The Miami Dolphins remain on the path to respectability, thanks to great contributions from some of the youngest players on the team. For the second week in a row, the Dolphins fought hard to gut out a close victory against a team with a winning record. Last week, I said the 2012 Miami Dolphins are no joke. Kevin Nogle later wrote a frontpage article about the Miami Dolphins turning heads and gaining some respect from media outlets like ESPN. While the team earned a win, has shown clear signs of improvement, and are now in a 4-way tie for the AFC East lead after 6 weeks, new issues have cropped up that deserve close attention.
Let's start with Special Teams - a very solid performance.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter was a perfect 1 for 1 on field goal attempts, hitting on a 42 yard attempt. Carpenter is now perfect 6 for 6 under 45 yards but remains 1 for 5 between 45-55 yards for the season (7 for 11).
Kick coverage: On 4 kickoffs, 2 were touchbacks. In the 2 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Rams to an average of 16.5 yards per return, with a long of 20 yards. Jimmy Wilson forced a fumble that was recovered by Marcus Thigpen.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 2 returns averaging 34 yards, and a long of 44 yards to begin the second half - the other 2 kicks were touchbacks.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 6 times for an average of 53.8 yards, with a net average of 50.3 yards. On 6 punt returns, the Rams' Janoris Jenkins was held to an average of 3 yards per return and a long of 14 yards.
Punt returns: The Dolphins had 0 punt return yardage for the day. The Rams' punter Johnny Heckker averaged 38.3 net yards punting on 3 punts, with 2 downed inside the 20 yard line and a long of 56 yards.
Special section - Fake Punt Attempt - In a gutsy call, Chris Clemons took a fake punt and converted a 4th and 1 by rushing for 3 yards, keeping Miami's final drive alive and draining more time off the clock (watch here).
Coaching/Overall - Easily the unit's best performance in awhile. Carpenter was perfect kicking field goals, our kickoff and punt coverage units limited the Rams' returns and forced a turnover, Fields repeatedly pinned the Rams deep as our offense struggled, Marcus Thigpen contributed a long return and recovered a fumble, and Jimmy Wilson made some key tackles and forced the fumble. And of course - the fake punt call was executed perfectly. Overall, this unit played a huge role in our victory given how well the Rams were moving the ball.
Next, the Defense - this is the unit that deserved most of the credit for the victory.
Run defense: I'm not quite ready to raise the alarm, but our run defense has begun looking a little shaky. Last week, the Dolphins allowed the Bengals 80 yards on 19 carries (or 4.2 yards per carry). This week, the Rams running backs gained 128 yards on 23 carries (5.6 yards per carry!).
However, last week, 29 yards of the Bengals' rushing total came on one play, and excluding that one long run, the Bengals had 51 yards on 18 carries (or only 2.8 yards per carry). This week, Rams RB Daryl Richardson had 44 yards on one play. Excluding that one long run, the Dolphins defense held the Rams to 22 carries for 84 yards, or a more respectable 3.8 yards per carry.
Two games in a row, the defense was solid against the run except for one bad play. On the long Richardson run, I believe a Rams blocker was guilty of holding Jared Odrick (watch the video here and notice the Rams' blocker's hands grabbing outside of Odrick's shoulder pads). My point is that our run defense isn't necessarily getting worse - it has just been guilty of allowing one big play each past 2 games, which hurts the average. Otherwise, Soliai, Wake, Starks, and Olivier Vernon all had some nice stops. Cameron Wake drew a holding call on a running play, and as I discussed in my FanPost, "In Defense of Cameron Wake's 2011 Season: The Story of the Missing Sacks," Wake not only regularly leads the league in holding penalties drawn when rushing the passer - he also leads the league in holding penalties drawn on running plays as well.
Pass rushing: The Dolphins finished Sunday's win over the Rams with 3 sacks. Cameron Wake had only one because his second sack was re-classified as an "incomplete pass" after review due to the "Tuck Rule." Rookie Olivier Vernon had a bit of a breakout game with 2 sacks, including a clutch sack at the end of the fourth quarter on third down, forcing the Rams to try a 66 yard field goal. Combine that with Vernon's defensive stops against the run, and our rookie pass rushing-specialist is building a case for eventually becoming a 3-down player. Overall, the Dolphins did a decent job of generating pressure on Bradford, though the Rams QB made some plays in the face of pressure.
Pass coverage: After a very good game last week against the Bengals, I expected an equally good game against the Rams' unheralded receivers, especially without Danny Amendola. However, Rams fans are now talking about "breakout performances" by their young wide receivers this game, which can only mean our secondary didn't do a great job.
