The Miami Dolphins are on the path to respectability. After two heartbreaking losses due to fourth quarter collapses and mistakes in overtime, the Dolphins fought hard to gut out a close victory on the road against a playoff team who had a 3-1 record. Respect won't come until we string together a couple of wins, but the 2012 Miami Dolphins are no joke. This game showed definite signs of improvement by our young team but key issues remain.
Let's start with Special Teams - an "okay" performance, with inconsistency in field goal kicking and returns like the past two weeks.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter went 1 for 2 on field goal attempts, hitting on a 46 yard attempt (hooray) but missing a 53 yard attempt. Carpenter is now perfect 5 for 5 under 45 yards but only 1 for 5 between 45-55 yards for the season (6 for 10). An average NFL kicker would have, roughly, gone 4 for 5 under 45 yards and 3 for 5 beyond 45 yards (7 for 10), so Carpenter is slightly below average this season after 5 games.
Kick coverage: On 4 kickoffs, the Dolphins had 2 touchbacks. In the 2 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Bengals to an average of 24 yards per return, with a long of 34 yards
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 1 return for 30 yards - the other 3 kicks were touchbacks.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 5 times for an average of 49.6 yards, with a net average punting yards of 36.6 yards. On 2 punt returns, the Bengals' Adam Jones was held to an average of 12 yards per return and a long of 15 yards.
Punt returns: The punt return unit allowed a turnover after a punt bounced off of Reshad Jones while he was blocking. Marcus Thigpen on 2 later punt returns averaged 7 yards, with a long of 11 yards. The Cincinatti Bengals' punter Kevin Huber averaged 38.0 net yards punting on 6 punts, with 2 downed inside the 20 yard line, and a long of 55 yards.
Coaching/Overall - Punting and fielding kickoffs went well. However, much like last week, kicking field goals was only near perfect, and the Dolphins were poor returning punts and covering kickoffs. I'm still not ready to raise the alarm on Carpenter, but in terms of field goal kicking, he's done slightly below average while being one of the highest paid kickers in the NFL. He has to start regularly connecting from distance to earn his keep. Just remember the team is highly unlikely to find a better kicker in free agency right now. Kickers who can regularly hit 50+ yard field goals are playing for teams right now, not sitting at home on their couch waiting for a tryout.
Between Carpenter's struggles, a turnover on a punt return, and a long kickoff return allowed, it was a not-so great performance. Special teams are still not a weakness, but outside of Brandon Fields, they have not been a strength recently.
Next, the Defense - The unit that deserved most of the credit for our victory today.
Run defense: I wrote a FanPost about our run defense before the Cardinals ran for a total of 28 yards on 15 carries (under 2 yards per carry!). Allowing the Bengals, a bad rushing team, 80 yards on 19 carries (or 4.2 yards per carry) looks like a very bad performance by those standards. However, 29 yards came on one play. Excluding that one long run, the Bengals had 51 yards on 18 carries (or only 2.8 yards per carry), so besides that one long run, the Dolphins defense held the Bengals to under 3 yards per carry. The story for this game is solid run defense marred by one bad play. The Dolphins still haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 19 games now, best streak in the NFL. Including this game, the Dolphins have allowed an average of 2.7 yards per carry for the season.
Pass rushing: Last week, the Arizona Cardinals offensive line hosted a "Hit Kevin Kolb" Party, and the entire Dolphins' defensive front-7 was invited. However, the Bengals have one of the better pass protecting offensive lines in the NFL, allowing only 24 sacks last year in 16 games (half as many as Miami did last year). So it's very encouraging to see us pressuring Dalton all day. The Dolphins finished Sunday's win over the Bengals with three sacks. Cameron Wake had one, with four Dolphins each being credited for a half-sack: Kevin Burnett, Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. While it's great to see Wake add to his sack total, it's important to establish multiple pass-rushing threats to create more strain on opposing offensive lines. Dalton was harassed all day and sidestepped several more pressures that could have been sacks.
