The Miami Dolphins are a better team that most thought, but they're not a good team (yet).
Amid many excellent performances, there were enough crucial mistakes to prevent a victory. We weren't outplayed or outclassed - we just repeatedly shot ourselves in the foot, especially one awful, unforced turnover by my least favorite Dolphins player in recent memory. The Dolphins played better this game than last week but still couldn't keep it together for a full game, leading to a another late-game collapse.
Let's start with Special Teams - an "okay" performance, with inconsistency in field goal kicking and returns like last week.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter went 2 for 3 on field goal attempts, making the two field goals that were under 40 yards but missing a 51 yard field goal. Like last week, it's fair to say his missed FG would have won the game. Just remember a 51 yard field goal is not high-percentage field goal, and like last week, the missed FG was only one of several ingredients in our defeat.
Kick coverage: On 6 kickoffs, the Dolphins had 3 touchbacks. In the 3 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Cardinals to an average of 30 yards per return, with a long of 41 yards. Dan Carpenter made a "game-saving" tackle to prevent a game-winning TD on that long return since a touchdown would have ended overtime immediately.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 1 return for 23 yards - the other 3 kicks were touchbacks.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 5 times for an average of 44.2 yards, with a net average punting yards of 40.6. On 4 punt returns, Patrick Peterson (an excellent returner) was held to an average of 4 yards per return and a long of 8 yards, partly due to repeated fumbling issues.
Punt returns: Thigpen forgot about the fair catch rule and repeatedly chose to let punts bounce on the ground, which due to unfavorable bounces led an extra 10-15 yards per Cardinals punt. Unsurprisingly, he was switched out in favor of Davone Bess, who was willing to try to catch the ball and had 1 return for 9 yards plus 2 fair catches. The Arizona Cardinals' punter Dave Zastudil averaged 47.3 net yards punting on 9 punts, with 3 downed inside the 20 yard line, and a long of 68 yards. Reshad Jones was called for holding on one punt return.
Coaching/Overall - Punting and fielding kickoffs went well. However, kicking field goals was only near perfect, which played a role in our defeat in a close game, and the Dolphins were poor returning punts and covering kickoffs. A not-so great performance by a unit that began the year at an elite level, though we were without Marlon Moore, one of our top special teams players. I'm not ready to raise the alarm on Carpenter until he starts missing field goals under 45 yards (which he has not) OR if he repeatedly fails to make any from beyond 45 yards (3 kicks is too small a sample size to say he's lost his range), but I understand the concern, and I agree he has to start connecting from distance to earn his keep. Just remember, he did hit a field goal to send the Jets game to overtime, so it's not like he's always failed us in pressure situations this year. It's been an issue with distance, not pressure. After a promising debut in week 1, Thigpen has had a limited impact. Special teams are not a weakness, but they're not looking like a strength anymore.
Next, onto the Defense - Not perfect but gave more reasons for optimism than concern.
Run defense: I wrote a FanPost about our run defense comparing how well teams run the ball against us to how well they run against other defenses. The Cardinals ran for a total of 28 yards on 15 carries (under 2 yards per carry!), confirming the point I made in that writeup. A sample size of 4 games shows a clear trend - teams CANNOT run against the Dolphins' defense.
Pass rushing: We began the year with getting limited pressure on Matt Schaub (HOU). We were better at applying pressure against Carson Palmer (OAK) and Mark Sanchez (NYJ), but we struggled to generate sacks. Well, it turned out what the Dolphins needed was to play against a team with arguably the worst pair of starting offensive tackles in the NFL. Cameron Wake had 4.5 sacks - and I saw 2 more pressures by Wake in which he nearly had a sack. Wake has been generating pressure in all 4 games - this is the game when he finally converted most of his QB pressures into sacks. One of Wake's sacks took Arizona out of field goal range.
Joining Wake in the sack-party were Karlos Dansby (1.0 sack after he was completely unblocked), Jared Odrick (1.0 sacks), and Koa Misi (1.5 sacks). The question ahead is can we keep this up, or was this only made possible by a terrible offensive line?