Rams wide receivers Brandon Gibson (7 catches for 91 yards) and Chris Givens (3 catches for 85 yards including a 65 yard catch in which he beat both of our safeties deep, watch here) were very productive. WRs Steve Smith had 2 catches for 18 yards, Austin Pettis had 1 catch for 11 yards, and Brian Quick had 1 catch for 1 yard. That's a total of 14 catches for 206 yards or 14.7 yards per catch - by comparison, last week, the Bengals had only 8.1 yards per catch. The silver lining is that the secondary didn't allow a single touchdown to a wide receiver.
Sean Smith had a mixed performance, allowing a few catches but with all but 1 being under 10 yards - the longest was 15 yards. I believe Smith made a good tackle as WR Chris Givens fumbled a completed pass, allowing Jason Trusnik to get fumble recovery, BUT referee Gene Steratore felt that Givens catching the ball cleanly with both hands and turning up field before knocking the ball out of his hands with his own knee was actually an incomplete pass, so it was ruled an incomplete pass. (more on this later)
Richard Marshall sat out a second game with a back injury.
Nolan Carroll had his best game of the season last week. This week, he allowed a catch of over 20 yards, but this catch required a one-handed grab to be completed and Carroll was in position to make a play had he turned to look for the ball. Still, Carroll was picked on as he mostly covering Brandon Gibson, who finished as the Rams' leading receiver.
Jimmy Wilson had a solid game after being picked on last week, allowing only 1 completion over 10 yards (11 yards to Pettis) while covering Austin Pettis and Steve Smith - who both had quiet days.
As for tight ends - coverage of tight ends was solid. Last game, Miami limited Jermaine Gresham to 5 catches for 60 yards (12 yards per catch). This game, Miami allowed TEs Lance Kendricks (4 catches for 40 yards) and Matthew Mulligan (2 catches for 15 yards) to combine for 6 catches for 55 yards, or 9.2 yards per catch. That offers some hope for our future games against tight ends such as Dustin Keller (Jets), Scott Chandler (Bills), and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (Patriots).
As for the running backs/fullback - Steven Jackson had 3 catches for 28 yards (with 22 yards coming after Kevin Burnett slipped at the line of scrimmage), Daryl Richardson had 2 catches for 23 yards, and Isaiah Pead had 1 catch for 3 yards, for a total of 6 catches for 54 yards, or 9 yards per catch, which is our worst performance covering running backs since the Raiders game in which we allowed a 60+ yard screen pass for a touchdown.
Coaching/Overall: Run defense wasn't dominant but improved in the second half. Pass rush was solid, and we were able to convert pressure into sacks. Coverage of tight ends was solid, but coverage against wide receivers and running backs was poor outside of the redzone. To be clear, the Rams' run game exploded for 128 yards, and Sam Bradford (who was averaging under 200 yards per game) finished with 315 yards passing (67% completions at 8.1 yards per attempt) despite missing his #1 WR, so it wasn't a great performance defensively until the Rams reached Dolphin territory.
Our redzone defense was good, with only 1 of 3 Rams redzone possessions ending in a touchdown. The low score reflects the fact that Miami mostly kept the Rams out of the redzone, continuing a season-long theme. Despite the 400+ yards of offense allowed, the defense only allowed 14 points. They forced field goal attempts of 48, 32, 52, 37, and 66 yards. The last 3 were missed, and while luck was on our side for the missed 37 yarder, the 52 and 66 yard attempts on a windy day are "wins" for the defense after stopping the Rams before they reached the 35 yard line.
Our third down defense was great, continuing a season-long trend - we held the Rams to 3 of 13 on third down, or 23% (great). Last week, we held Bengals to 2 of 14 on third down conversions or 14% (outstanding). The week before, we held the Cardinals to a 4 of 16 conversion rate or 25% (very good). 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).
Besides allowing a huge number of yards, our defense failed to force any turnovers for the first time since week 1 (since the 2 forced fumbles by Wake and Smith were reversed on review). Still, the defense kept points off the board, and that's the main goal.
Last, the Offense - an efficient, turnover free performance, but it's time to be concerned about the run game.
Offensive line: Quick summary.
LT: Jake Long had no sacks but was penalized twice for holding (both accepted) and once for illegal use of hands (declined). However, the second holding penalty was a highly questionable call.
LG: Ritchie Incognito had no sacks allowed but was called for holding and a personal foul.
