Let me begin by saying what you're all thinking. I guess the overconfident Dolphins players who excitedly spoke of a perfect 0-16 season were proven wrong yestertoday!
Hilarious satire from The Onion aside, it was a good win today. It was our first victory in a home opener since 2005. The path to respect begins with wins, so hopefully this will shut up most of the Dolphins' critics for at least one week.
As in my previous writeup of game 1, my goal is to point out reasons to be optimistic this season, as well as areas of grave concern. I'll point out positive and negative trends I've noticed, with the goal of mapping out how this team evolves this season. I don't have the time or football acumen to break down the All-22 film, but I'll post interesting statistics each week and try to explain what I feel they mean for the season ahead.
Let's start with Special Teams - a bright spot this game, as it was last week.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter with 0 field goal attempts, so no tribute fist-bumps in honor of Sparano
Kick coverage: On 6 kickoffs, the Dolphins had 3 touchbacks. In the 3 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Raiders to an average of 17.7 yards per return, with a long of 25 yards - so no very big returns. Marcus Thigpen was called for being offsides once, leading to a re-kick.
Kick returns: None - Sebastian Janikowski boomed 4 kicks that were touchbacks for Miami.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields earned his new contract today by punting 7 times for an average of 49.7 yards, with a net average punting yards of 41.4, landing 4 of his 7 punts inside the 20 yard line, with his longest being 59 yards. The Raiders returned 5 of those 7 punts for an average of 11 yards with a long of 47 yards. Excluding that one long return, the Raiders were held to 4 returns of 8 yards (2 yards per return).
Special section - "Pooch punt coverage": This was a clever decision to use Dan Carpenter to kick a pooch punt after pretending to line up for a 55+ yard field goal. The Raiders were pinned inside their own 10 yard line with no one back to receive the punt.
Punt returns: No touchdowns this week, but Thigpen had 5 punt returns averaging 14 yards, and Davone Bess had 1 return for 11 yards. The Oakland Raiders' Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler averaged 35.2 net yards punting on 9 punts, with only 1 downed inside the 20 yard line.
Coaching/Overall - A solid performance for the second week in a row, with the lone blemish being the one long 47 yard punt return by the Raiders. The punting unit plus our 3rd down defense kept us in the game during our offensive rut involving 6 consecutive drives ending with punts. Fields kept pinning the Raiders further and further back. A theme of the past 2 games has been that our special teams unit has stranded the opposing offense with terrible with field position. If Miami's offense can avoid turnovers, special teams can continue to pin opposing teams deep, which puts less pressure on the defense.
Next, let's move onto the Defense - yet again a mixed performance, with reasons for optimism and concern.
Run defense: The run defense was solid for the second week in a row. Last week, they held the dynamic duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate to a combined 31 carries for only 85 yards - that's only 2.7 yards per carry by one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. This week, the Raiders' star running back Darren McFadden was held to 11 carries for 22 yards - 2.0 yards per carry (even better than last week). Yet again, the Dolphins defense had great tackles for loss or at the line of scrimmage. Reshad Jones had a great play behind the line of scrimmage for the second week in a row - this time, he chased down McFadden from behind as McFadden ran to the outside and tackled him for a loss. The sample size of 2 games is small, but the trend is clear - teams CANNOT run against the Dolphins' defense.
Pass rushing: Now, let the criticism continue! The Dolphins defense as a whole did have nine quarterback hits, with Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake each producing two, Kevin Burnett, Jimmy Wilson and Jared Odrick each getting one. Though the team did a great job generating hurries and hits, the team had zero sacks despite Palmer dropping back to pass 48 times with the Dolphins in the lead for much of the second half. The Raiders' offensive line was pretty good in pass blocking last year, but zero sacks on 48 pass attempts, many on obvious passing situations due to Miami smothering their running game, is a concerning lack of production. Like last week, defensive coordinator Coyle was forced to send 5 or 6 guys to generate pressure, which leaves the secondary vulnerable to big plays.
Pass coverage: Raiders wide receivers Derek Hagan (1 catch for 10 yards), Rod Streater (2 catches for 17 yards), Darrius Heyward-Bey (4 catches for 41 yards), and Denarius Moore (3 catches for 67 yards) combined for 10 catches for 135 yards (13.5 yards per catch). Last week, we couldn't stop Andre Johnson as he finished with 8 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. This week, multiple receivers were able to make plays against us, but no individual receiver dominated, and no wide receivers finished with a touchdown. The Dolphins this season have only allowed 1 touchdown to a wide receiver (the unstoppable Andre Johnson), despite the fact that we lost #1 CB Richard Marshall mid-way through the game with a back injury. Per Omar Kelly, Marshall experienced back "tightness" that limited his flexibility after getting hit by Dansby on a combined tackle, and the coaching staff kept him out of the game. However, Marshall said post-game that his back was already feeling better, so he should be back for next week's game. It was nice to see Carroll, Smith, and Wilson all have a couple of nice plays. I completely disagree with the pass interference call on Carroll, so I don't hold it against him, but Wilson has to be smarter about avoiding roughing the passer penalties. Just keep in mind we were relying on Jimmy Wilson (who spent the entire offseason at safety) to be our dime CB..
