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Strange game ends Dolphins season as Fins fall to Steelers

After blowing two huge opportunities to get into the postseason in weeks 15 and 16, the Dolphins saw their season come to an end at Land Shark Stadium on Sunday by losing to the Steelers in what was just a very odd game. Perhaps it's fitting, though, for Sunday's game to be the final game of what was an odd season for the Dolphins.

Miami lost their first three games and their last three games. In between, the Fins went 7-3. But good teams just don't let themselves lose the kinds of games this team has lost in 2009. After the game, Tony Sparano was asked what he told his team in the locker room. His response was pretty simple, "Seven and nine is mediocre. And mediocrity is not going to be accepted here."

Very well said by Sparano. Now let's talk a little bit about this final game of the '09 season. And note that I won't get too much into looking back at the entire season just yet. We'll have plenty of time in the coming weeks to take that look back. For now, I'm just going to center my attention on this final game.

Three quarterbacks in three quarters
This has to be the place where we start our discussion. First and foremost, reports indicate that Pat White isn't as seriously injured as it appeared at the time of the hit. After the game, Sparano said that White was "doing ok" and that he was undergoing some tests. Owner Stephen Ross said that he's doing fine as well. From the looks of things on the field, it seemed like he might have been initially knocked out cold. But he was awake when being taken from the field and it did seem like he could move his arms and legs at least a little. He even gave his team a few words of encouragement before being taken to the hospital. Right now it seems like he has suffered a concussion. That's a relief considering how bad it could have been.

Of course, a big story here was the reason White began the second half as the quarterback. Chad Henne did not play at all in the second half after suffering what was referred to as an "eye injury." After the game, Henne explained that his vision had gotten blurry following a sack by LaMarr Woodley. He remained in for a few plays after, but his vision got worse during halftime:

"I was hoping it would clear up," Henne said. "I just didn’t have (depth) perception on the ball. I was throwing fine on the sideline. I just couldn’t really visualize my throw."

Henne said he'll visit an eye doctor on Monday.

The loss and the injuries overshadowed Henne's fine day in the first half. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. His 80% completion percentage is exceptional. And if not for one poor decision that resulted in an interception, you could say that Henne's performance on Sunday was nearly perfect.

What's even more interesting is that after the sack by Woodley that supposedly injured Henne by having the left side of Henne's head slam into the turf, Chad connected on both of his pass attempts for 27 yards - including that huge 21 yard completion to Davone Bess on 3rd & 12. If that's how Henne plays with blurred vision, then maybe we should knock him around before each game.

While I'm not ready to say that Henne's "injury" was a little bit mysterious, some do believe that the Dolphins held Henne out of the second half to tank the game and improve draft position. I'm not a conspiracy theorist nor do I think that Tony Sparano would ever do something like that. But I can't help but think that something here just seems a little odd. Regardless, what's done is done.

These two injuries led to Tyler Thigpen making his debut as a Dolphin. Surprisingly, things weren't terrible. He connected on four of eight pass attempts, including a beautiful 34 yard touchdown pass to Bess where Thigpen avoided the sack and threw a rainbow to Davone, who had gotten behind the defense. But he also threw two interceptions, including a costly one just moments after the Dolphins had recovered a fumble and started deep in Pittsburgh territory trailing by just three points.

Thigpen did show enough to me, though, to seriously consider him as Chad Henne's backup in 2010. He is under contract for one more season and he looked far more comfortable and was far more effective than current backup Pat White. Not to sound completely insensitive, but White's injury could have given Thigpen the opportunity he needed to show he should be the primary backup next season. The "White vs Thigpen" training camp battle should be fun to watch next August.

Defense again a problem
Here's what I think we have learned over these final three games: the Dolphins need defensive help much more than they need offensive help. Yet again, this defense just allowed an opposing offense to drive up and down the field on them, particularly in the first half. The Dolphins surrendered over 200 yards of offense in the first half and 17 points - including 14 on their first two possessions.

While the defense played better in the second half, they still allowed the Steelers to pick up chunks of yardage at crucial times. And no time was bigger than the drive following Thigpen's first interception. The Steelers were holding their three point lead with just 6:10 left but were starting their drive at their own two yard line. That's when the Dolphins allowed the Steelers to go 88 yards on 14 plays and chew up five and a half minutes, capping the drive with a field goal. And that was with Ben Roethlisberger playing with a bad throwing shoulder. Even still, the Dolphins couldn't hold Pittsburgh on a 3rd & 5 play from their own 7 yard line, as Ben connected with Hines Ward for a first down play. Essentially, that was the game - as the Steelers never even faced another third down until the other side of the two minute warning and inside Miami's 10 yard line.

Not getting critical stops when they are needed most - that's what this Miami defense was all about this year. And it happened again on Sunday.

So what was the biggest problem on Sunday? Clearly, lack of consistent pressure was a problem. Roethlisberger had all day to throw on many attempts - including on his touchdown pass to Heath Miller. Poor linebacker play was also an issue. Akin Ayodele had a terrible game. An upgrade at both inside and outside linebacker is a must this offseason.

Paul Soliai also had a poor game. If you watched, Miami's inside linebackers consistently had to shed blocks to get to the ball carrier. That means the nose tackle wasn't doing his job.

Lots of issues all over the field on defense and the Dolphins have some changes to make.

Some more quick thoughts on Sunday's game:

  • Randy Starks had himself a great game to close out the season - his best as a professional. He had three more tackles and a sack and seems to really understand what a 3-4 defensive end should do. He's been a great addition by this regime and should have been elected to the Pro Bowl.
  • Davone Bess had a nice game as well to close out the '09 season. His 76 receptions on the season is actually tied for the 4th most in team history - trailing only O.J. McDuffie, Mark Clayton, and Chris Chambers. More on Bess and his season to come later this week.
  • I've come to the conclusion that Yeremiah Bell is not the problem. He's actually a very good strong safety. If only he was paired with a halfway decent free safety.
  • Why was Nathan Jones scared to tackle Ben Roethlisberger?
  • Whoever it was covering Santonio Holmes did a very good job - outside of the one crossing route. Holmes had just one catch. From the broadcast camera angles, I think Sean Smith was on him most often - but I'm not 100% sure of that.
  • This team can't cover tight ends or screens. Both of those problems result from bad play out of the linebackers.
  • Ricky Williams just doesn't have it anymore. He's a great #2 back - but Ronnie Brown is the better back at this stage of their careers. That's why he will be the starter once he recovers and I really don't want to hear from the "Ricky should be starting" fans. He's not the same Ricky.