The 2012 Miami Dolphins are a Wildcard contender and a darkhorse candidate to become the AFC East Champions.
I've been talking about a "Path to Respectability" this season as Miami gutted out close wins against the Bengals and Rams, but this season isn't only about gaining respect or giving Tannehill experience. The post-season now is a clear goal - even ESPN's AFC East blogger James Walker thinks Miami should dream big.
By beating the New York Jets (who are now on a 1-4 stretch their past 5 games and probably should stop trash-talking), the Dolphins are now (at worst) the second best team in the AFC East, and the New England Patriots don't exactly look invincible this year.
The Miami Dolphins have a 4-3 record, with 2 of their 3 losses occurring in overtime. I wrote a FanPost, found HERE, during the bye-week that showed our "roadmap" to a Wilcard spot is straightforward. Miami is projected to finish with a 9-7 record this year, which will be enough to claim a wildcard spot in the weak AFC.
To get to 9-7, all Miami had to do is win these all 4 of these winnable games
Win #5. Beat the Colts (in Indianapolis)
Win #6. Beat the Titans (in Miami)
Win #7. Beat the Jaguars (in Miami)
Win #8. Beat the Bills (in Miami)
While no games this season are "easy" because of league-wide parity, every single game listed above is "easier" than playing against the Jets on the road, which the Dolphins just won by 20+ points. 3 out of 4 are at home, and all 4 teams have BAD run defenses.
In addition, Miami has to win just 1 of their remaining 5 matchups. Miami is not guaranteed to get a Wildcard spot - this team could lose all 5 of those "hard" games or drop one of the 4 "easy" games - but with that path ahead, it's reasonable to expect the Dolphins to be relevant in December and perhaps even January. A lot of the credit goes to the coaching staff for getting the most out of our very young roster.
Let's start with Special Teams - which almost achieved complete dominance.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goal attempts, hitting on a 42, 39, and 33-yard attempts. Carpenter is now perfect 9 for 9 under 45 yards but remains 1 for 5 between 45-55 yards for the season (10 for 14).
Kick coverage: On 7 kickoffs, 2 were touchbacks. In the 5 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Jets to an average of 17.25 yards per return, with a long of 47 yards. Excluding that one long return by Clyde Gates, the Jets averaged 7 yards per return.
Special section - 1st Half Onside Kick - In a gutsy call, the Dolphins elected to go for an early onside kick on their first-kickoff, which was recovered by Miami (watch here).
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 2 returns averaging 39 yards, and a long of 57 yards.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 6 times for an average of 53.3 yards, with a net average of 46.7 yards. On 6 punt returns, the Jets PR Jeremy Kerley was held to an average of 0 yards per return and a long of 0 yards because he never attempted to return any of the punts, choosing to fair-catch or allow them to hit the ground. Fields' numbers were great but could have been even better - he had one punt bounce on the goal line (barely counting as a touchback), and a second punt bounce within the 5 yard-line, but Marlon Moore was unable to down the ball before it crossed the goal line
Punt returns: The Dolphins chose mainly to fair-catch punts due to such an early big lead, but Thigpen did return 2 punts for an average of 13 yards and a long of 14 yards. The Jets punter Robert Malone averaged just 31.0 net yards punting on 6 punts, with 1 downed inside the 20 yard line and a long of 59 yards.
Jimmy Wilson blocked a punt and which was recovered by Olivier Vernon for a TD (watch here). As Wilson explained to ESPN, Miami's special teams coaches felt Tebow was vulnerable as a first-time punt blocker. Wilson crossed the formation from right to left before heading upfield to go for a punt block, and Tebow failed to track him, meaning Wilson was completely unblocked. That's superior coaching - realizing that using a career QB like Tebow as a punt protector had DOWNSIDES, in addition to benefits, and our coaching staff exposed Tebow's weakness.
Special section - Field goal coverage: Miami let Mark Sanchez march down the field before halftime while in "prevent" defense, setting up for what appeared to be an easy 35 yard field goal that was BLOCKED by rookie Olivier Vernon just before halftime (watch here). NYJ kicker Nick Folk is very reliable so Vernon took 3 points off the board.
Coaching/Overall - A second strong-performance by special teams in a row, and a dominant performance all-around, aside from bad kick-return coverage on one kickoff. Carpenter was perfect kicking field goals, Vernon blocked a short field goal, our kickoff and punt coverage units limited the Jets' returns, Fields repeatedly pinned the Jets deep, Marcus Thigpen contributed a long return, and Jimmy Wilson (after forcing a special-teams fumble last week) blocked a punt.