As for tight ends - coverage was mostly poor, again. Last week, we allowed 5 catches for 104 yards to the Texans' two tight ends, but Owen Daniels is a Pro Bowl-caliber receiving threat. This week, we allowed guys like David Ausberry (1 catch for 31 yards) and Brandon Myers (6 catches for 86 yards) to combine for 7 catches for 117 yards (16.7 yards per catch!!!!) No offense to those guys, but Myers + Ausberry is not exactly Gronk + Hernandez. Our coverage of tight ends is still a grave concern because we're letting pretty much anybody make big plays.
As for the running backs/fullback - coverage was mostly good...except for that one play. McFadden was held to 2 catches for 19 yards (9.5 yards per catch), after catching 13 passes the week before, so he was shut down. FB Marcell Reece had 2 catches for 17 yards (8.5 yards per catch), so again, good coverage. RB Mike Goodson had 3 catches for 83 yards, with 64 yards coming off of a pretty generic screen pass in which Karlos Dansby took a horrible angle and Reshad Jones was never able to disengage from a wide receiver blocking him downfield. Aside from that big-play, coverage was mostly good, but other teams may try to call more screens against us to counter our strength at defensive line.
Coaching/Overall: Run defense is looking dominant - at this pace, we'll be top 3 at the end of the year. Inconsistent pass rush. Coverage of wide receivers is decent, and coverage of running backs is solid (except for 1 defensive breakdown on a screen). Coverage of tight ends continues to look very questionable. I began counting missed tackles by the defense but stopped after 8 - we were victimized by players getting yards-after-catch due to the combination of missed tackles on our part plus the speed everybody on the Raiders has.
However, what's impressive to me is that despite no sacks and allowing big plays to tight ends, for the second week in a row, our redzone defense was stout. Last week, 3 of 6 Houston drives that reached the red zone ended with a red-zone field goal (50% failure rate to score a TD). This week, both of Oakland's trips to the redzone ended with field goals (100% failure rate). We held the Texans to a 41% conversation rate on third downs (decent but not superb). This week, we held the Raiders to 1 of 12 on third down conversions or 8% (which is awesome). Again, two games is a small sample size, but so far, the defense has been stout in the the situations that matter most - 3rd downs in the red zone.
Lastly, Reshad Jones is making a bit of a name for himself, with multiple tackles for loss in both games and a game-sealing interception this game. I'm still waiting for Chris Clemons to make a big-play.
Last, let's move onto the Offense - a much better performance than last week, but issues remain.
Offensive line: Quick summary
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 penalties or sacks allowed (hooray).
Our offensive line, particularly the left side, yet again did a great job run blocking, especially in the second half as the Oakland Raiders front-7 basically melted away in the heat. Remember - the strength of the Raiders' defense is their front-7, and their ability to generate pressure in the first half stalled our offense. The whole offensive line did only "okay" in pass blocking by allowing only one sack but unfortunately allowing multiple hits and hurries. Part of the blame for tipped passes last week fell on the offensive line, so you have to give them credit for the fact that there was only 1 tipped pass (early in the first quarter). The fact that we didn't hear Jerry's or Martin's names at all is a great sign considering the concerns we have about our young and unproven right side of the offensive line.
Receivers/Tight Ends: While Fasano failed to convert on 3rd down after Tannehill hit him in stride 4 yards short of a first down, he redeemed himself by giving Tannehill his first career passing TD on a later play after making a couple of guys miss on a run after catch. Charles Clay dropped one pass (second drop this year) but caught a pass for a 2 yard gain (progress?). Third round pick Egnew was inactive again.
Bess had 1 drop but continued his trend of "making Tannehill look good by catching even poorly thrown passes," with 3 catches for 43 yards.
As I mentioned last week, Hartline has the perfect skill set to be a west-coast offense receiver and would improve with time as he regained his conditioning and developed chemistry with Tannehill. Hartline was a top candidate for the game ball after a career day, 9 catches for 111 yards, with the only blemishes being 2 "drops" including 1 in the endzone after a cornerback ripped the ball from his hands. The huge caveat is that Hartline was up against an injury replacement at CB, not a true starter, and I have a feeling he'll be seeing Darrelle Revis next week, so don't expect a big game from Hartline next week against the Jets. However, Hartline proved that he can at least be an adequate #2 wide receiver and will be relied on for slants and sideline throws.
