When the Dolphins run: Miami returns the No. 25 run offense from last season and goes against the Chargers’ 28th-ranked run defense in 2022. That doesn’t tell the whole story as the Dolphins were much better on a yards-per-carry basis. They just didn’t run the ball quite enough last season.
Coach Mike McDaniel has said he will be more committed to the run game in 2023. Raheem Mostert will surely lead the ground game Sunday, especially with Jeff Wilson Jr. starting the season on injured reserve. Mostert comes off a career year of 891 rushing yards and a 4.9 yards-per-carry average. Behind him, it’ll be interesting to see how much action either rookie De’Von Achane or veteran Salvon Ahmed see with Wilson out — or even undrafted rookie Chris Brooks after he surprisingly made the team.
The Dolphins offensive line looked strong run blocking in the preseason, but the unit doesn’t appear likely to have left tackle Terron Armstead ready in time to start the opener. While former Chargers linebacker and leading tackler in 2022, Drue Tranquill, went to the Chiefs in the offseason, Los Angeles picked up Eric Kendricks in the offseason. The Chargers’ down linemen don’t get a strong push up front, and they usually need hard-hitting safety Derwin James to come down into the box in run support. Edge: Dolphins
When the Chargers run: Although they have one of the NFL’s most dynamic running backs, the Chargers didn’t go to the ground game much either in 2022, ranking 28th in the league in rushing attempts and 30th in yards. Of course, that could change this season with Kellen Moore the new offensive coordinator. Austin Ekeler is more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield, but he did average 4.5 yards per attempt in 2022, totaling 915 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Center Corey Linsley is one of the better in the game at his position.
The Dolphins return the fourth-ranked run defense in the NFL. Christian Wilkins, Zach Sieler and Raekwon Davis are all back up front — Sieler fresh off a contract extension and Wilkins still looking to show he’s worth a targeted price the Dolphins are yet to agree to. New inside linebacker addition David Long Jr. is a nice complement to Jerome Baker off the ball. When strong safety Brandon Jones, off his recovery from a torn ACL, is in the game, he offers strong run support. Edge: Dolphins
When the Dolphins pass: This area was the biggest reason why Miami lost last December’s matchup. The Chargers schemed up a perfect game plan to neutralize the Dolphins’ aerial attack, pressing receivers and taking away the middle of the field. It’s on McDaniel to devise a counter, and it helps quarterback Tua Tagovailoa that he has gone against Vic Fangio’s defense, which is closer to what coach Brandon Staley runs in Los Angeles, throughout camp. Former Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill is also now a Dolphins assistant.
Dolphins receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, after combining for the third-most receiving yards for a duo in NFL history last season, will look to get off the line of scrimmage better if the Chargers go back to that press-man coverage. Cornerback Michael Davis was big for LA in that regard last year. They also have ballhawk J.C. Jackson back from injury and St. Thomas Aquinas High product Asante Samuel Jr. at cornerback, along with James at safety.
The Chargers also didn’t have edge rusher Joey Bosa active last year, and now with him on one side and Khalil Mack on the other, it’s concerning for the Dolphins’ pass protection. Right tackle Austin Jackson will have one of them, and if Armstead can’t play, enter Kendall Lamm as the backup left tackle. Edge: Chargers
When the Chargers pass: It’ll be the debut of Fangio’s defense, and it’s quite the opening challenge going against quarterback Justin Herbert. Last year, Herbert tore up the Dolphins, going 39 of 51 for 367 yards and a touchdown. Fangio’s more selective use of the blitz and greater variety of zone coverages as opposed to man can limit big plays in the passing game while putting defenders in position to force turnovers.
Herbert, coming off his big new contract this offseason, still has his big receivers in the 6-foot-4 Mike Williams and 6-2 Keenan Allen, as well as 6-1 former St. Thomas Aquinas standout Josh Palmer. All are coming off 750-plus-yard seasons, and the Chargers drafted TCU’s Quentin Johnston, who is 6-4, in the first round of this year’s draft. Not to mention Ekeler is an elite receiver as a tailback.
It’s a shame the Dolphins don’t have Jalen Ramsey after the prized offseason acquisition tore the meniscus in his left knee on the second day of training camp. Howard, Kader Kohou, Eli Apple and maybe rookie Cam Smith will have their hands full against this receiving corps, along with Jevon Holland and whichever safety is alongside him between Brandon Jones and DeShon Elliott. Edge: Chargers
Special teams: Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders is coming off a season where he went 26 of 32 on field goals with four of his misses coming from beyond 50 yards. New punter Jake Bailey is largely an unknown coming off his back injury that cut his time with the Patriots short. Is he the former All-Pro or will his effectiveness be curtailed? The Dolphins should benefit in the punt return game from adding former Miami Hurricanes standout Braxton Berrios in the offseason.
Young Chargers kicker Cameron Dicker made 19 of 20 field goal attempts as a rookie last season, with the one miss from beyond 50. JK Scott handles punting duties for L.A., and after the Chargers let DeAndre Carter walk after they drafted Derius Davis in the return game. He could be dangerous after an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 1 of the preseason. Edge: Even
Intangibles: The Chargers have the advantage of starting off at home, and Staley got McDaniel the first time these two young head coaches went at it. But don’t discount McDaniel’s ability to adjust off of that, especially now that he has Fangio and Hill on his side, offering advice on potential counters against L.A.’s game plan. SoFi Stadium, while an incredibly impressive state-of-the-art facility, is not an intimidating road environment. Edge: Even
PREDICTION: Dolphins 27, Chargers 23