Pass coverage: This is the part where I've usually criticized our cornerbacks, but that streak ends today. Bengals wide receivers AJ Green (9 catches for 65 yards and a touchdown) and Andrew Hawkins (5 catches for 47 yards and 0 TDs) were only somewhat productive. WR Armon Binns had 4 catches for 41 yards. That's a total of 19 catches for 153 yards (only 8.1 yards per catch) and the only Bengals TD all game. Solid work.
Sean Smith had a another solid-game. He was penalized once for defensive holding, but otherwise, while mostly shadowing AJ Green, he limited the NFL's second-leading receiver to under 70 yards. By comparison, Green was averaging 107 yards per game this season. While he did allow the touchdown on an excellent throw by Dalton, he finished with 1 pass deflection, 1 forced fumble, and 8 tackles. I would never argue that Smith is a shutdown or near-shutdown corner like Darrelle Revis or Lardarius Webb, but I believe that he's in the tier just below them. He's a solid cornerback who can matchup with tall alpha receivers.
Richard Marshall sat out with a back injury.
Nolan Carroll has had a rough year. He was regularly penalized the first 3 games then was repeatedly victimized by Kevin Kolb without ever getting his hand on the ball. This game, he did a great job of being in position and trying to locate the ball in the air. He didn't allow any huge plays or touchdowns despite being an injury-replacement starting CB. He contributed 4 tackles and had a key pass breakup as the Bengals were driving in the fourth quarter after he came back from what looked like a concussion.
Jimmy Wilson was picked on while covering slot WR Andrew Hawkins, allowing multiple completions, but he did breakup a touchdown pass, forcing the Bengals to kick a FG.
As for tight ends - coverage of tight ends was better than expected. 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). Game 4, we allowed 4 catches for 70 yards (17.5 yards per catch) to tight ends. This game, we faced an athletic pass-catching tight end in Jermaine Gresham, and limited him to 5 catches for 60 yards (12 yards per catch). Not lockdown defense, but not nearly as bad as I expected.
As for the running backs/fullback - Brian Leonard had 2 catches for 19 yards, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 1 catch for 2 yards. Besides one poorly defended screen by the Raiders, we haven't had trouble covering running backs, so give credit to Karlos Dansby for that.
Coaching/Overall: Run defense wasn't dominant but was still good. Pass rush was solid, and we were able to convert pressure into sacks against a good pass-blocking offensive line. Coverage of wide receivers and running backs was solid, and coverage of tight ends was okay. Dalton was forced to hold onto the ball while waiting for receivers to get open, giving more time for our pass rush to bother him.
Our redzone defense was okay, with 1 of 2 Bengals redzone possessions ending in a touchdown. The low score reflects the fact that Miami mostly kept the Bengals out of the redzone. One of the Bengals drives resulted from a special teams turnover, meaning the Bengals began the drive on Miami's 26, yet the Dolphins defense forced a field goal.
Our third down defense was great, continuing a season-long trend - we held the Bengals to 2 of 14 on third down conversions or 14% (outstanding). Last week, 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). Overall, in five 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 13 points despite our offense and special teams accounting for 2 turnovers, and our defense generated 3 turnovers themselves.
Last week, I wrote about how we should look for signs that Coyle is helping the secondary generate more turnovers than last year. Week 1, we had none. Week 2, Reshad Jones had an INT. Week 3, Richard Marshall and Chris Clemons each had an INT. Week 4, Sean Smith had 2 INTs. This week, Reshad Jones had a game-sealing interception. That's 6 interceptions by defensive backs in 5 games. I'm calling it the "Kevin Coyle effect," since our defensive backs weren't nearly as productive generating turnovers with Mike Nolan. This was the best game by our secondary this season, despite Marshall being out. While we are allowing a lot of passing yards, the defense is limiting quarterbacks to only a 75.0 quarterback rating, reflecting that we've been generating INTs. Like last year, teams choose to pass against us rather than run against us, but this year our defensive backs are punishing them for it.
