Miami Dolphins Season In Review: Offensive Line Trench Warfare

How did the Miami Dolphins offensive line fare in the battle of the trenches? - Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

What do the raw statistics say about the 2012 Miami Dolphins run game and pass protection? How about the advanced statistics? Who deserves credit (and blame)? Read more to find out...

As fans wait for the Miami Dolphins to make significant roster changes in the next few months, it's important to get a sense of what the team's strengths and weaknesses were in 2012. To better investigate the Miami Dolphins' 2012 season, I believe fans should look at all the available statistics, both raw and advanced.

This analysis of the Dolphins' offensive line relies on data from NFL.com, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus. The "raw" statistics from NFL.com will be used as a starting point, and the pros and cons of those two advanced football statistical sites will be discussed. I apologize in advance for the length - future writeups looking at our quarterback, running-backs, wide receivers/tight ends, etc., should be much shorter.

The Run Game

Raw Stats (found here)

The Miami Dolphins were 13th in the NFL in rush attempts (440), 17th in both total rush yards (1,802 yards) and average yards per game (112.6 yards/game). The team finished 18th in the NFL at yards per carry at 4.1. The Dolphins were 11th in total rushing touchdowns (15). In a future article, I'll go over each individual ball-carrier in-depth, but that's how the team as a whole performed.

Summary: Based on the raw stats, the Miami Dolphins were a below-average running team. The only statistic in which the Dolphins were significantly above average was rushing touchdowns.

Football Outsiders (found here)

The advantage of raw stats is that they're accepted as a good starting point. However, they don't tell the full story.

For example - Say Reggie Bush runs for:
80 yards (4.5 yards per carry) in game 1, then
100 yards (4.6 yards per carry) in game 2.

Which game was more impressive?

Most would guess game 2, but what if I told you that those 100 yards (4.6 yards per carry) were earned against the worst run defense in the NFL that allows an average of 140 rushing yards per game at 5 yards per carry?

And what if I added that while he ran for 80 yards (4.5 yards per carry) in game 1, that was against the best run defense in the NFL that allows an average of 60 yards per game at 3.5 yards per carry?

Most would probably backtrack and say game 1, the one against the elite run defense, was more impressive despite worse raw stats.

And that's the problem with raw stats - they don't give context to certain performances. That's where the website Football Outsiders comes in. They take those raw stats and adjust the quality of performance based on the quality of the defense it came against. So when it comes to the run game, they adjust a yardage total higher if it came against an elite defense, while they adjust the total lower if it came against a poor defense.

In addition to the quality of defense, they go further and adjust yardage totals based on the situation the run came on. In general, running plays on 3rd-and-20 gain more yards than runs on 3rd-and-2. That's because 3rd-and-20 is an obvious passing down in which defenses play further from the line of scrimmage, while 3rd-and-2 is an obvious running play in which defenses stack the box to stop the run. Therefore, yardage from runs that come on obvious running downs are adjusted higher, while yardage from runs that come on obvious passing downs are adjusted lower.

These sort of adjustments based on regressions (advanced statistical analysis) might be familiar to baseball fans since the "Sabermetrics" movement (adjusting baseball statistics to take into account specific situations) is based on the same principles.

If you dislike or distrust the adjustments I just described, feel free to skip this section and go to the Pro Football Focus portion below. If you are curious to see what adjusting for quality of opposing defense does to Miami's rushing statistics, continue reading from here.

By Football Outsiders' calculations, the Miami Dolphins were the 21st most efficient team running the ball in the NFL. That ranking is lower than the ranks from the raw statistics because the Dolphins struggled to run the ball against bad run defenses like the Colts, Titans, and Bills. Those poor performances are further adjusted downward because of the low quality of those run defenses.

Using Football Outsiders' numbers, the Dolphins averaged 4.15 "unadjusted" yards per running play, but once the quality of the run defenses was factored in, the Dolphins' "adjusted" yards per carry fell to 3.93 yards per carry. In other words 3.9 yards per carry is what the site "projects" the Dolphins would have averaged if they had played 16 games against "average" run defenses.