Against the Rams 2 weeks ago, Miami went for a fake punt with Clemons because Special Teams coordinator Darren Rizzi had noticed that the Rams left few defenders at the line of scrimmage on punts. This game, the special teams coaching staff had noticed the frontline Jets kick-return blockers tend to retreat to set up their blocks early, even before the other team had kicked the ball. That left them vulnerable to a surprise onside kick. The important lesson here is that we have the same special teams coaching staff as last year, and mostly the same players, yet we're being far more aggressive on special teams. That's all a credit to Joe Philbin.
I'm sure Rizzi came up with these ideas last year, but the very conservative Tony Sparano shot them down. Philbin, whether it's going for it on fourth-down or ordering surprise onside kicks, is FAR gutsier than Sparano.
Overall, this unit played a huge role in our victory, and the coaching staff is doing a fantastic job of getting our youngest players, especially Wilson and Vernon, to make HUGE plays.
Next, the Defense - as usual, these guys were terrific.
Run defense: Miami has a run defense that is "Elite for every play except for 1 per game." It began 3 weeks ago with the Bengals, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and continued with the Rams, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry. 29 yards of the Bengals' rushing total came on one play, and excluding that one long run, the Bengals had only 2.8 yards per carry. 44 yards on one play of the Rams' total came on a big run, and excluding that one long run, the Dolphins defense held the Rams to 3.8 yards per carry.
This game, the Jets had 20 carries for 99 yards by their RBs + Tebow, for an average of 4.95 yards per carry. However, Shonne Green had a CAREER BEST 36 yards on 1 run in garbage time. Excluding that one run, Miami allowed 63 yards on 19 carries (or 3.31 yards per carry).
Our run defense isn't getting worse - it has just been guilty of allowing one big play each past 3 games, which hurts the average. In this case, Reshad Jones took an awful angle, allowing Shonn Greene to get past him for the big gain. Also, we spent much of the second half with our safeties playing very deep, and the Jets stupidly ran the ball frequently even when down by 3+ TDs, draining time off the clock, yet they still didn't gain many yards excluding that one play. The Jets only had 16 rushing yards off of 7 carries in the first half. Miami's run defense was still elite for all but 1 of its snaps per game.
Pass rushing: The Dolphins finished Sunday's win over the Jets with 4 sacks. Cameron Wake had a sack that should have been a strip sack (replay clearly showed a fumble). Jimmy Wilson and Nolan Carroll each had a sack on a CB blitz, but Carroll forced a fumble that was recovered by Paul Soliai (watch here). Kevin Burnett had a sack on a blitz. To me, he looked surprised that Sanchez still had the ball by the time he reached the Jets QB, and he gave Sanchez a hard shove to the ground without much emotion.
Notice how 3 out of our 4 sacks came from DBs and an LBer? Rookie DE Olivier Vernon, after his breakout game against the Rams, was completely shut down 1-on-1 by Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Overall, the Dolphins did a decent job of generating pressure on Sanchez, but they usually required a blitz to generate pressure, as no defensive lineman besides Wake was able to defeat one-on-one blocking, and Wake regularly dealt with double-teams.
Pass coverage: A solid game from our secondary, especially in the first half (only 109 passing yards allowed) before we began playing prevent-defense in the second half.
Jets wide receivers Clyde Gates (7 catches for 82 yards) and Jeremy Kerley (5 catches for 43) were productive. WR Stephen Hill had just 2 catches for 29 yards (plus a dropped TD) and WR Chaz Schilens had 4 catches for 29 yards. That's a total of 18 catches for 183 yards or 10.2 yards per catch, again while mostly playing prevent defense.
Sean Smith had a pretty solid game, mostly shutting down Stephen Hill, though he was helped by Hill dropping a TD pass that Smith attempted to deflect but missed.
Richard Marshall sat out a third game with a back injury.
Nolan Carroll in my opinion has gone from "terrible" last year to "Sean Smith in 2010" this year. For those of you who don't remember, Sean Smith in 2010 had a fine season in which he did a pretty good job in coverage. He never completely shut anyone down, but he was rarely beat for a big-gain. However, the biggest issue that year was that while Smith was often in good position to make a play on the ball, he usually dropped potential interceptions. This game, Carroll did a solid job of being in position to make a play on the ball or tackle the receiver, but he allowed a potential interception hit him in the face and fall incomplete. Still, that counts as a huge step forward for the former 5th round pick.