Special shout-outs to two young defenders showing improvement. Reshad Jones has been making big plays against the run and pass (1 INT and 1 pass deflection this game). It's becoming easier to see why ProFootball Focus and our defensive coordinator insist Jones is having a great year. Koa Misi has been great against the run and forced a fumble that was recovered by Tony McDaniels a couple of plays after Cameron Wake's forced fumble on AJ Green was recovered by Green. Misi is still a liability in coverage, but he's making plays.
Extra-special shout-out to defensive tackle Randy Starks, who had his 4th career interception today, but I'm not going to give Coyle credit for that since he works with the DBs. Over the past 8 games, Starks has had 3 interceptions (2 from Mark Sanchez).
Last, let's move onto the Offense - not as spectacular a performance as last week, but more importantly, less turnover-prone, which led to a close win.
Offensive line: Quick summary.
LT: Jake Long had no sacks but was technically called for 1 penalty (illegal formation) that should have been called on a receiver.
LG: Ritchie Incognito allowed 1 sack but had no penalties.
C: Mike Pouncey had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
RG: John Jerry allowed 1 sack but had no penalties.
RT: Jonathan Martin had no penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
Our offensive line struggled at run-blocking as the apparently underrated Bengals' run defense held us to 2.3 yards per carry one week after they limited Maurice Jones Drew to 2.9 yards per carry. Tannehill was sacked 2 times, and running backs were tackled for loss or stuffed at the line of scrimmage multiple times. This is the second week in a row our offensive line has failed to impose its will run blocking. The offensive line was better pass-blocking, though Tannehill had to dodge pressure a couple of times. Geno Atkins is one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. For Atkins, who was averaging over 1 sack per game this season, to only get 1 sack while up against John Jerry, a guy who was going to be cut 8 weeks ago, is a good showing for Jerry overall.
The Good: Clay had 3 catches for 35 yards, including a great catch down the seam for 22 yards, which is exactly what I expected from Clay before the season.
The Bad: Clay had a bad drop - this season, he has 5 drops compared to only 4 catches.
The Ugly: On a bootleg on third down, with under 2 minutes to go, Tannehill throws Clay the ball to see if Clay can get a first down (priority #2) while staying inbounds (priority #1). Clay then runs out of bounds while failing to get first down (failing at both priorities).
I feel like the wheels on the Charles Clay bandwagon are coming off. Clay is going to lose the trust of the coaching staff with mental mistakes like that. Egnew was inactive again.
Bess had 2 catches for 49 yards, including a 28 yard reception with 10+ yards after the catch, though he had two drops - one coming after a jarring hit from Pacman Jones on a slant.
Hartline finished with 4 catches for 59 yards. He had two key plays. The first was a great catch after a Tannehill scramble that demonstrated the chemistry he's developed with our rookie QB despite missing the entire offseason with health issues. The second was drawing a key pass interference call that kept a drive alive and allowed us to drain more time off the clock. I still don't think Hartline realized that the pass was intended for him, as he seemed genuinely surprised to see the pass whizz by him. However, a Bengals cornerback clearly initiated contact against Hartline, and since the pass was catchable, the flag was correct. Hartline remains the NFL's leading wide receiver, 8 yards ahead of Reggie Wayne.
Despite solid performances from Hartline and Bess and a decent job by Fasano, Tannehill STILL doesn't have a fourth guy to throw to. It's the Hartline-Bess-Fasano show, with dump-offs to our running backs. Jabar Gaffney didn't play this game, but he reports that he's healthy enough to play but was given an extra week to finish learning the playbook - which he only received a copy of 3 days ago. What that means is that Tannehill has been rapidly improving, but he soon will have a luxury he hasn't had all season - a third wide receiver who can make plays if a defense shuts down Hartline and Bess. We have yet to see Gaffney in action, but I believe he represents a massive upgrade over what we've had so far as WR3, so hopefully our receiving corps situation looks better a week from now.