Football Outsiders breaks down adjusted rushing yards per carry based on which gap the runner hits and "ranked" the averages:

Left End (C-Gap)
L-Tackle/Guard (B-Gap) Either side of Center (A-Gaps) R-Guard/Tackle (B-Gap) Right End (C-Gap)
4.45 yards/7th
4.20 yards/11th
3.94 yards/20th
3.30 yards/29th
3.92 yards/17th

Summary: The lesson here is that the Dolphins cannot blame their schedule for the poor run game in 2012. While they did play 6 games against top-12 run defenses as ranked by Football Outsiders, the other 10 games came against average or below average run defenses. There are 3 key stats to remember for the next section:

1. The Dolphins' average yards-per-carry gets worse the closer the running back came to running near right guard John Jerry.

2. Average yards-per-carry on either side of center Mike Pouncey is poor.

3. Average yards per carry is top-10 in the NFL on runs off the left end and near league-average on runs off the right end.

Pro Football Focus (found here)

Based on Football Outsiders' numbers, there's evidence that Miami's run game was worse than the mediocre "raw" numbers indicate given that Miami's opponents mostly had average or bad run defenses. So what's left to say?

Well - one downside of Football Outsiders, in a way, is its objectiveness. Football Outsiders just adjusts numbers - it doesn't assign blame or credit. That's where Pro Football Focus (PFF) comes in. PFF analysts watch every snap of every game and rate the quality of play of each player on every snap.

So if Miami runs for 9 yards on 3 carries, the raw stats would say: "The Miami Dolphins averaged 3 yards per carry."

Football Outsiders would adjust the yards gained based on the quality of the opponent and situations in which the team ran the ball but otherwise provide no additional information.

Those sources of information don't take into account if on those 3 carries, the offensive line is to blame for poor blocking or if the running back is to blame for bad decision-making or hesitating.
PFF
however would give a positive grade to the offensive line and a negative grade to the running back on a short gain that occurred with good blocking.
Likewise, PFF would give a negative grade to the offensive line and a positive grade to the running back on a short gain that happened despite poor blocking.

Trusting the upcoming data requires faith in PFF graders. If you don't trust them, skip this section. If you do, continue reading below.

The folks at PFF use number grades, but I've "translated" the grades into 1 of 6 categories.

Good = positive grade; Great = strongly positive (> 1.0); Superb (> 3.0)

Bad = negative grade; Awful = strongly negative (< -1.0); Disaster (< -3.0)

Run-Blocking (DNP = Did Not Play enough snaps to earn significant grade)

Run_block_png_medium

All the following player rankings were filtered to include only linemen who played at least 50% of their team's snaps.

Jake Long improved as a run blocker over time, perhaps due to him recovering from a pre-season knee sprain and adjusting to the new zone blocking scheme. Long's season ended before he could rise higher than being the 38th ranked run-blocking tackle in the NFL (below average) among the 57 offensive tackles who played at least 50% of their teams' snaps.

Jonathan Martin improved as a run-blocker as the season went on, and did well after he switched to left tackle, though he ended up finishing the season ranked only 50th at run blocking amongst NFL tackles. That low ranking is mostly due to his early struggles at right tackle bringing down his cumulative grade.

Ritchie Incognito had a terrible start but began run-blocking better later in the season, so like Long, it's possible he struggled to transition to the zone-blocking scheme. He finished the season as the 20th best run-blocking guard in the NFL (above average) out of 54 guards.

John Jerry was a consistently poor run-blocker, and he finished the season the 50th ranked run-blocking guard in the NFL out of 54 (among the worst).

Last, Mike Pouncey was the most consistent run blocker, and he finished the season as the 8th-best run-blocking center in the NFL out of 28 (elite).

With the PFF data, it's possible to begin assigning "blame" and "credit" for the 3 facts that stood out from Football Outsiders' data.

1. The Dolphins' average yards-per-carry gets worse the closer the running back comes to running near John Jerry.

#1 is explained easily by the PFF data - Jerry is simply a poor run-blocker. PFF's data indicates he's one of the worst guards in the NFL at run blocking, and Football Outsiders' data backs that up since running to either side of Jerry (A or B gap) led to bad results.

