Cam Newton will be the first of three mobile quarterbacks that the Miami Dolphins will face over the final six games.
At 5-5, the Miami Dolphins are tied for the final wild card spot in the AFC. The Dolphins held on Sunday to top the San Diego Chargers at home, where they will remain as perhaps their toughest remaining challenge comes to town on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers.
Like Miami, Carolina is coming off of an emotional, although much more controversial, victory over the New England Patriots on Monday. Carolina is off to a 7-3 start and in line for its first playoff appearance since 2008. The face of the franchise is now without a doubt former Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick, Cam Newton.
Sunday's contest with Carolina will be Miami's first ever look at Newton, but a look similar to the ones the Dolphins will see over the final six games of the season. Despite being 6'5" and 245 pounds, Newton is one of the best running quarterbacks in the NFL.
Considering that Miami will meet the New York Jets' and rookie quarterback Geno Smith twice in the final five weeks and Buffalo's E.J. Manuel once, defending a running quarterback is something that Miami will need to get used to down the final stretch of the season.
Though Newton's rushing numbers are slightly down from his first two seasons in the league, Newton has averaged 4.7 yards-per-carry on 70 carries. 27 of which have resulted in first downs.
Newton also won't be the first athletic quarterback that Miami has faced this season. The Dolphins saw Indianapolis' Andrew Luck in Week 2, but unlike Luck, who gets most of his rushing yards on scrambles and improvisation plays, Newton is an intricate part of the Panthers' ground game by design.
This week may provide a real opportunity for the linebackers that Miami acquired in the offseason to earn their money. Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe replaced veteran linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett in the offseason. While Dansby and Burnett were more known for their run-stuffing abilities, the offseason signings were designed to add some speed to the position and the ability to go sideline to sideline.
Ellerbe and Wheeler, who have not been regarded as great additions thus far, could play a huge role down the stretch of the season guarding against the zone-read games of Carolina, New York and Buffalo as Miami makes its playoff push.
The Jets also run a wildcat package in which Bilal Powell takes shotgun snaps. Off of that, the Jets will run jet sweeps to the outside which will also place a bigger responsibility on the linebacking contingent.
Defending the zone-read offense was an area where the Dolphins struggled a season ago. Miami allowed Seattle's Russell Wilson to average nearly eight yards-per-carry on the ground and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick nearly nine, including a 50-yard touchdown run that put the game away for the 49ers last December.
The safety combination of Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons will also bear a bigger responsibility in coming up to stop the run. Jones and Clemons were solid for the Dolphins in 2012 and were thought to be the strength of the secondary heading into 2013.
To this point, the two are off to less than spectacular seasons. Both Jones and Clemons each have one interception on the year and neither have yet to either force or recover a fumble.
While the 2013 season for the Miami Dolphins has been one of highs, lows and many distractions, the Dolphins sit in very good position to make a final push for the playoffs. Though the offensive line and the play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be major points of concern down the stretch, how the Miami back seven handles the zone-read games of the Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets may ultimately decide the Dolphins' playoff fate.
Although it has been against traditional running styles this season, Miami ranks just 25th in the NFL allowing nearly 123 yards-per-game on the ground. The Dolphins have not held a team below 100 yards rushing since October 20th against a Buffalo team playing without Manuel and with the halfback combination of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller both banged up.