C: Mike Pouncey had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
RT: Jonathan Martin had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
Our offensive line struggled at run-blocking for the third week in a row, as the Cardinals, Bengals, and now Rams defensive fronts beat our run-blockers convincingly. Tannehill was sacked 2 times and knocked down 3 times, and Reggie Bush was stuffed at the line of scrimmage multiple times. There's no shame in struggling with the Rams talented front-7, but it's becoming clear that while our offensive line is improved, they can't impose their will on elite defensive fronts yet. A blitzer came unblocked and strip-sacked Tannehill from the blindside, though I'm unsure of who deserves the more blame - Tannehill or Long?
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano had 4 catches for 33 yards and a touchdown. Charles Clay was targeted twice and had 1 catch for 8 yards, but Tannehill missed him on the other throw and admitted to that mistake in his post-game press conference. Egnew was inactive.
Bess had 6 catches for 42 yards, though he had two drops for the second week in a row.
Hartline was shut-down while being covered mostly by Cortland Finnegan and finished with 0 sacks. He did draw a key defensive pass interference call, like last week, but it's pretty clear that while stopping Reggie Bush is priority #1, stopping Brian Hartline is priority #2 for opposing defenses.
Anthony Armstrong was invisible in the passing game this week.
Every week, I've ranted about the need for a fourth guy to step up and join the 3-man Hartline-Bess-Fasano show in our passing game. Marlon Moore answered the call this game, with 3 catches for 46 yards and a touchdown after Rams rookie CB Janoris Jenkins apparently didn't think Moore was worth covering (watch here). Our receivers' most effective tactic this season has been "being ignored" - they do really well when they're ignored (see Hartline's 60+ yard TD catch against Arizona and the Fasano TD catch this game).
Jabar Gaffney didn't play this game as he was given an extra 2 weeks to finish learning the playbook - which he only received a copy of 8 days ago - and develop timing with Tannehill. I believe Gaffney represents a massive upgrade over what we've had so far as WR3, so hopefully our receiving corps looks better in 2 weeks against the Jets.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane had a nice bounceback game from last week. He finished the day with 2 catches for 12 yards and was an effective decoy on playaction passes.
Reggie Bush had 12 carries for 17 yards (1.4 yards per carry), plus 5 catches for 44 yards. He was ineffective as a ball-carrier but made good things happen on screens. Hmm, perhaps we should call screens more, especially when our offensive line is having trouble dealing with a talented and aggressive front-7? He also did a solid job in blitz pickup.
Daniel Thomas missed the game due to the concussion he suffered last week.
Lamar Miller only had 1 carry on offense (a run negated by Incognito's holding penalty), which was unsurprising given the potent Rams' pass rush and Miller's issues in pass-protection. I'm sure the coaches would have preferred having the healthy Lamar Miller take on pass rushers instead of using the injured Reggie Bush if they could trust Miller. The fact that Reggie was the only running back used on offense for most of the game is a sign of how little they trust Miller at this point, regardless of what they say in press conferences.
Quarterback: Another nice game by Tannehill - not spectacular, but solid. For the second week in a row, he accounted for zero turnovers - a theme in all of our 3 wins. Tannehill did a great job of not putting the ball in danger. He fumbled once after a blindside hit by an unblocked pass rusher, but the ball bounced out of bounds. Other than that, Tannehill did a solid job on a day without ANY support from the run game. Tannehill had to deal with some drops and pressure, but it was Tannehill's most efficient game of the season, with a stat line of 21 of 29 passing (72% completions), for 185 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) and 2 TDs with 0 INTs (112 passer rating).
A very reasonable response is - "Sure, Tannehill's 2 TDs compared to 0 INTs is nice, but overall, those are not very impressive numbers." However, look at how successful other QBs were passing against this Rams' defense this year.
Matthew Stafford - 32/48 (67%) for 355 yards (7.4 yards per attempt), 1 TD, 3 INTs (69.4 rating)
Robert Griffin III - 20/29 (69%) for 206 yards (7.1 yards per attempt), 1 TD, 1 INT (86.3 rating)
Jay Cutler - 17/31 (55%) for 183 yards (5.9 yards per attempt), 0 TD, 1 INT (58.9 rating)
Russell Wilson - 17/25 (68%) for 160 yards (6.4 yards per attempt), 0 TD, 3 INTs (45.8 rating)
Kevin Kolb - 28/50 (56%) for 289 yards (5.8 yards per attempt), 0 TDs, 0 INTs (86.1 rating)
Compared to that mix of 5 rookies and veterans, Tannehill was:
1. The only QB to throw for multiple touchdowns
2. One of only two QBs to not throw an interception
3. Tied for third highest yards per attempt
4. Had the highest completion rate of all of the QBs
5. Had the highest QB rating of all of the QBs.
Most of our drives were killed by drops, sketchy penalties, and our ineffective run game. Still, Tannehill did miss a couple of throws, such as the pass to Clay and a screen pass to Reggie. Overall, he made enough plays for the team to win, though it required a last-minute defensive stop for the second week in a row.