2. Combined average yards-per-carry on both sides of Mike Pouncey (both A-gaps) is poor.

#2 is less straightforward - How can Pouncey be one of the best run-blocking centers in the NFL according to PFF, but the Dolphins' average yards-per-carry in the A-gaps be ranked well-below average?

First, Football Outsiders combined the average yards-per-carry to either side of the Center. So, the runs to the right of Pouncey most likely were stopped by the defender Jerry was blocking, and those poor runs to the right outweighed the positive runs that went between Pouncey and Incognito to the left. The second half of the story is PFF doesn't like either Reggie Bush or Daniel Thomas as inside runners. As I'll discuss in a future writeup, PFF has called out Bush for at times hesitating before hitting the hole on inside runs, while Thomas is accused of being very inconsistent when it comes to running with power. If you trust PFF, poor running back play plus poor right guard play bring down the average yards-per-carry when running near Pouncey despite good blocking on Pouncey's part.

3. Average yards per carry off the left tackle (C-gap) is top-10 and around league average off the right tackle.

#3 is the reverse of #2 - PFF rates Long as below average and Martin as one of the worst tackles in the NFL when it comes to run-blocking. Why then are the Dolphins' average yards-per-carry to the outside of Long top-10 in the NFL and to the outside of Martin around league average?

It's important to remember that Pro Football Focus assigns a grade for every snap, while Football Outsiders calculates an average per carry. That's important because Football Outsiders is vulnerable to "skewing."

For example: If on three run plays, Jake Long blocks poorly on the first two plays (leading to a 1-yard loss on each carry) but blocks well on the third play, Jake Long would earn two negative grades and one positive grade from Pro Football Focus - a "bad" day at run-blocking.

However, if on the third run play, Reggie Bush beats the defense to the edge behind Long's only good block of the game, makes a man miss, and outruns the defense to score a 62 yard touchdown, Football Outsiders would record the result of those 3 plays as "3 runs to the left of Jake Long averaged:

-1 yards + -1 yards + 62 yards = 60 yards over 3 runs = 20 yards per carry!"

The Dolphins have a running back in Reggie Bush that's known for breaking off big outside runs. A few big runs is why the Dolphins' offensive tackles shine in Football Outsiders' yards-per-carry data but are rated poorly by PFF's blocking-per-snap data.

Football Outsiders, much like the raw stats, doesn't assign credit or blame, it just reports results, with a few adjustments. It's up to fans to figure out who is responsible for the results. Pro Football Focus' grading suggests the impressive average yardage on outside runs came as a result of Bush busting out a few good plays, not Long and Martin consistently blocking well the whole season. Bush is the type of running back that makes an offensive line look worse on inside runs but better on outside runs.

Summary: The raw stats indicate the Dolphins were a below-average rushing team. Football Outsiders' adjustments made the run-game look even worse given the quality of opponents. Pro Football Focus indicates that 2 run-blockers, Jerry and Martin, were among the worst in the NFL at their positions, though Martin improved later in the season. Per PFF, Long was below-average, and only Incognito and Pouncey were above average. Running to the left was Miami's most efficient direction, likely because those runs involved are the team's 3 best run blockers (Long, Incognito, and sometimes Pouncey pulling to the outside) and the primary running back is best running to the outside.

Running to either side of John Jerry was ineffective, a fact backed up by both PFF's grading of his blocking and Football Outsiders' adjusted yards-per-carry average. While Martin got better as a run-blocker, Jerry's persistent inability to run-block is a major weakness.

Pass Protection

Raw Stats

Miami was 18th in sacks allowed with 37 and 19th in sack rate (sacks divided by passing plays) with 6.84%.

Football Outsiders

Football Outsiders slightly "adjusts" the "sacks allowed" statistic given the quality of opponents. Miami had an "adjusted" sack rate of 6.8%, equivalent to the "raw" sack rate, which was 17th in the NFL by their calculations. Therefore, adjusting the number of sacks allowed based on the quality of opponent pass rush still leads to the conclusion that Miami's pass protection is below average.

