A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do a question and answer session with Danny Tuccitto of Football Outsiders. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, as I had just gotten my copy of the 2011Football Outsiders Almanac. For those of you who have never seen the almanac, it's a wealth of knowledge about every team, and every player, in the NFL, with a review of last season, and then a prediction of the this year. The Almanac is the essential guide to the 2011 season, the book that correctly predicted 9 of 12 playoff teams last year, fully updated with post-lockout free agency and trades.
After reading the Dolphins section of the book, I asked the following questions (bold text) to Danny, with is responses in italics:
You write that Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jake Long was arguably the best offensive lineman in the league in the first half of the season last year. With his injuries last year, how big a fall off did he have in the second half? Where did he finish the season?
In the second half of the season, the Dolphins actually were a more successful run offense behind left tackle and outside left than they were in the first half. However, in pass protection, Long blew five blocks from Weeks 11 to 17 -- leading to 3 sacks -- after only blowing one block through Week 10. So, at least according to our game charters, it seems that his run-blocking got better, but his pass-blocking got worse. Of course, this is all relative. Worse for Long is still better than almost every other left tackle.
Marc Colombo was brought in to anchor the right side of Miami's offensive line. The former Dallas Cowboys right tackle is, as you described, a "declining and increasingly injury-prone player." So far this preseason, he has appeared to be a revolving door, letting anyone, especially speed rushers, get clear shots at quarterback Chad Henne. Has Colombo always had difficulty with speed rushers, and was his decline this evident in Dallas (given they released him for a reason)?
I think your assessment of Colombo's preseason is accurate. I went back and watched the Dolphins' third preseason game (vs. Tampa Bay), and his overall performance -- especially early on -- was borderline comical (not to Dolphins fans, of course). Because I'm no offensive line expert, I posed your question to Ben Muth (our resident offensive line guru) and Sean McCormick (the author of the Dolphins' chapter). They both agree that Colombo got worse as last season went on, and that this preseason looks like a simple continuation of the downward trend; to an extent that can't be explained away by last year's nagging ankle injury.
As you put it, Randy Starks was the MVP of the Dolphins' defensive line last year. Yet, Jared Odrick, returning from injury, seems to be making a move for the starting spot. Based on the limited NFL experience of Odrick, who was injured last October, would you expect Odrick to actually be an improvement over Starks, or is this just a case of trying to justify a first round pick, and get the younger player on the field?
I don't think the decision to Starks or Odrick matters much one way or another in the grand scheme of things. Both will play plenty if healthy. For instance, Except for the fourth and fifth series, where they alternated playing the entire series, Starks was right defensive end in their base 3-4 on early downs, and Odrick came in at right defensive end when they went to a four-man line in nickel. Overall, Starks played 14 snaps, and Odrick played 18.
Linebacker Kevin Burnett was brought in to Miami to replace the released, and now (temporarily) retired, Channing Crowder. One of the Dolphins' biggest defensive weaknesses over the pas few years was linebackers in coverage. Can you compare/contrast Burnett with Crowder in coverage?
According to our game charters, Crowder actually had about a 65 percent success rate on passes thrown to who he was covering last season; 80 percent success against tight ends. In comparison, Burnett had a 75 percent success rate on passes to his guy; 80 percent success against tight ends. However, their responsibilities were somewhat different. Burnett was mostly covering running backs, whereas Crowder was mostly covering tight ends. So, at least statistically speaking,it seems like a wash, or perhaps a slight improvement.
And, speaking of linebackers in coverage, the Dolphins appear to be unable to stop a tight end up the middle over the past few years. If a team needed to pick up yardage, it was almost too easy to find an open tight end right in the middle of the field, and most likely, there was no one around to stop him once he caught the pass. Have the Dolphins really been that bad in tight end coverage, or is it just us as fans overreacting to the problem?
It's not a figment of fans' imagination. According to our play-by-play efficiency metric, DVOA, the Dolphins' pass defense against tight ends was fifth-worst in the NFL last season. In 2009, they were 24th. I went back and looked at what our game charters had to say for 2010, and what seemed to be the biggest problems were that (a) Yeremiah Bell was in coverage on many of the opponents' successful plays, and (b) tight ends frequently found holes in the Dolphins' zones.
I would sincerely like to thank Danny Tuccitto, and all of the Football Outsiders staff for agreeing to do this with me. If you are interested in picking up the book, you have two options. You can either download the digital version of the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac (.pdf format), or you can purchase the print copy of the book. I personally would highly recommend getting this work, as not only does it provide you a good look at the Miami Dolphins, as well as all 31 other team, but you will learn something new about the game - no matter how long you have been following the game, or how much you hink you know about the NFL.