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Turnovers doom Dolphins as Fins fall in Atlanta

In what seems like it's becoming a yearly tradition, the Miami Dolphins lost yet another season-opening game on Sunday.  The Atlanta Falcons beat the Dolphins in every phase of the game - offense, defense, and special teams.  And there's plenty of blame to go around for this ugly 19-7 loss.

What makes this loss especially tough to swallow, of course, is how uncharacteristic the offense performed.  Four turnovers?  Really?  And Anthony Fasano, as sure-handed as they come at the tight end position in 2008, losing two fumbles?  No team can overcome these miscues - let alone one that isn't exactly explosive on offense.

Wasn't the offensive line supposed to be a strength of this team?
The Dolphins have invested $70+ million in guaranteed money into this offensive line.  This unit was supposed to be one of the strong points of this team.  But their play on Sunday was downright offensive.  And while it's only one game, you can't help but wonder if this regime's decisions on the personnel of the offensive line were the right ones.

It's not like this offensive line is made up of a bunch of players left over from the previous regime.  Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, and company hand-picked this group.  They drafted Jake Long first overall and made him the highest paid offensive linemen in the league.  They signed Justin Smiley and Jake Grove to big contracts to bring them to Miami.  They re-signed Vernon Carey to a hefty contract this past offseason.

Yet all these decisions and all that guaranteed money means nothing once these players take the field for a game.  On Sunday, we saw Jake Long get beat over and over.  We saw Vernon Carey also get beat for QB hurries and sacks.  And we saw very little push up front when the Dolphins tried to run the football.  On most of the backs' 19 carries, there was no hole to run through - not even a little crease.  And we know that this is not an offense that can rely on passing the football time and time again.  To be honest, though, I'm not sure what concerns me more.  Is it the inability to open any running lanes for their running backs?  Or is it their inability to keep the quarterback upright?

Key stat: the offensive line surrendered four sacks, four additional QB hits, and 13 total hurries.  How can you expect any quarterback to do much of anything when he's under that kind of pressure?

Too many big plays surrendered through the air
On the surface, giving up less than 230 yards passing and 6.4 yards per attempt isn't a bad thing.  But it's not about the sum - it's about individual moments.  For example, on Atlanta's first touchdown drive - a drive that began at their own 11 yard line - the Falcons were 2/2 on 3rd downs.  The first was a 14 yard completion to Roddy White and 3rd & 11.  The other was a 15 yard completion to Tony Gonzalez on 3rd & 8.  Those kinds of plays kill you in the course of a game.  What good is it putting your opponent in a 3rd & long situation if you just fold like a cheap suit when it matters most?

Of course, it wasn't all bad defending the pass.  Here's a nice little stat: the Dolphins held Atlanta's receivers to just 83 yards receiving in the entire game.  That means it wasn't necessarily the cornerbacks who were getting beat.  Sure, there were a couple of throws that Matt Ryan missed when receivers were open.  But we can play the "what if" game all day long if we really wanted - both good and bad.  But in general, the cornerbacks played fairly well.  Sean Smith had a solid rookie debut, deflecting away two passes.  Will Allen, outside of a pass interference penalty in which he got to the intended receiver a second too early (Atlanta didn't score on that possession anyway), also played well.

But it was the linebackers and safeties - those responsible for covering Tony Gonzalez and the running backs - that struggled all game.  But even so, regarding Gonzalez in particular, there were two catches by him where the defender (Gibril Wilson, if I recall correctly) had perfect coverage but the pass was still completed.  You can just chalk that up to Gonzalez being a great player and making great individual efforts.

All in all, let's be fair here about the defense.  The Falcons had 11 possessions.  Of those 11, seven of them saw the Falcons gain 20 yards or less.  And only two possessions saw the Falcons gain over 45 yards.  So I guess we shouldn't really kill the defense here.  Would it have been nice to force a turnover or get more pressure on the quarterback?  Of course.  But it is what it is.  The defense certainly did not lose this football game for Miami.

Don't make this a quarterback debate
Yes - the blame for this loss is squarely on the offense.  But let's not make this a quarterback issue.  Could Chad Pennington have played better?  Of course.  But it simply doesn't matter who the quarterback is when he's under he's hurried 13 times on just 33 drop backs. 

