Things are never easy for a rookie quarterback in the NFL and Miami's Ryan Tannehill is finding that out rather quickly.
Tannehill, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, leads his Dolphins into the desert on Sunday to face off with an Arizona Cardinals team off to its best start in 38 years, thanks in large part to one of the NFL's toughest front sevens.
The Dolphins arrive in Glendale at 1-2 after a heartbreaking overtime loss to AFC East rival New York in South Florida last Sunday. Miami kicker Dan Carpenter missed from 48 yards out in the extra frame before the Jets drove from their own 38 to the Miami 15 with their second possession of the OT to set up Nick Folk's 33-yard game winner in a 23-20 New York win.
Tannehill threw for 196 yards on 16-of-36 passing with a costly interception for Miami, which earned an impressive 35-13 home win over Oakland a week earlier. Daniel Thomas and Jorvorskie Lane each ran for a score for the Dolphins, who racked up 185 yards on the ground.
Miami's star running back, Reggie Bush, left just before halftime with a knee injury. The USC product, who had run for 61 yards on 10 carries was hit in the knee by a helmet during a carry.
"We knew it was going to be a physical game coming in and I think it definitely played out that way," Tannehill said.
Bush underwent an MRI exam earlier this week which revealed no structural damage and he could be available this week.
"It's just a bruise," Bush said during his weekly Tuesday morning appearance on a local radio show in South Florida. "I'm working hard to get back for this week."
The Dolphins will need Bush against an Arizona defense which has fueled an impressive 3-0 start, including a 27-6 drubbing of the Philadelphia Eagles last week. Linebacker Daryl Washington and safety Kerry Rhodes were particularly effective in limiting Michael Vick.
Kevin Kolb haunted his former team, throwing for 222 yards and two touchdowns, in the win as the Cardinals improved to 3-0 for the first time since 1974 when the franchise was still based in St. Louis.
Kolb, who completed 17-of-24 passes vs. the Eagles, was traded from Philadelphia to Arizona in August of 2011, but his tenure with the Cardinals has been marred by injuries and inconsistent play.
The sixth-year pro was originally edged out for the starting job by the strong-armed John Skelton during this year's preseason until an ankle sprain sidelined Skelton during Week 1.
"I'm going to enjoy it, don't get me wrong," Kolb said about beating his former team. "But the biggest thing is being 3-0. To be 3-0 against the teams we have played and the fashion that we have won, it has been exciting."
The Dolphins are 8-2 all-time against the Cardinals franchise but the Cards have taken the past two. including a 31-10 rout in the desert back on Sept. 14, 2008 in the last game in the series.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
The Dolphins were intent on building a strong running game in order to take some of the pressure off Tannehill and have been very successful early on, averaging. 175.7 rush yards per game, good for third in the AFC.
Bush seems to have finally turned the corner as a complete back. He's always been dangerous in space but now can also do damage between the tackles. Bush is averaging over 111 rushing yards per game over his last seven contests dating back to last season. Rookie Lamar Miller has been a nice compliment, netting nearly 6.0 yards per carry in limited touches (19 att, 113 yards).
Tannehill has been shaky in his first three starts, completing 54-of- 102 passes for 615 yards with just one touchdown and four picks for a dismal passer rating of 58.3. You can imagine how bad those numbers might be if the Dolphins weren't running the ball so successfully.
Protection hasn't been a major problem for Miami's line, which relies heavily on star left tackle Jake Long but the outside threats are lacking. Davone Bess had a had season-high 86 receiving yards last week but he isn't really a home run hitter and he's the Dolphins' best option. Brian Hartline and tight end Anthony Fasano are solid players but lack the speed to stretch the field.
Arizona's defense, on the other hand, is extremely aggressive and athletic. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Washington have been playing at an extremely high level early this season and Patrick Peterson is developing into a true shutdown corner. Pro Bowl safety Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson could also return from an ankle injury.
The Cards' 12 sacks are tied for second in the NFL and they have at least two in an NFL-best nine straight games.
You can bet Dockett along with fellow DT Dan Williams will be keying on the running came and trying to force Tannehill to covert 3rd-and-long situations.
"We have a swagger and a lot of confidence," Washington said. "We believe in one another and as the season progresses, we'll continue to get better."
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Kolb is certainly no superstar but it's now conceivable he could at least game-manage a Cardinals club with a destructive defense into the postseason. Of course any hiccup could also force coach Ken Whisenhunt to go back to Skelton at some point since the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former Fordham star has the size and big-time arm that Kolb lacks.
For now, however, it's Kolb, who currently ranks third in NFL with 108.6 passer rating, at the helm of a team that is off to its best start in nearly 40 years, has won seven straight home games and taken 10 of 12 contests dating back to last season.
Kolb has plenty of help on the outside. Larry Fitzgerald might be the NFL's best receiver and rookie Michael Floyd has a ton of upside. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet are also solid threats while.
Fitzgerald was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after snaring nine receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinals victory last Sunday. On his second catch of the game, Fitzgerald notched his 700th career reception, becoming the youngest player in NFL history to reach 700 career receptions.
In the backfield Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams were a solid if unspectacular duo but Wells was put on the injured reserve-designated to return list with turf toe Wednesday.
The new NFL rule allows Wells, who suffered the injury against Philadelphia, to return this season, but he must remain on the list for at least six weeks unable to practice and is not eligible to return to the active roster for at least eight weeks. The four-year veteran is coming off the lone 1,000-yard season of his career, amassing 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns on 245 carries through 14 games in 2011.
Arizona re-signed running back Alfonso Smith to take Wells' spot on the roster but that's a significant downgrade.
The Miami defense is led by former Arizona playmaker Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker and is at it's best when Cameron Wake is wreaking havoc as an outside pass rusher. Kolb has struggled mightily with strong pass rushes in the past so making him uncomfortable early will be paramount to any Miami success.
Any team with a rookie quarterback is going to go through some growing pains and that's what is happening with Miami right now. Tannehill has just not been able to make enough plays so far and it's not going to get any easier this week.
Peterson will likely be able shut down one side of the field and enable Arizona to throw some exotic blitzes at Tannehill, which should be enough to secure a perfect September for the Cards.
"I'm assuming that we're playing an excellent football team," Miami head coach Joe Philbin said. "I think there are three teams that are 3-0. So they've got to be awful good and we've got to be ready to play a heck of a ballgame."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 23, Dolphins 10