Pass coverage: Cardinals wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (8 catches for 64 yards and a touchdown) and Andre Roberts (6 catches for 118 yards and 2 TDs) were very productive. WR Michael Floyd had 4 catches for 35 yards, and Early Doucet had 4 catches for 31 yards. That's a total of 22 catches for 248 yards (11.2 yards per catch) and all 3 Cardinals TDs.
Sean Smith had a mostly good day, with 2 key interceptions that stopped promising drives by the Cardinals. He was called for a 20 yard pass interference penalty, and was beat on 1 TD, but his second interception should have won us the game since it came late in the fourth quarter.
Richard Marshall made some nice plays, but was also beat several times, and may have been responsible for a blown coverage on one of Roberts' touchdowns as neither he nor Chris Clemons tracked the wide receiver as he raced downfield.
Jimmy Wilson wasn't targeted much, but he did allow Arizona's final first down in overtime.
As for tight ends - we were helped by the veteran TE Todd Heap missing the game with injury, yet coverage of tight ends wasn't great for the fourth game in a row. To review, game 1 we gave up 5 catches for 104 yards to tight ends (20.1 yards per catch). Game 2, we gave up 7 catches for 117 yards (16.7 yards per catch). Game 3, we faced the Jets backup TEs and allowed 4 catches for 41 yards (10.1 yards per catch). This week, we faced the Cardinals backup TEs and allowed 4 catches for 70 yards (17.5 yards per catch) to guys like Rob Housler (2 catches for 48 yards) and Jeff King (2 catches for 22 yards). We don't always allow a ton of catches to tight ends, but we seem to be vulnerable to big plays (15+ yards) by tight ends.
Coaching/Overall: Run defense doesn't just "look" dominant - it IS dominant. Pass rush was much better, and we were able to convert pressure into sacks. Coverage of wide receivers was poor a second game in a row, due to a poor DB play even on a day with good pass rush. Coverage of running backs is solid, but coverage of tight ends continues to look questionable at best. These tight ends weren't Gates and Gronkowski - they're backups.
Our redzone defense was less efficient in limited opportunities. 2 out of 3 Cardinals redzone possessions ended in touchdowns, with Sean Smith intercepting a pass on the third redzone drive. Miami mostly kept Arizona out of the redzone, and overall, the Dolphins have been good this season in the redzone. Only 1 of 5 Jets possessions in the redzone ended with touchdowns (20% success rate). In week 1, Houston was 3 of 6 (50% success rate). Neither of Oakland's trips to the redzone ended with a TD (0% success rate).
Our third down defense was great - we held the Cardinals to a 4 of 16 conversion rate or 25% (very good), in part thanks to key sacks. We held the Texans to a 41% conversation rate on third downs (decent), the Raiders to 1 of 12 on third down conversions or 8% (awesome), and the Jets to 6 of 17 or 35% (good). Overall, in four games the defense has been pretty good in the the situations that matter most - 3rd downs and in the red zone. It's important to remember that our defense only allowed 21 points during regulation despite our offense accounting for 4 turnovers. No defense can regularly hold up with the offense coughing up the ball 4 times, and our defense managed to generate 2 turnovers to keep us in this game.
Fans were excited to get Kevin Coyle as our defensive coordinator because he was able to get subpar talent in the Bengals' secondary to generate an impressive number of turnovers. Week 1, we generated no turnovers. Week 2, Reshad Jones had an INT. Week 3, Richard Marshall and Chris Clemmons each had an INT. Week 4, Sean Smith had 2 INTs. That's 5 interceptions by defensive backs in 4 games. If this trend continues, I'm calling it the "Kevin Coyle effect," since our defensive backs weren't nearly as productive generating turnovers with Mike Nolan. While our defense of wide receivers and tight ends remains a concern, we've been generating pressure and turnovers for the past few games, which has led to a good performance on third downs.
Last, let's move onto the Offense - glaring flaws were revealed last week, but this is the first week I saw signs to be truly hopeful about more than just the running game.
Offensive line: Quick summary.
LT: Jake Long no penalties but 1 sack allowed, which makes 3 for the season.
LG: Ritchie Incognito no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
C: Mike Pouncey had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
RG: John Jerry had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
RT: Jonathan Martin had no sacks allowed but was penalized once for a false start.