Jimmy Wilson had a second solid game in a row. Jeremy Kerley is the Jets' version of Davone Bess, and he's Sanchez's new favorite receiver after Santonio Holmes went down to injury. Wilson had multiple pass breakups (including on the Jets 2 point conversion), and held Kerley to only 5 catches for 43 yards. By comparison, Kerley last week had 7 catches for 120 yards.
As for tight ends - coverage of tight ends was solid but not great. Dustin Keller had 7 catches for 67 yards, with 23 yards coming on one long pass after Sanchez had plenty of time in the pocket. This is the third game in a row Miami's done decently covering tight ends, having limited Cincinnati Bengals' tight end Jermaine Gresham to 5 catches for 60 yards (12 yards per catch), and the St. Louis Rams' collection of TEs to combine for 6 catches for 55 yards (9.2 yards per catch). I can live with allowing 50-70 yards to tight ends a game.
As for the running backs/fullback - Shonn Greene had 2 catches for 29 yards and Jonathan Grimes had 1 catch for 4 yards, for a total of 3 catches for 33 yards allowed to the Jets 2 RBs (11 yards per catch).
Coaching/Overall: Run defense was very good aside from 1 bad play, even with the safeties playing deep for half the game. Nobody in our front-4 aside from Wake was effective in generating pressure, so Coyle sent 5 or 6-man rushes to rattle Sanchez, and we were able to convert pressure into sacks, mainly for our blitzing DBs and LBs. Coverage of tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs was solid, with the Jets having under 150 yards of offense (and 0 points) at the end of the first half, and only 9 points the entire second half.
Our redzone defense was good, with only 1 of 4 Jets redzone possessions ending in a touchdown, and a second redzone possession ending in a blocked field goal.
Our third down defense was great, continuing another season-long trend - we held the Jets to 5 of 17 on third downs, or 29%, Success against our 3rd down defense has ranged from 8% to 41% all season, and it's been under 30% the past 4 games.
Kevin Coyle Effect: Smith, Carroll, and Wilson look better than ever at CB, and Jones and Clemons have been solid this year (aside from a couple of mistakes per game). Chris Clemons intercepted Mark Sanchez for the second time this season, which you can watch here. Fun Fact - Both of Clemons' INTs have been in the redzone, which is brutal for the Jets. The secondary has had at least one interception in 5 out of our 7 games so far.
Once Richard Marshall comes back from injury, it looks like we have a CB rotation that is truly 4 CBs deep. None of them are the next Darrelle Revis, but they've done a decent job for such a young group.
Miami is currently #1 defense in the NFL based on points allowed. This game, the Dolphins defense held the Jets to only 9 points, but it could have been even better. Miami had 3 dropped interceptions - the first flew between Randy Starks' hands on a poorly thrown screen pass by Sanchez, a second hit Carroll in the face after Sanchez threw a pass behind his receiver, and a third managed to bounce off of Reshad Jones AND Chris Clemons before hitting the ground. Miami's defense put up a dominant performance despite leaving some big plays on the field.
Last, the Offense - an efficient performance, but I continue to be concerned about the run game.
Offensive line: Quick summary.
LT: Jake Long had no penalties and no sacks allowed (hooray).
LG: Ritchie Incognito had no penalties and no sacks allowed (hooray).
C: Mike Pouncey had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
RG: John Jerry had no penalties and no sacks allowed (hooray).
RT: Jonathan Martin had a penalty (personal foul) and a sack allowed.
Our offensive line struggled at run-blocking for the fourth week in a row, as the Cardinals, Bengals, Rams, and now Jets defensive fronts beat our run-blockers more often than not. Our running backs were repeatedly met by Jets defenders at the line of scrimmage. This was a HUGE contrast to our game against the Jets in week 3, in which Miami's offensive line opened up huge holes for Reggie Bush.
