Let me begin by saying what you're all thinking. A quarterback selected in the first round, in his first start, against a highly respected defense, throwing 3 interceptions? Not good at all.
Indianapolis Colts GM Ryan Grigson should come under heavy fire for selecting Andrew Luck in the first round, given that turnover-riddled performance. Perhaps Luck should have spent a year on the bench learning behind a veteran before taking over the starting job.
....Just kidding - sorta.
Let me begin by saying there's no way to sugarcoat a 3 interception performance. It's a bad job by the quarterback, period. However, 1 game doesn't define a career - otherwise, Luck is on "Ryan Leaf 2.0"-watch, and if that sounds like a ridiculous thing to say about Luck after just 1 game, then it's also unfair to write off Tannehill after his first start against at worst the 3rd best defense he'll be up against all year. What's concerning is that the Texans were clearly rusty early on, dropping passes and struggling to field kicks, yet the Dolphins couldn't capitalize.
So my goal for this writeup is to point out reasons to be optimistic this season, as well as areas of grave concern. So if you're hoping for a rant about why Ireland should be fired OR for a writeup that excuses everything that went wrong, here's a fair warning - this isn't the writeup for you.Let's start with Special Teams - a bright spot this game.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter made his only field goal attempt, a 39-yarder.
Kick coverage: On 3 kickoffs, the Dolphins held the Texans to an average of 15 yards per return, with a long of 19 yards - so no big returns.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen returned 5 kickoffs for an average of 27 yards per return and a long of 32 - significantly better than the Texans were able to achieve. Jorvorskie Lane also returned one kickoff for 18 yards.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 3 times for an average of 39.7 yards, landing 2 kicks inside the 20 yard line, with his longest punt being 56 yards. The Texans' only punt return was 14 yards.
Punt returns: Thigpen had 2 punt returns, averaging 38 yards, one for a 72 yard touchdown (<--click to watch), the first Dolphins punt return TD since Nov. 18, 2007 (Ted Ginn).
Coaching/Overall - We kept Darren Rizzi, our special teams coach since October 2010, and I have no complaints. A solid performance was capped off by the unit scoring the team's only touchdown. I like that Philbin didn't go for field goals when we were down by 20 late in the fourth quarter. Being conservative and getting 2 field goals so that we can lose 30 to 16 wouldn't make me feel better than us going for it on 4th and goal twice and losing 30 to 10. With the latter strategy, there's a chance we could come back.
Next, let's move onto the Defense - a mixed performance, with reasons for optimism and concern.
Run defense: The run defense was solid. Arian Foster had 26 carries totaling 79 yards, and Ben Tate had 5 carries for 6 yards, to combine for 31 carries for only 85 yards - that's only 2.7 yards per carry by one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. For every "chunk" yardage play, the Dolphins defense (be it Misi, Jones, or Wake) had a great tackle for loss. The 2 rushing touchdowns are concerning, but considering the excellent field position the Texans had, it's not surprising that they were eventually able to punch it in the endzone twice - and you can't ignore the three times the defense forced the Texans to attempt a redzone field goal, in part due to excellent run defense in short-yardage situations.
Pass rushing: Now, let the criticism begin! Look at Miami's front-7 - does anybody scare you as a pass rushing threat besides Cameron Wake? Jared Odrick did some damage as a 3-4 DE last year (6 sacks), and Olivier Vernon was drafted in the third round...but Wake is the only established threat. I saw the Texans mix up their Wake countermeasures - sometimes using a TE to help the right tackle, sometimes helping the right tackle with the running back chipping Wake, etc., yet nobody was able to take advantage of the attention Wake was drawing. Wake finished with 0 sacks but had a few QB pressures where he almost got to Schaub before the pass was thrown. Starks had one clear coverage sack (Schaub had 4 seconds in the pocket before being sacked), and one sack in which he beat the offensive lineman in front of him early in the play. That's it. Olivier Vernon, Paul Soliai, and Jared Odrick had 0 sacks each.