Running backs/Fullback: After his best game of the season last week, Jorvorskie Lane had one of his worst games of the season against the Bengals. He fumbled the ball in the redzone after a hard hit from a Bengals' safety, taking 3 points off our total score - and yes, because Dan Carpenter has been 100% under 45 yards, I consider that a surefire field goal lost. Lane also failed to convert a 4th and 1 after the right side of our offensive line got no push against the Bengals defensive line. Still, he made some positive impact plays - he finished the day with 2 catches for 20 yards, making him one of our more consistent pass-catching threats.
Reggie Bush had 19 carries for 48 yards (2.5 yards per carry), plus 2 catches for 24 yards AND he drew a defensive holding penalty as a Bengals linebacker panicked after Reggie lined up in the slot and grabbed onto Reggie as Tannehill threw a pass. Hmm - it seems like linebackers really don't enjoy having to cover Reggie Bush lined up a receiver, perhaps we should try doing that more? Anyways, none of our running backs were very effective, but Bush did have a couple of good runs including a 13 yard TD run to the outside. Reggie Bush confirmed that he's still limited due to his knee injury (bruise).
Daniel Thomas had one of his better games. Now, I know his 10 carries for 29 yards (2.9 yards per carry) isn't too impressive, but remember, it's better than Bush's. He also had 1 catch for 8 yards on a screen, and I'm convinced he picked up a first down but was screwed by a bad spot (more on that later). He ran well in power situations, with his second goal-line TD this year, and occasionally broke tackles and displayed the ability to make some defenders miss. More importantly, he didn't fumble the ball. He was taken out of the game with a probable concussion, his second concussion in 4 weeks.
Lamar Miller was didn't get any snaps on offense, with his trouble pass-protecting most likely to blame.
Quarterback: A good game by Tannehill. In my opinion he outplayed his stat line, which was 17 for 26 passing (65%) for 223 yards (8.6 yards per attempt) and 0 TDs with 0 INTs and 0 lost fumbles. I felt like Tannehill did a great job of not putting the ball in danger. I disagreed with a couple of his reads - on a few early downs, he threw deep to well-covered receivers despite having an open checkdown target like Reggie Bush. Personally, on 1st and 10, I'd prefer a five yard throw to Reggie Bush with space than a 30 yard bomb to Davone Bess covered by two defensive backs. The good news on those deep throws is he overshot his target and the defenders, so the passes were never in danger of being intercepted.
Other than that, Tannehill did a great job going through his progressions, doing an excellent job of sliding around in the pocket, making good decisions, throwing accurate strikes downfield to receivers in stride, and avoiding pass rushers with his mobility and strength (much like last week, he escaped multiple near-sacks). I described the game against Arizona as Tannehill's "big leap" game, a game where Miami was on the road, as the underdogs, against an undefeated team with a top 5 defense that shut down the run game and sacked him multiple times, yet at no point did Tannehill looked fazed by the pressure. This game, Tannehill played like a QB with no fear - ESPN highlighted Tannehill's throw to Clay down the seam, in which Tannehill threw a pass that hit Clay in the facemask with 3 defenders nearby, while a pass rusher was about to lay a huge hit on the Tannehill. Tannehill had to deal with some drops and pressure, but he did well for the second game in a row despite very limited support from the run game. It was Tannehill's most efficient game of the season, and most importantly, he accounted for zero turnovers. Let's hope that continues. 9 of our 15 first downs came courtesy of Tannehill's passing.
Coaching/Overall: I liked our gameplan. While our defense made the Bengals largely one dimensional - 45 passes to 15 rushes leading to sacks and interceptions by our defense - our offense was balanced, 31 rushing plays to 28 passing plays. It was a close game, but it shouldn't have been close. We lost a chance to try a chip-in field goal from the Lane redzone fumble, and the special teams turnover gave the Bengals the ball in field goal range. So that's +3 points to Cininnatti and -3 from us directly due to turnovers. Overall, I felt the Miami offense played reasonably well, though we were very poor on third downs, only converting 4 of 13 third downs and 0 of 1 fourth downs. Part of that was poor run-blocking on third-and-short situations, but that poor rate led to a lot of stalled drives.
