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Missed opportunities doom Dolphins as they fall to Chargers

On Sunday the Dolphins traveled to San Diego looking to knock off a team that, top to bottom, is better than they are.  But for the second consecutive week, the Dolphins again came up short and now head home to Miami with an 0-3 record after failing to the Chargers 23-13.

I'm sure everybody is going to have their own take - some more negative than others.  Of course you can point to a number of reasons why the Dolphins lost and blame any number of players.  But when it comes down to it, I believe that the Dolphins lost this game in the first half despite heading into the locker room in 3-3 tie.

Missed opportunities in first half hurt Dolphins
I brought up the fact that the Chargers are a better football team for a reason.  When you are playing a team that is better than you, you have got to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.  You must stockpile points when you can to give yourself the cushion you will likely need for when your opponent makes their run.  We saw this last week against the Colts as well.  The Dolphins settled for too many field goals in that game when "7s" are far more important than "3s" against a superior team.  On Sunday, it was a similar situation.

The obvious example of this was Miami's first possession.  It's almost unacceptable to come away with only three points when you put together a 94 yard drive.  So coming away with no points is just nauseating.  Regardless of whose fault it was - though it looked like Ronnie Brown dropped his arm too soon on the exchange from the quarterback - those kinds of mistakes are the mistakes that bad football teams make.  And what makes this loss so hard to swallow is the "what if" game you play of the Dolphins get seven points on that nearly remarkable drive.

But that's not all.  Trailing 3-0 and following a Miami three and out, Joey Porter and the defense finally makes a play - forcing their first turnover of 2009 (it's about time, too).  Two Ronnie Brown runs later and the Dolphins are suddenly at San Diego's five yard line.  What a time for the right side of the offensive line to completely crap the bed, as Ronnie loses 3 yards on 1st down and 2 yards on 3rd down, leading to a Dan Carpenter field goal.

When you play teams as talented as San Diego, you need all the points you can get.  What should have been a 14-3 Dolphins lead was just a 3-3 game in the second quarter.  If you want my opinion, it was these two big missed opportunities that lost the football game.

Poor play-calling also a culprit
I'm not one to usually kill the play-calling of a team because I'm well aware that there are things going on or things that the coaches want to do that I simply don't know.  But I just can't help but question a number of decisions today.

So allow me to list all of my issues and then you can tell me if I'm nitpicking a little.

Dolphins second possession, 3rd & 2, and the Dolphins decide to go with an empty backfield.  I'm fine with the decision to pass the ball.  But at least threaten San Diego with the run by having Ronnie back there.  After how he was running on the first possession, you know the Chargers would have respected the run.  Perhaps a play-action pass?  I'm just saying...

How about the first drive of the second half.  It's a 3-3 game and both Brown and Ricky Williams have been outstanding on the ground.  So what do the Dolphins do?  Four pass plays - never handing the ball to either Brown nor Williams.  Bad job there.

Then we go to the most pivotal drive of the second half.  The Chargers have just taken a 13-6 lead with 12 minutes to go.  The Dolphins have basically a rookie in a quarterback - Chad Henne - replacing the injured Chad Pennington.  Seems like a good time to get back to the ground game that hurt the Chargers in the first half, right?  Wrong.  Let's throw it three consecutive times and then punt.

In a nutshell, the biggest issue I had with the play-calling was how the Dolphins just didn't seem to want to get back to the run after their first possession.  On that drive, the Dolphins ran it with Ronnie and Ricky nine times.  But in the entire second half, the Dolphins have it to those two just 12 times.  Unacceptable - especially with Chad Henne having to take over in the third quarter.

Defense bends much but breaks little
A lot of people want to kill the defense for their performance on Sunday against the Chargers.  But I'm not going to because they played well enough to win the game.  Were they great?  Of course not.  But they only allowed 16 points to a high-powered offense.  That's good enough to win - unless you're the Dolphins, of course.

So what did bother me about the defense?  The inability to get to the quarterback continues to bother me.  They showed a better pass rush this week, but great quarterbacks still make big plays under pressure.  If you don't physically get guys like Phillip Rivers before he releases the ball, you're not going to rattle him.  The Dolphins blitzed quite a bit but had trouble physically getting to Rivers.  And Rivers made the Dolphins pay.

I was also disappointed in Will Allen.  First of all, why can't the guy stay on his freakin' feet?  Every game it seems like he falls to the turf in coverage when the ball is heading to his man.  But more than that, it seems like opposing teams are going after him instead of the rookie starting on the other side.  What does that tell you?  He's just not getting the job done anymore.  And you can't help but wonder how long it will be until Vontae Davis begins stealing first-team reps from Allen.