Sometimes QBs are sacked twice but were harassed all game. Not so today. Schaub was sacked twice but was very comfortable in the pocket, waiting patiently for Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson to get open. He was only flushed from the pocket a few times, despite Defensive Coordinator Coyle being aggressive, sometimes sending two defenders (a DB and linebacker) to blitz, so pass rush is a serious concern.
Pass coverage: Great pass rush covers for deficiencies in the secondary, while poor pass rush can amplify the weaknesses. Today it was a bit of the latter. All of the cornerbacks got beat on key plays with quick throws, but there were a few completions in which Schaub had all day to throw before coverage broke down. Andre Johnson finished with 8 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown, but no other wide receiver had more than 2 catches. What irked me were completions to Johnson while he was covered by Nolan Carroll or Jimmy Wilson. What's the point of having a 6-foot-3 cornerback like Sean Smith if we're NOT going to make him trail the 6-foot-3 Andre Johnson?
As for tight ends - coverage was mostly poor. After being consistently burned by Owen Daniels, the defense began double covering him with some success, but he still finished with 4 catches for 87 yards (almost 22 yards per catch for a tight end!). James Casey, another tight end, also got 1 catch for 17 yards - so that's 104 yards to two tight ends. The worst part about these completions is that it seemed like the Dolphins flat-out lost track of these tight ends. It wasn't that the tight ends beat tight coverage using their athleticism - sometimes, there were simply no defenders nearby as they made a catch. Hard to know who to blame in that case.
Coaching/Overall: Most would agree that limiting the Texans to 87 yards rushing is respectable considering they rushed the ball 31 times. The Texans were held to 41% on third downs. However, Andre Johnson made plays, and coverage of tight ends was poor. This speaks to either
A. Lack of athletic talent at linebacker, cornerback, and safety to matchup with tight ends and #1 WRs
B. Adequate talent but poor execution of a new/unfamiliar scheme OR
C. Adequate talent but poor scheme/playcalling
If it's B, then problems should go away with more experience in Coyle's system. If it's A or C....oh boy, it's not going to be fun to play the Patriots.
Last, let's move onto the Offense - a mostly poor performance, with widespread failures.
Offensive line: Quick summary
LT: Jake Long allowed a sack and was called for holding once.
LG: Ritchie Incognito was called for holding twice.
C: Mike Pouncey was flagged for a late hit out of bounds after a Tannehill interception.
RT: Jonathan Martin allowed multiple pressures and a sack by JJ Watt (who flat-out destroyed Tannehill).
Our offensive line, particularly the left side, did a great job run blocking and did okay pass blocking until late in the game, when the offense was in obvious passing downs, which puts a lot of strain on the offensive line. However, I wish that after JJ Watt repeatedly read Tannehill's eyes to bat a pass, an offensive lineman would force Watt to engage him instead of reading Tannehill's eyes.
Receivers/Tight Ends: I was grateful to see the return of "reliable hands Fasano." He's much more likeable than "stone-hands Fasano," whom we saw in pre-season. Clay dropped the only pass thrown to him, which hurts me a lot since I consider myself one of the biggest "Charles Clay bandwagoners" on this site. Third round pick TE Egnew was inactive.
Bess had 1 drop in the fourth quarter but was solid with 5 catches for 45 yards, helping Tannehill by adjusting to the ball to make great catches.
Some people are pessimistic about Armstrong and Hartline, but:
1. Armstrong has been practicing with the team for just a week, so it's understandable that he and Tannehill aren't completely on the same page yet - though his drop was painful to watch. Still, expect improvement as he gets more reps with Tannehill.
2. Hartline knows the playbook but is still not completely in football shape after his recovering from his serious calf injury. However, in the second half, Hartline demonstrated his precise route running and reliable hands - wow, those are the key traits for a successful West Coast Offense receiver! - making some nice grabs to finish with 3 catches for 50 yards. This is another connection that will improve with time.
Other than those guys - no receivers made a mark in the game, save for Naanee contributing some nice blocking but also being the intended target of a pass that was intercepted. Tannehill and Naanee have ZERO chemistry at this point, and Tannehill should avoid throwing to Naanee when he's covered by the other team's #1 CB like Jonathan Joseph since Naanee can't be relied on to beat a true #1 CB.
