He notched 42 receptions a year ago for 726 yards and nine touchdowns. The task for limiting the trio got tougher on Friday when the Chargers announced that Jason Verrett would miss the game due to his knee. Thus, Lynn said the likes of Trevor Williams and Desmond Kind will be counted on to step up:
"Next man up. In this game, that's the way it is. One guy goes down, the next guy's up. Trevor is going to step (in), absolutely. We'll ask (Desmond) to play some in the nickel, and wherever else we need him to. He's a versatile player."