MINNEAPOLIS — Ronnie Brown could laugh about it later. But as he headed off the field after fumbling the ball away at his own 25 with 5:46 remaining and the Dolphins clinging to a 14-10 lead, he looked skyward and offered up a prayer that the defense would stop Minnesota one more time.
“My prayer worked,” Brown said with a grin.
Both Brown and running mate Ricky Williams lost fumbles, but Miami still escaped with the 14-10 victory because of its defense and a running game that otherwise proved effective.
“It’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “But you thank God when you can fumble and still come out with a win. We’re going to work on it and it’s not going to happen again.”
The Dolphins lost two or more fumbles only twice last season, three in a season-opening loss to Atlanta and two in a win over Jacksonville. They lost only 10 on the season.
Williams’ fumble came on the first play after cornerback Jason Allen intercepted at the Miami 2 late in the third quarter. Two plays after Williams coughed it up, Minnesota scored its only touchdown on a 1-yard run by Adrian Peterson. That cut Miami’s lead to 14-7.
“(It’s) just a situation that can’t happen,” Brown said.
The Dolphins knew it would be a physical battle. Coach Tony Sparano said last week that his players better bring their “big-boy pads,” and there was a sense that they had to establish the run against a team that has led the NFL in rush defense three of the last four years.
“Games like this,” Williams said, “where it becomes a slugfest, we feel we have an advantage because that’s what we work on every day.”
The plan was to establish the run early and the Dolphins did, racking up 90 of their 120 rushing yards in the first half. The Dolphins had 23 rushing yards on their opening drive, moving 73 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead with just 4:40 elapsed.
The big play was a 46-yard pass from Chad Henne to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, but then Miami ran the ball five times in a row before trying another pass. The touchdown came on a 5-yard reception by Brian Hartline.
“That’s just our philosophy — we’re going to run the football, and we’re a good running team,” Sparano said after the Dolphins passed a mere 15 times, completing nine. “Our backs are good runners and those guys up front did a nice job.”
Williams’ fumble occurred the second time Miami started a drive at its 1. On the first, after a Vontae Davis interception late in the first half, Brown ripped off the fifth-longest run of his career, flashing through a hole off left tackle for 51 yards before being pushed out of bounds by safety Madieu Williams at the Minnesota 48.
“They ran a line stunt and we caught them right in the soft part of the defense,” said left guard Richie Incognito, whose ability to pin Pat Williams inside combined with Jake Long moving Jared Allen outside created the gaping hole. “Ronnie popped out and it was a big gain at a pivotal time.”
Some of the Dolphins’ early running success came out of the Wildcat formation, including gains of 5, 6 and 7 yards on the opening drive.
“That’s taking advantage of how aggressive their defense is,” Brown said. “They get in the backfield and try to penetrate. They try to get to the quarterback, but on the way try to play the run.”
The two fumbles helped short-circuit the offense in the second half, when Miami totaled just 68 yards, 30 on the ground.
“They put more guys in the box and tried to support their front four a little bit more,” tight end Anthony Fasano said. “We made some adjustments, and we’d like to have some of those plays back. But we got done what we needed to.”
Perhaps, but they also picked up only one first down in the fourth quarter while forcing the defense to come up big on three consecutive Vikings possessions.
“We’ve got to do better at the end,” Long said. “We’ve got to put it on our shoulders to run the ball, and run the clock out in that situation. We didn’t do that well enough, but the defense played lights out. Give them a lot of credit.”
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