One of my favorite plays by Tannehill was when Miami was backed up near their own endzone. It was third and 27, and Miami was in the lead. In a similar situation against the Jets, Tannehill forced a throw that was intercepted by LaRon Landry and returned for a touchdown. This time, Tannehill saw nobody open and took off running, gaining 10 yards and giving Fields space to punt. He was up against a talented secondary that had shut down his #1 WR and had forced veteran QBs into making mistakes, and he knew that pressure was never more than a couple seconds away, so he got what he could. The decision showed he understood that he didn't need to make a heroic play in that situation, just a smart play.
Coaching/Overall: Our offense was unbalanced, with 14 rushing plays compared to 31 passing plays. Overall, Miami's offense played poorly. Miami was completely dominated in the run game and was very poor on third downs, only converting 4 of 12 third downs (33%). A large part of that was poor run-blocking on third-and-short situations, but as mentioned before, drops, penalties, and missed throws played a role as well. The run game has to get going again, as Miami hasn't averaged over 4 yards per carry since the Jets game.
There were some nice playcalls, in particular the play action TD pass to Fasano at the goal-line, as the entire Rams defense predicted a Jorvorskie Lane run and didn't bother covering Fasano (watch here). We're second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, so playaction passes in the redzone should be very effective as defenses expect Lane-Bush-Thomas TD runs more than TD passes.
That being said, I disagreed with some playcalls, especially the handoff to Bush on 3rd and 1 that was stopped for a loss. Earlier that drive, a Bush run on 3rd and 1 was also stopped for a loss after Reggie went airborne (see here), requiring a fake punt to convert 4th down, while a QB sneak with Tannehill on 3rd and 1 had gained 2 yards. Either another QB sneak, a handoff to Lane, or (to be more aggressive) a quick playaction pass would have been better than another handoff to Bush, given that Reggie had been ineffective rushing the entire game. Our offense has to score late-fourth quarter TDs eventually, since the defense can't always be relied on to get the late fourth quarter stops (see the Cardinals and Jets games). Hopefully Reggie healing up during the bye week and integrating Gaffney into the offense opens things up again.
Referee Critique: What's funny is that this is my 6th review, but this is only the second time I've devoted a section to the referees, and like last time, it's after a win. Even as the Dolphins lost 3 out of their first 4 games, I didn't complain about the referees because a few bad calls are part of the game. However, this game we had a very questionable play review go against us (just like last week), and we also had a phantom holding penalty called on Jake Long that erased a play that gained a first down. The review that converted a fumble into an incomplete pass lacked the "clear, incontrovertible" evidence needed to overturn the ruling on the field. I agreed (reluctantly) with the tuck-rule ruling that robbed Wake of a strip-sack, and I can even (reluctantly) accept the Bradford QB sneak TD (watch here), but that "incomplete pass" ruling was flat out wrong. Legedu Naanee against the Arizona Cardinals caught a pass, turned to go upfield, and dropped the ball without contact by a defender before ever securing the ball - and that was ruled a fumble. This game, a Rams receiver does almost the exact same thing, except he does a much better job securing the ball by pulling it in to his chest with both hands and turns upfield before losing it, and it's an incomplete pass? The Rams later punted, but that ruling reversal cost Miami 40 yards of field position, which in a game like this is crucial.
In Summary: Like last week, I believe that with the team we have now, we can compete with very good teams, and I'm looking forward to see how our passing offense looks with a healthy Jabar Gaffney as a WR3, though Marlon Moore made a case for playing time as a WR4. The Dolphins must focus on avoiding turnovers, since our defense has proven they can keep us competitive when not put into bad situations by turnovers. Run blocking and pass defense are the major concerns based on the past couple of weeks, though pass rush and our passing offense are looking better than they did in the first 3 games. Special teams was a major contributor in every phase, so as Reggie Bush said after the game, this win was the definition of a team win. What's encouraging is that big plays were made by Tannehill (rookie), Vernon (rookie), Thigpen (rookie), and Wilson (2nd year) - whether or not this team is relevant in December depends on how quickly those guys develop.
Final Stat: According to ProFootball Focus, Oliver Vernon had two defensive stops on four run plays to his side, and also two sacks and two hits on 19 snaps spent rushing the passer.
Programming note - Next week, the Dolphins have a bye, but I plan on writing a post about what various statistical websites like ProFootball Focus, Football Outsiders, etc. are saying about the Dolphins performance so far and the team's playoff chances.