Our offensive line struggled in run-blocking as the Cardinals consistently played 8 defenders in the box, focusing on stoping Miami's run game. Tannehill was sacked 4 times, and running backs were tackled for loss multiple times against an extremely talented Cardinals front-7 that sacked veteran All-Pro Tom Brady 4 times and the elusive Michael Vick 5 times and the mobile Russell Wilson 3 times. I blame at least 1 sack on our runningbacks/fullbacks and 1 sack on our designated blocking tight end, but the offensive line wasn't great as Tannehill had to use some fancy footwork to dodge pressure. Tannehill escaped defenders who had their hands on him at least 3 times. Again, keep in mind the competition they were up against - a front-7 likely to finish the year in the top 5 rushing the passer, and the fact that we dropped back to pass 45 times.
The Jake Long sack is discouraging. Last year, he allowed 3 sacks in the first 5 games then was lock-down for the rest of the year as he got healthy, so I'm hoping for a repeat performance.
I also want to give a shout-out to John Jerry. He's rated as our 3rd best offensive linemen by ProFootball Focus - not bad for a guy who was a dead man walking 4 weeks before the season. Have to give credit to offensive line coach Jim Turner for deciding to give Jerry MORE reps rather than just give up on him. He had no penalties or sacks allowed, and he made some great second-level blocks in the run game. Jerry is not playing at an All-Pro level, but remember two things - this was only his 17th game as a starter, and only his 4th game in the zone-blocking scheme, so like Jonathan Martin, Jerry still hasn't reached his full potential.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano had 5 catches for 30 yards. Charles Clay was mainly used as a blocker (and made a key block on the Jorvorskie Lane TD run), but had 1 drop after a big hit by a safety. He only has 1 catch this season, so I'm still feeling lonely on the Charles Clay bandwagon. Egnew was inactive again. Blocking TE Jeron Mastrud whiffed a key block on a Tannehill playaction bootleg, leading to a 13 yard sack.
Bess continues to catch everything thrown nearby, finishing with 7 catches for 123 yards. He's on pace for 80 catches for 1188 yards.
Hartline had a monster game. As I mentioned in an earlier writeup, Hartline's big game against Oakland came with the huge caveat that he was up against an injury replacement at CB, not a starter. Last week, he was mostly bottled up by the super-athletic Antonio Cromartie. This week, he regularly beat all of Arizona's cornerbacks not named Patrick Peterson and did beat Patrick Peterson on one long pass play. He finished with 12 catches for 253 yards and a TD against a very good pass defense. He set the Dolphins record for receiving yards in a game, beating Chris Chambers' record of 238 yards and Brandon Marshall's record of 166 yards. There was 1 huge blemish for his career day - he slipped on a timing route (despite no significant contact from the CB), which led to an interception. That's 100% on Hartline since the quarterback has to throw before the receiver gets open and trust the receiver to make a play. This game confirms my belief that Hartline is a capable WR who would do very well in GB-style offense with multiple weapons at WR that would prevent a #1 CB from tracking him around the field. Despite missing the entire offseason with a calf strain and appendicitis, Hartline is on pace for 100 catches for 1820 yards and has the most receiving yards in the NFL!
As for Anthony Armstrong, he was invisible this week. I don't recall any passes that targeted him, so I'd be interested in seeing how many snaps he was in at WR. He was the official "goat" last week for 2 key drops, including one on a perfect pass on 2nd and 25 that would have led to a first down and enough time being drained from the clock to win the game. I think it's possible the coaching staff "punished" him for his poor game last week by limiting his snaps.
Normally, I'd understand limiting Armstrong's snaps for having a bad game last week, but here's the problem - fewer snaps for Armstrong leads to more snaps for Legedu Naanee. Naanee has been targeted 5 times this season. Twice, the pass has been intercepted. Once, the pass has been dropped. The fifth time he was targeted was in this game.
Good news: He caught the pass for a first down late in the fourth quarter.