Pro Football Focus

Pass Protection Grades:

Pass_block_png_medium

Jake Long was a solid pass-blocker for much of his season. Negative impressions of Long's pass-blocking in 2012 seem to be due to 3 factors.
1. By the standards Long set in his 2009 and 2010 seasons, "solid" is "below-average."
2. Long had a horrible ("Disaster") performance against the Colts in a high-profile game between 2 wildcard contenders, and Dwight Freeney completely destroyed him in their matchup.
3. A high proportion of his allowed "pressures" were converted into sacks. Long allowed 4 sacks on only 21 allowed QB pressures (19% sack conversion rate) in 12 games. Extrapolating those numbers to 16 games suggests he would have allowed 5.3 sacks on 28 combined QB pressures in a full season. That's compared to Jonathan Martin's 16 game total of 6 sacks coming on 57 combined QB pressures (11% conversion rate).

While Long allowed less pressure than Martin, more of Long's "pressures" became sacks, so they had similar "allowed" sacks over a 16 game season of 5.3 (Long) and 6.0 (Martin). I'd expect a rookie QB like Tannehill to struggle to sense blindside pressure, and that hurt Long's stats as Tannehill was much better avoiding pressure coming from the right than the left. Long's season ended with him ranked as the 34th ranked pass-blocking tackle among the 57 offensive tackles who played over 50% of snaps (around average).

Jonathan Martin consistently struggled as a pass-blocker, finishing the season ranked 54th out of 57 tackles at pass blocking (one of the worst in the NFL). He had bad games against the Patriots, Texans, 49'ers, Bills, Colts, and Cardinals, and half of those came as a left tackle. Per PFF, Martin's in-season improvement was mostly in run-blocking. The hope is that offseason reps at left-tackle and time time in the weight room improve Martin's strength and balance in pass protection.

Ritchie Incognito was a good pass blocker for the most part, and he finished the season the 15th best pass-blocking guard in the NFL out of 54 (well-above average).

John Jerry was a MUCH better pass-blocker than run-blocker, and he improved as the season went on, being ranked as the 24th best pass-blocking guard out of 54 (above average).

Last, Mike Pouncey was the best pass blocker, and he finished the season as the 3rd-best pass-blocking center in the NFL (elite).

Summary: The raw sack-numbers indicate the Dolphins were a slightly below-average pass-protecting team. Football Outsiders' adjustments didn't affect the numbers much. Pro Football Focus indicates the Dolphins' pass-protection issues came at offensive tackle. Long was merely "average," and Martin was among the worst at his position. The interior O-line is a solid-pass protecting unit, with "weak-link" John Jerry still giving the team solid pass-blocking at right guard.

Overall Pro Football Focus Offensive Line Rankings (Read here):

#23. Miami Dolphins (Last year - #22)

Pass Blocking – 22nd, Run-Blocking – 20th, Penalties – 20th

Conclusion

The Miami Dolphins offensive line finished the 2012 season ranked below-average in most measures. The offensive line appeared to hit its stride in the Dolphins' victory over the Seahawks, with Long and Incognito settling in as run-blockers in the new scheme, Martin improving as a run-blocker, Jerry improving as a pass blocker, and Pouncey being dominant. Sadly, Long suffered a season-ending injury in the next game, forcing a reshuffle that eventually led to the very poor performance by the unit in the week-17 game against New England.

If Jake Long stays in 2013, there's evidence this 5-man unit would perform reasonably well given the signs of improvement the offensive line showed as the season went on before Long's injury. However, the 3 main concerns about keeping the offensive line the same in 2013 would be Jerry's run-blocking, Martin's pass blocking, and Long's durability. If Long leaves, the unit transitioning smoothly depends on Martin improving dramatically as a pass-blocker. While Martin did struggle in 2012, it's important to remember that he was a rookie who should continue to improve with experience. A potential wildcard is Will Yeatman, a backup offensive tackle currently on the roster. The coaching staff is high on him due to his athleticism, but he is very raw and spent last offseason as a tight end. I would bet that the Dolphins draft an offensive tackle to compete with Yeatman next year if Long leaves.

Ultimately, the offensive line continues to be a cause for concern this offseason. The fate of Jake Long will play a huge role in shaping the Dolphins' free agency plans, and offensive linemen will likely be on the team's draft radar.

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