Tannehill was sacked once after Calvin Pace came completely unblocked from the right side, and the hit ended Tannehill's day. It reminded me of the Rams game, in which a blitzer came unblocked from the blindside and strip-sacked Tannehill. The Jets' second sack was after Matt Moore was flushed from the pocket and slid inbounds behind the line of scrimmage in the second half to keep the clock running, so despite 2 sacks, Jets didn't generate much pressure.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano had only 1 catch, a 4 yard touchdown, but it was a beauty - Fasano made a great toe-tap catch in the endzone after a late throw by Matt Moore (watch here). Charles Clay was targeted once but finished with 0 catches, so I'm officially off the Clay bandwagon. Egnew was inactive but could see some action soon if Clay doesn't step up.
Bess had only 4 catches for 28 yards, but in the fourth quarter, he had a great sideline catch on 3rd down, after which he purposefully slid to the ground to avoid being dragged out of bounds. Because of that, the clock kept running down, and that's called "situational football." Charles Clay should get tutored on it by Davone Bess weekly.
Hartline finished with 4 catches for 41 yards, reestablishing himself in our passing game, though he had 1 drop.
Anthony Armstrong was inactive.
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. We had 2 guys step up this week.
One of them was Marlon Moore, who had a big catch for the second game in a row, this time for 37 yards in which Moore beat veteran former 1st round pick CB Kyle Wilson and made a diving catch on an overthrown pass (watch here).
Jabar Gaffney finally made his debut. The good news is that he got open and had a catch for 30 yards (watch here). The bad news is he had a second potential 40+ yard catch hit his finger tips, but even that drop had a silver lining - Gaffney had gained separation against a pretty solid secondary.
I've joked that our receivers' most effective tactic this season has been "being ignored," but both Moore and Gaffney beat decent coverage and got separation. Hartline-Bess-Gaffney-Moore-Fasano isn't the best 5 WR/TE combo in the NFL, but it's not bad either.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane had a quiet game, with zero carries or catches, since on 3rd downs with under 2 yards to go, Sherman preferred passing plays to our wide receivers as the Jets loaded up the box.
Reggie Bush had 14 carries for 59 yards (4.2 yards per carry), plus only 1 catch for 6 yards - though the pass was thrown low by Tannehill, requiring Reggie to make a difficult catch. He also had his first lost fumble of the season, with his turnover adding to those from Daniel Thomas (2) and Jorvorskie Lane (1). Overall, it wasn't a great game for Reggie - outside of one 19 yard run, he finished with 13 carries for 40 yards (3.1 yards per carry).
Daniel Thomas had his best game this season. His raw stats look mediocre - 15 carries for 42 yards (2.8 yards per carry) and a TD, but this was a game where the Jets loaded up the box and regularly shed blocks by our offensive line. Thomas ran very hard and broke tackles - this 5-yard run by Thomas (watch here) in which he is hit at the line of scrimmage by self-proclaimed "Headhunter" LaRon Landry but keeps his balance and scores a TD is every bit as impressive to me as a Reggie Bush outside run for a 15 yard TD. Thomas also did a stellar job in pass protection, and he had no fumbles. My challenge to Daniel Thomas is to keep it up. If he runs the rest of the season like he did today, he'll re-earn the trust of fans.
Lamar Miller had 0 carries in a game in which the Jets defense loaded up the box and not even Reggie Bush could find holes to run through. Miami elected to keep their best pass-protecting and power-back (Thomas) in the game for most of the snaps.
Quarterback: Tannehill had a shaky start to this game - no bad decisions, but 3 under-throws that forced receivers to attempt difficult catches. After a completely unblocked linebacker nailed Tannehill on a blitz (watch here), Tannehill left the game with a bruised quad muscle and hyper-extended knee. Tannehill says he was cleared to come back into the game, but the coaching staff (correctly) saw no need to jeopardize the rest of Tannehill's season, so Matt Moore took over.
Moore showed us basically what we saw last year. He ran an offense that was entirely new to him (last year, it was Brian Daboll's offense, this year, it's Mike Sherman's offense) pretty well. He made an occasional questionable decision, such as throwing to Hartline with 3 defenders nearby to only gain 5 yards, and compared to Tannehill, he looked very slow whenever he tried to roll out of the pocket. However, he displayed terrific touch and accuracy on his downfield throws and regularly went for "kill-shots" even with a lead. He missed a couple of times in the redzone, leading Miami to settle for field goals, but his stats were hurt by drops by Hartline and Gaffney that robbed him of an even better day than his stat line of 11 of 19 (58%) for 131 yards (6.9 yards per attempt) and 1 TD, with 0 INTs.