Would I have liked to see Chad Henne get some reps late in the game?  Sure.  It might have been a good idea to put in Henne with 7:30 left and the team trailing by 19.  But I can understand why the coaching staff didn't make the move.  Pennington is still the offensive leader of this team - both on the field and in the locker room.  So it's hard to take him out - and essentially make it look like you are blaming CP for this loss.  In reality, maybe Tony Sparano should have replaced his entire starting offensive line.  But I think the bigger reason why a switch wasn't made was to get CP more snaps with the starters in hopes of at least getting in some work and finding some kind of rhythm that they can build on heading into week two.  That and the need to not get shut out to begin a season.

But regardless of how you feel about this topic, let's not make this another tired "CP vs Henne" debate.  The bottom line is I'm just too pissed about the loss.  No need to start another worthless, tired debate.

This will be a new weekly feature of these post-game recaps.  Sunday's turning point of the game was, without question, Anthony Fasano's first fumble.  The game was a 7-0 game and the Dolphins had moved into the redzone with two minutes to go in the half.  At worst, the Dolphins head into halftime trailing 7-3.  But a 7-7 tie was a real possibility.  Then Fasano takes that big hit from Mike Peterson.  The fumble is taken back to Miami's 31 yard line.  The Falcons kick a FG and what could have been a 7-7 game at the half was instead a 10-0 Atlanta lead.

In another new weekly feature, I highlight a Dolphin who made some kind of bonehead mistake.  On Sunday, this "honor" goes to Brian Hartline.  It was 10-0 Falcons in the third quarter.  The Dolphins, though, were driving and had the ball 2nd & 9 at Atlanta's 37 yard line.  This is when Hartline decides to essentially block the cornerback covering him 10 yards down the field...on a passing play...and then clearly push off when he broke to the sideline to make an eight yard reception.  It was an easy pass interference call for the ref.  And that put the Dolphins in a 2nd & 19 hole - with the next play being Pennington's interception.

Other observations from Sunday's loss:

  • The blocking on kick and punt returns by the Dolphins was just terrible.  It wouldn't have mattered if Usain Bolt was back there returning kicks.  Just awful.
  • I like the creativity in the play-calling.  The pitch to Ronnie Brown, throwback to Pennington, and completion to Joey Haynos was well designed and executed.  I also liked seeing Pat White out there.  Nothing really materialized from it.  But if White throws that ball 5 yards shorter, Ted Ginn catches it for a touchdown.  If nothing else, just more opposing defenses have to worry about in practice in the week leading up to facing the Dolphins.
  • Greg Camarillo can indeed catch passes with his legs/butt.  Good for him.  And great job by the coaching staff to recognize that and challenge the play.
  • Who would have thought the Dolphins would hold Michael Turner to just 65 yards on the ground and less than 3 yards per carry?  Terrific performance against the run.  Hopefully this becomes a theme in 2009.  If the Dolphins can hold opposing offenses to under 70 yards rushing, they will have a chance to win a lot of games - assuming the offense doesn't cough up the ball four times.
  • Phillip Merling really came to play.  He should have been credited with a sack.  He also had a tackle for a loss.  And he just generally looked like a force along the defensive line.  I hope that's another sign of things to come from this young kid.
  • Jason Taylor picked up a sack and a tackle for a loss.  That's great and all.  But he and Joey Porter were both invisible too often on Sunday.
  • Davone Bess can catch the football, huh?  He just always seems to get open more often than not.  Unfortunately, he needs to produce more yards on those receptions.  And the receivers as a whole must play better.  It's hard to tell during the broadcast if receivers are open or not down the field.  So I don't want to criticize them too much.  But some big plays would be nice from time to time.

It was ugly and the Dolphins are 0-1 with Indy coming to town next Monday night.  Things don't particularly look good right now.  But it's very early and there were some positives.  Let's see how they do in coming back from this game before we declare that the season is over.  I trust this coaching staff - something I haven't been able to do too much of in recent years.  So let's see just where this ride takes us from here before we hit the panic button and jump off the bandwagon.