I brought up the rookie - I'm referring to Sean Smith, of course - and while he did get beat for one long pass, I continue to be pleased with how he performs.  On that catch by Malcom Floyd, Smith was in perfect position and nearly knocked it away.  Even so, it was a ridiculously difficult catch for Floyd to make.  So Smith gets a pass there.  But other than that, Smith was pretty solid as teams surprisingly haven't been testing him much.

Also on the positive side was Miami's rushing defense.  The Dolphins limited Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett to 59 yards on 26 carries (2.27 ypc).  With that said, it makes you wonder - is the NFL becoming a different style league?  Two consecutive weeks now, the Dolphins have run the ball effectively and stopped the run effectively - and they've lost both.  Food for thought, I suppose.

Bottom line, though.  In my opinion, the defense did not lose this game.  Do they deserve some blame?  Sure - but not the majority of it.

Chad Henne steps in
We got our first taste of the 2009 version of Chad Henne as he came on in relief of the injured Chad Pennington.  Needless to say (or is it, after reading some of the comments in the post-game thread), it's not fair to judge Henne off of this game or to make ridiculous assumptions off of a quarter and a half of work.  It's unlikely that Henne was getting much practice time with the starting offense during the week and it was clear that the rhythm of the offense - if the Dolphins even have one - was affected by the change.  So let's give Henne some time before bashing him - which should mean a lot considering I haven't ever been overly impressed with Henne since college.

With that said, here's what I saw out of Henne.  I saw a quarterback who looked uncomfortable on the field.  He didn't look confident.  He didn't look calm and collected.  I also saw some inaccurate throws.  Should Ted Ginn have caught those back-to-back drops?  Of course (and we'll get to Ginn later).  But they were inaccurate - especially the second one. 

I also saw a quarterback who made a terrible decision to seal the game for the Chargers.  Henne dropped back and did look right before coming back to Davone Bess, who was running an out pattern to the left.  But he took too long to get back to him and make the throw.  Henne needs to throw that before Bess makes his break.  He was late with the ball and Eric Weddle read it all the way.  But he'll learn from that - I hope.

All told, there isn't too much to talk about.  Henne was thrown into a difficult situation and he played like you would expect an inexperienced quarterback to play.  But at 0-3 - and I said this last week - it's time to make the switch to Chad Henne as the starter.  With Pennington's injury, this might work itself out to begin with.  But even if CP is capable of playing next week, there's no point.  Let Henne get 13 games of starting experience under his belt in 2009 so we can begin to evaluate his long-term potential.

The turning point of Sunday's game, in my opinion, occurred with about 9 minutes left to play.  The Chargers had the ball and a 13-6 lead.  It was 3rd & 8 from Miami's 40 yard line.  The Dolphins decide to come with a cornerback blitz.  But Gibril Wilson is too far off the line to pick up Antonio GatesNathan Jones, who lined up over Gates, blitzes at the snap and Phillip Rivers hits Gates with the pass before Wilson can get to him.  It's a 15 yard gain, a first down, and puts SD in FG range for the field goal that would put San Diego up by two scores.  Essentially - game over.

Some more quick thoughts on the game:

  • I've been a loyal Ted Ginn supporter.  But let's be honest - he'll never be a go-to receiver.  Those two dropped passes on back-to-back plays are inexcusable.  Were the passes perfect?  No.  But they hit Ginn in the hands or chest each time.  NFL receivers make that catch.
  • Speaking of receivers, why can't Dolphin receivers make plays like Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd make?  Is Malcom Floyd a big-time receiver?  No - but he steps up when he has to.  Outside of Davone Bess, the Dolphins don't have a receiver like that.  But Bess is only a possession receiver - not a big-play guy.
  • I miss the old Jason Taylor.
  • Too many penalties.  Though I will say that the pass interference call on Will Allen on that third down was a very questionable call.
  • Ronnie Brown - he's good.  Even when the offensive line fails him, he can make the first defender in the backfield miss.  It's too bad that the offensive line seemed to get worse as the game went on.
  • Speaking of the offensive line, why is it that Chad Henne can't get good protection anytime he's behind the starting offensive line?
  • Darren Sproles averaged just 20 yards per kick return.  Nice job by the coverage unit.
  • We have got to get a kick returner who is a threat.  It doesn't help our offense when every drive starts at the 25 yard line - or worse.