Bad news: He fumbled the pass WITHOUT GETTING HIT. Daniel Thomas has fumbled twice after big hits this season, but Naanee topped that by fumbling the ball without getting hit. He caught the ball, dropped it despite no contact from a defender, and failed to recover it. That's being impressively incompetent, or taking "being incompetent" to an All-Pro level.
Naanee continued his trend of doing nothing positive on offense for the past 3 games, even struggling while blocking. Our QB likely has no confidence in Naanee - Tannehill's chemistry with Hartline, Bess, and Fasano developed quickly, and Tannehill at least tries to get Armstrong the ball. Meanwhile, Tannehill is down to targeting Naanee 0-1 times per game, and Naanee still manages to screw up in those limited opportunities.
Despite excellent performances from Hartline and Bess and a decent job by Fasano, one thing that cannot be overlooked is that Tannehill still doesn't have a fourth guy to throw to. It's the Hartline-Bess-Fasano show, with occassional dump-off passes to Bush and Thomas. We don't have a third wide receiver who can make a play - Naanee has been a complete liability, and Armstrong is struggling to make an impact after missing the entire offseason. I said last week that we needed Clay or Armstrong or Naanee to establish himself as a reliable pass catcher - right now, Armstrong and Naanee both have 4th quarter drops/fumbles that played a role in our past 2 defeats, and Clay has disappeared as a receiving threat.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane is a beast. He converted one 3rd down and 1 and would have converted a second 3rd down and 1 if the officials had properly spotted the ball. He made great blocks in the run game and caught a pass to complete a two-point conversion. He converted a fourth and goal into a touchdown. However, on Miami's final drive in regulation, a defender came up the middle completely unblocked and strip-sacked Tannehill with the ball recovered by Arizona. Lane was unable to get in front of the pass rusher, who was in the backfield even before Tannehill completed his 3-step drop. A block by Lane would have been difficult since Tannehill was between the unblocked rusher (to Tannehill's left) and Lane (to Tannehill's right), which likely means there was a breakdown by the offensive line
Reggie Bush had 17 carries for 67 yards (3.9 yards carry). None of our running backs were very effective, but Bush did have a couple of good runs despite being limited due to his injury.
Daniel Thomas is in the "danger zone." I said last week that his ineffectiveness running and his fumble issues were worrisome, and "his strong pass-blocking won't protect his spot on the depth chart forever." Well, this game, he completely failed to block an Arizona defender on one pass play, which led to one of the 4 sacks allowed by Miami. After that, I don't believe he was given anymore snaps for the rest of the game. The one thing he was doing better than Bush and Miller was pass protection, and he failed. He could be set for a diminishing role as Lane makes a case for being a more effective and reliable short-yardage back, though again, Lane did whiff on a pass block as well. Thomas finished with 4 carries for 4 yards (1 yard per carry) and 1 reception for 6 yards. I believe in his potential, but he needs to do better, period.
Lamar Miller continues to earn carries, but finished with 4 carries for 13 yards (3.3 yards per carry). The fact that all of our running backs finished with under 4 yards a carry shows how effective the Arizona run defense was.
Quarterback: Very good game by Tannehill - he played even better than his stat line of 26 of 41 passing (63%) for 431 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) and 1 TDs with 2 INTs and 1 lost fumble. One of interceptions was on Hartline for slipping. The second interception was thrown as Tannehill was hit - a veteran would have thrown the ball away or tucked the ball in and taken the sack, so you could blame him for that one, but the offensive line was completely overwhelmed. Ritchie Incognito said after the game that the offensive line should take responsibility for allowing Tannehill's second interception. The lost fumble came on a 3-step drop as a defender came up the middle unblocked by the offensive line or Lane, and Tannehill wasn't even able to finish his drop before getting hit.
Despite 41 pass attempts, there were only 3 very poor throws - (1) His interception as he was hit, (2) 1 dropped interception on a missed outside throw to Bess, and (3) a throw to Hartline that could have been intercepted by Peterson had Hartline not knocked the ball down. Tannehill did a great job going through his progressions, sliding around in the pocket, making good decisions, throwing accurate strikes downfield with great touch (the long pass to Hartline was perfect, hitting Hartline in stride and allowing Hartline to score a TD with 40+ yards after the catch), and avoiding pass rushers with his mobility and strength (he escaped 3 near-sacks with defenders holding onto him). This to me was Tannehill's "big leap" game - with no run game to lean on and shaky pass protection, he was making big-time throws. He wasn't perfect, but when a rookie QB breaks a record set by a guy named Dan Marino, he did pretty well. Fun fact: Tannehill's 431 passing yards were second-most ever for a rookie QB (Cam Newton had 432 last year) and the 6th most by a QB in Dolphins history (behind 5 Dan Marino performances, of course).