As for Legedu Naanee, he continues to be mentioned for all the wrong reasons. Last week, a (somewhat forced) throw to him lead to an interception as Jonathan Joseph jumped his route, and Naanee failed to compete for the ball. This game, he was targeted once, but either Tannehill missed or Naanee wasn't where he was supposed to be - regardless, despite having far more reps with Tannehill than Hartline due to Hartline's offseason injury, Naanee hasn't developed any chemistry with the QB. Tannehill can't seem to find him - and given how quickly the Tannehill-to-Hartline connection blossomed, I'm inclined to blame Naanee. His one strength as a big receiver with no chemistry with our QB is blocking, but this game, he completely whiffed on a block, leading to a negative play. He will continue to be sidelined unless he starts doing more with his limited opportunities on the field. I'm not rooting for him to fail - I just haven't seen any reason to believe he'll succeed.
As for Armstrong, he was out with a hamstring injury, but I see him as being our deep threat next week.
Running backs/Fullback: Official fan favorite Jorvorskie Lane had 4 carries for 12 yards (including a run for a first down on 4th and 1) plus made a great block outside, springing Bush free for a 65 yard touchdown. Reggie Bush was awesome. After totaling 20 touches for 114 yards (5.7 yards per touch) last week, Bush had 26 rushes for 172 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and 2 TDs on the ground, plus 3 catches for 25 yards, to combine for 29 touches for 197 yards and 2 TDs (6.8 yards per touch). Bush is second in the NFL in rushing. Lamar Miller had a great debut with 10 rushes, 65 yards (6.5 yards per rush), and 1 TD, displaying his great burst of speed whenever he had space, though he did allow a sack. Daniel Thomas was out as a precaution due to his concussion in game 1, but his pass blocking was missed at times. All in all, running backs and fullbacks combined for 249 yards on 40 carries (6.2 yards per carry). This group is our clear strength on offense, so offensive coordinator Mike Sherman MUST continue to lean heavily on these talented players, despite his clear preference for passes.
Quarterback: Good game by Tannehill. Not spectacular but solid. NO turnovers. Only 1 batted pass that fell harmlessly to the ground. He checked into good plays when audibling at the line of scrimmage. He rarely put the ball in danger - though he needlessly took a big hit after taking too long to decide to throw the ball away. Still, he used his legs to great effect, rushing for a touchdown, and was very accurate on rollouts. He clearly made an effort to scan both sides of the field on long passing plays and made some good throws under extreme duress, including one improbable check-down throw (as he was being sacked!) to Reggie Bush. He was only sacked once, but it could have been much worse if he had held onto the ball longer. Instead, he got the ball out quickly for the most part but still took some big hits since the offensive line wasn't nearly as dominant pass blocking as it was run blocking. 60% completion percentage, 200 yards (6.7 yards per attempt), 2 combined TDs, 0 turnovers. Tannehill won't make the Pro Bowl this year with those numbers, but we will win games this year with that type of production. We're looking for consistent improvement, and this week, Tannehill absolutely improved.
Coaching/Overall: I was thrilled with the run game, though I question our decision to abandon it in the second quarter. I loved the way we used our RBs and FB. I liked the way we run-blocked for the most part, and Jerry and Martin avoided big mistakes. The playcalling was much more balanced compared to last week's 36 passes to 17 rushes - this week, it was 30 passes to 43 rushes, which is what we should aim for given our strength at running back and weaknesses at receiver. There was variety - Intermediate throws to sideline, tosses to the outside, runs between the tackles, twice asking Tannehill to pump fake to the outside before handing the ball to Reggie (which ideally moves safeties to the outside and makes defensive linemen jump into the air and therefore easier to run-block), having Tannehill roll out, etc.
In Summary: I like our special teams a lot. I love our run game and the use of our running backs in the passing game. Run defense was outstanding. I'm lukewarm about our defense of wide receivers, but I remain very worried about our defense of tight ends, given the continuing breakdowns in coverage. Lack of consistent pass rush doesn't help. We did a great job of balancing the offense and limiting Tannehill to "only" 30 pass attempts, which is progress. The tipped passes problem seems mostly solved - for now. I continue to expect our team to improve with time. I wouldn't expect Hartline to repeat his production this game against the Jets, and Dustin Keller might have a field day against our defense, but don't expect the Jets to run well against us. Though Reggie Bush and Brian Hartline were good candidates for the game ball, the team insisted that Head Coach Joe Philbin get the ball - so hopefully that silences talk of Philbin "losing the locker room" for now.