Running backs/Fullback: A very rare bright spot on offense. Jorvorskie Lane is either one of your favorite players, or you haven't been paying attention. He took a play-action pass and went 24 yards before he finished by leaping over a defender. Reggie Bush came to play with 6 catches for 45 yards, 14 rushes for 69 yards, all for a total of 20 touches for 114 yards (5.7 yards per touch). Daniel Thomas had 3 carries for 11 yards, and 1 catch for 32 yards in which he broke tackles. All in all, running backs and the fullback combined for 80 yards on 17 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and 102 yards receiving on 8 catches (12.8 yards per catch) - almost half of Tannehill's 219 passing yards. The lone blemish of this group was a fumble by Daniel Thomas due to a hit that left Thomas "woozy" and took him out of the game.
Quarterback: Poor game by Tannehill. Not horrible but undeniably poor. He suffered a few early drops, as well as a mis-timed snap from Pouncey, and being tripped up by John Jerry, but unlike in pre-season, he had some receivers making plays for him and a run-game that was humming. Tannehill seemed hesitant to attempt throws down the field, and after a promising first 1.5 quarters, began locking onto receivers with his eyes, allowing JJ Watt to bat the passes into the air for 2 interceptions. I honestly do NOT see any problems with his throwing mechanics - while they were annoying, the TV commentators were correct that the batted passes were a result of Tannehill staring down receivers. Coach Joe Philbin split the blame for the batted passes between the O-line and Tannehill.
His offensive line could have helped him out by aggressively engaging the defensive linemen instead of giving them space to jump in the air with their arms up, but there are simple counters a QB can use. The best is the pump-fake, since it sends the defensive lineman hopping into the air and might lead a DB to bite on a route early. His QB coach obviously had the same idea, since I saw Tannehill use at least one pump fake in the second-half. Additionally, scanning both sides of the field with his eyes makes it harder for defenders to know when to give up on rushing the passer and instead settle for batting passes. I saw some great throws - the 34-yard sideline throw to Hartline was a beauty - and I saw very few poor throws into dangerous situations (just 2). The remainder of his incompletions (besides 3 batted passes that turned into interceptions) were overthrown (making it hard for a defender to intercept) or were dropped. Aside from the terrible interceptions, Tannehill finished with a respectable 20/36 for 219 yards (56% accuracy for 6.1 yards per attempt), but he was unlucky to have 2 of his 4 batted passes be intercepted, and he had a CB intercept a throw to his new #1 WR Naanee by jumping a slant route.
Coaching/Overall: I was happy with the run game. I loved the way we used our RBs and FB. I liked the way we run-blocked for the most part (special credit goes to the Pouncey-Incognito-Long trio). John Jerry, aside from tripping up Tannehill, didn't embarrass himself at right guard. Martin got pushed around, but not nearly as bad as the Carolina game (progress!). However, I'm not a fan of a rookie QB having 36 passing attempts in his debut. I understand we were losing, but with the run game humming, there was no need to keep Tannehill passing after his second interception of the first half - we could have remained patient and stuck with the run game to open things up for passing instead of asking Tannehill to carry the offense with his arm. 36 passes to 17 rushes is unacceptable playcalling for a rookie making his first start.
In Summary: I like our special teams a lot. I love our run game and the way we're using our running and full backs in the passing game. I'm a big believer in our run defense. I'm nervous about our defense of wide receivers - both against true #1's like Andre Johnson and teams with deep wide receiver corps like the Falcons after trading away Vontae Davis, and I'm terrified about our defense of tight ends, given the continuing breakdowns in coverage we have seen since pre-season. Fasano, Bess, and Hartline stepped up, and I see potential in the Tannehill-to-Armstrong connection (though it needs time), but we have to do a better job of not asking Tannehill to become a 35-40 pass attempts-per-game QB as a rookie. The offensive line must be aggressive knowing defenders are going to try to swat passes, and Tannehill must learn to pump-fake and look off defenders. The better team won, but most of the problems are correctable with coaching and more experience.
One last note: Peyton Manning threw 3 INTs in his regular season debut in 1998 - against the Dolphins.