Weirdly enough, even though we lost, I saw enough from Tannehill to make me a complete believer. He's not going to the Pro Bowl this year, but man, if we get him just 1 more competent wide receiver, this guy is going to be special. Remember, Tannehill didn't throw for over 400 yards against a crappy defense. He threw for over 400 yards against a defense that held Tom Brady to 300 yards, 1 TD and an INT; and limited Michael Vick to 200 yards, 0 TDs, and 2 lost fumbles - when a rookie passes for more yards than Brady and Vick with far worse weapons on offense, you have to admit that rookie at least has "potential." Fellow rookie Russell Wilson had 153 yards on 18 of 34 passing (52.9% completions and only 4.5 yards per attempt), plus 1 TD, 1 INT, and 1 lost fumble against the Cardinals, so our rookie QB could have done worse.
Coaching/Overall: Last week, I had a long rant complaining about our run-pass balance, and this game, we ran 28 times versus 45 pass plays. HOWEVER - last week, even with 8 guys in the box, the Jets' defense was still allowing over 4 yards per carry while Cromartie and Revis were shutting down everyone but Bess. In other words - running was working okay, but passing was ineffective. The Jets run defense is so bad they allowed 245 yards rushing to the 49'ers this week, after allowing 150+ yards to the Bills and Dolphins - they have a good pass defense but can't stop anybody's run-game, so I would have preferred to keep running.
This game, unlike the Jets, the Cardinals actually were effective shutting down the run (Dolphins had only 3 yards per carry), but none of their cornerbacks besides Peterson were able to beat Bess and Hartline. So, running was ineffective, while the strategy of "Throw to the guy not covered by Peterson" led to Tannehill's 400+ yard performance. I want them to stick with what's working, and Tannehill's arm was more effective than our run game for the first time this season, so I have no complaints about run-pass balance. Not all of the playcalls were perfect, but it was failed execution of decent/good playcalls that doomed us. Passing to Naanee was a good idea - he was open and made the catch - but him fumbling despite NO contact is not the coaches' fault. Passing to Hartline on a timing route has been effective, so it was a good call, but Hartline slipping and allowing an interception is not the coaches' fault. A play-action pass was what I'd call on 2nd and 9 with a narrow lead and the defense expecting run, but Lane missing his block and allowing a strip-sack is not the coaches' fault. Etc. I loved the decision to go for it on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line - we're a team that spent a huge amount of resources on running back and offensive line, and one of our top rookies is our fullback. We're built to be able to gain at least 1 yard. With Sparano, that would've been a field goal try.
In Summary: The loss was hard to watch, but the arrow for this team is pointed up. Tannehill threw for 400+ yards. Bess and Hartline had 100+ and 200+ yards, respectively. Injured Bush was able to average 4 yards per carry. Our run defense can stop anybody. Cameron Wake's pass-rush ability can't be questioned, and despite our struggles covering receivers and tight ends, we've been good on third downs and in the redzone for much of the season.
We just need 1 more quality CB and WR/TE to be considered legitimate contenders for a Wildcard spot, but with the team we have now, we can compete with very good teams. As bad as our pass defense has looked at times, just remember - If our offense had stopped turning over the ball against the Texans, Jets, and Cardinals, we possibly would have won 3 of our 4 games so far, and kept things close with Houston.
Next up are the 3-1 Bengals, and that game is winnable. After the Bengals, our schedule is much easier than the past 4-game stretch until we reach the Bills (at Buffalo)-Seahawks-Patriots-49'ers games that are the only other tough 4 game stretch left. I believe we'll be a much better team at the end of the season than we are now, especially if Tannehill continues to improve.