While neither Tannehill or Moore are top-10 QBs, I'd argue that we have a top-10 QB1/QB2 situation in the NFL. Not many teams can lose their starting QB on the road against a division rival and then win with competent play from the backup QB. Even if this is the last game Moore gets playing time in as a Dolphin, he can add this game to his collection of game-film that should make him an attractive target when he becomes a free agent after this season. He deserves a chance to go to a team like KC or Arizona where he'd have a chance to start, but for now, we'll keep him since we're in the playoff hunt.
Coaching/Overall: Our offense was balanced with 29 rushing plays compared to 24 passing plays. Overall, Miami's offense played a bit poorly. Miami was not very effective running the ball (29 carries for 101 yards, or 3.5 yards per carry) and was very poor on third downs, only converting 4 of 13 third downs (30%). A large part of that was poor run-blocking on third-and-short situations, drops, and missed throws. Another factor was fairly conservative playcalling later in the second half, with predictable runs on first and second down. To be fair, we did lose our starting quarterback in the first quarter, and the Patriots' offense last week struggled to score 17 points against the Jets in regulation, so Miami's offense scoring 16 points with a backup QB is pretty impressive.
Referee Critique: What's funny is that this is my 7th review, but this is only the third time I've devoted a section to the referees, and like the other two times, 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. The previous 2 games, we've had questionable play reviews go against us. This game, Miami was robbed by early whistles.
Davone Bess caught a quick pass on 3rd and 1 and broke a tackle by Cromartie while clearly staying inbounds. Bess likely would have had a touchdown because the Jets had stacked the box with their safeties to stop a run and Cromarite had fallen to the ground, so there were no nearby defenders. However, the referees whistled the play dead despite Bess never stepping out of bounds or hitting the ground, which led to a punt.
A second time early whistle was on the Cameron Wake sack, in which Sanchez was clearly shown on replay fumbling the ball before his knee hit the ground, but the referee ruled Sanchez down by contact. A Jets offensive lineman recovered the ball, so the result would have been the same, but it was a still a bad early whistle.
In Summary: This was a regular season win, and there's still 9 games to go, but we've learned a lot about our team. We have a top 10 overall defense that can stop the run, rush the passer, and generate turnovers (fumbles and INTs). We have a great special teams unit with a gutsy and creative coach. The offense is our weakest unit, and while I am concerned about our run game, our passing game is getting a boost from Marlon Moore and Jabbar Gaffney. We also know that for the first time in awhile, Miami has TWO quarterbacks on the roster who can help lead this team to victory. Personally, I believe Miami has the 2nd and 3rd best QBs in the AFC East.
We also learned that Joe Philbin, who may come across as reserved and conservative, is more than happy to try Sean Payton-esque surprise onside kicks, fake punts, etc. Outside of a questionable decision to challenge a Fasano catch that was ruled out of bounds, I thought Philbin did a good job managing this game. I especially felt like the team was extremely well prepared to dominate in all 3 phases. Our special teams unit completely annihilated theirs. Our offense beat their defense for big plays and put points on the board with a backup QB. Our defense embarrassed their offense.
For the second week in a row, our team earned a complete team victory. This surprise run is made entirely possible by terrific coaching on offense, defense, special teams, and of course, the man in charge (Philbin). The team is getting big contributions from young players like Tannehill (rookie), Vernon (rookie), Thigpen (rookie), and Wilson (2nd year), as well as trusted veterans like Cameron Wake and Matt Moore.
A Look Ahead: Beating the Colts next week is especially important. The most likely contenders for an AFC Wildcard spot are the Steelers (who look like their season is back on track at 4-3), the Chargers (who look like they're imploding at 3-4 after losing to the Browns), the Colts (4-3), the Bengals (3-4), and the Dolphins (4-3). Assuming the Dolphins beat the Colts next week, the Dolphins would own the tiebreak against the Colts AND the Bengals (whom Miami beat 2 weeks ago). Those two teams are half of the competition. All the Dolphins would have to do in that scenario is outpace the reeling Chargers (who are on a 1-4 streak) to earn a wildcard spot.
The Colts should not be underestimated (just ask the Packers), but their run defense is vulnerable and their run offense non-existent. If the Dolphins can't get the run-game going against the Colts (who allow, on average, 5 yards per carry to opponents), then the run game is terminally ill, and beating the Colts becomes harder.