With all of these close games, there's usually at least one play call that comes under scrutiny. This game, it was Miami's final play on offense (excluding the kneel-downs). After the two minute warning, Miami faced 3rd and 5 from near mid-field, with the Bengals down by 4 with no timeouts. Two obvious choices:
1. Low risk, low reward - run the ball, which is very unlikely to pick up first down but drains an extra 40 seconds off the clock, and will allow Miami to pin the other team back deep in their own territory with a punt if it fails to get a first down
2. High risk, high reward - call a pass, with better odds of getting first down but at the risk of either an interception or incomplete pass. The incompletion would stop the clock, meaning Miami would have to punt the ball with no time drained from the clock. The interception would give the Bengals the ball in favorable field position with no time drained from the clock. BUT, a completion for a first down would guarantee Miami the win.
The coaching staff chose to combine the best of both worlds by calling for a fake-handoff with a designed rollout. The playcall shows a lot of faith in the QB to make the right decision because it's a dual run and pass play. The QB can get the first down either through the air (throwing downfield) or on the ground (keeping the ball and running) if the defense allows it. If the play is well-defended, the QB can play it safe and guarantee time will be drained off the clock by sliding short of the first down or by throwing to the receiver running a shallow route (who ideally gets tackled inbounds).
Unfortunately, the Bengals defended the play well by not leaving any receivers open downfield or giving Tannehill space to run. Tannehill saw this and threw a very safe 2-yard pass to a wide-open Charles Clay. Clay needs to understand that a first down is only priority #2, while priority #1 is staying inbounds. Instead, Clay cuts to the outside (????) and then rather than falling down inbounds, he fights to stay upright as the defender pushes him out of bounds short of the first down. Failing to get the first down is okay, but STOPPING THE CLOCK is not okay. It was a good play call, executed in a smart, low risk manner by the QB that should have drained time off the clock even if it came up short. Instead, it came up short AND stopped the clock through the actions of the weak-link in the play, Charles Clay. The result was poor, but the playcall struck a good balance between being aggressive (which last week led to Tannehill being strip-sacked at the end of regulation against the Cardinals on a 3-step drop) and being too conservative.
Referee Critique: I've written 4 of these reviews, and NEVER have I devoted a section to the referees - even back when we had replacement referees. We had a few calls go against us in the other games, but bad calls are part of the game. However, this game, not only did we have some very questionable spots that always seemed to leave us about a yard short of first down, we had one very questionable play review go against us. Both Omar Kelly and Ben Volin, via Twitter, expressed that they felt that the referees, aside from the defensive pass interference call, were giving all the breaks to the Bengals. Joe Philbin was asked about his decision to challenge a punt being ruled as downed at the 1 yard line, despite the Bengals player who first touched the ball being guilty of touching the endzone with his foot and possibly hand before he touched the ball. Philbin's response was, "I guess they felt they couldn't tell if his ankle crossed the goal line - I really don't know." In "Coach-speak," that's translated to, "I really felt like it was clear the player touched the goal line, but I don't want to get fined, so I won't complain." We were only penalized twice, for a total of 10 yards, and I agree with both calls - it was the spots and 1 challenge result I disagree with.
In Summary: I feel great about the direction of our team, and we just need 1 more quality CB and WR/TE to step up. Hopefully Nolan Carroll plays well for the rest of the year, and Clay builds on his successes and learns from his failures this game - plus Egnew making the active roster wouldn't hurt. Last but not least, Gaffney could be a huge addition. 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 veteran WR3. The Dolphins must focus on avoiding turnovers, since our defense has proven they can keep us competitive when not put into bad situations with turnovers. We won this game despite 2 turnovers, but it wouldn't have been close in the fourth quarter if we had protected the ball. Moral of the Story: Protect the ball, and we win.