Like most fans, I've been very down on the coaching on offense this season. There's nothing a coach can do if he calls a good play, but the players fail to execute. However, there have been times this year when our playcalling has been both illogical and predictable, which is sabotaging the players before they have a chance to execute any given play.
Still, the much maligned Dolphins offense is coming off of its first 30+ point game of the year, and it came on the road, in poor weather, against a good defense that was mostly healthy and is led by a highly respected defensive coordinator. It's hard for an offense to accomplish that without good coaching coming into play, so I'm going to highlight two plays that were very logical and caught the opposing defense by surprise. I'll avoid using too much "football jargon," to make this as easy a read as possible.
First, some background: Several weeks ago, before a game against the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked in a press conference about stopping the read-option because the Raiders ran a lot of read-option with Terrelle Pryor starting at QB. Tomlin replied, "We look forward to stopping it." Bold talk. Well, on the very first offensive play of that game, the Raiders decide to run a read-option play, and Pryor promptly ran for a 93-yard touchdown, the longest run by a QB in NFL history.
That, my friends, is called "revealing a potential weakness," to phrase things politely. Before the Dolphins' game against the Steelers on Sunday, the Dolphins had run a few read-option plays (both runs and passes) with some success, but overall, it wasn't heavily featured in the offense, despite some offseason hype. Some games, the Dolphins didn't call a single read-option play.
Well, Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman apparently watched film from that Steelers-Raiders game, and he used the read option against the Steelers several times with great success. An early example in the game comes on Tannehill's 58 yard run. I recommend watching that video and then reading what happened below:
First, here's a good pre-snap look.
The Dolphins are in their favorite set - 3 WRs, 1 TE/FB, and 1 RB. The Steelers are actually in their dime defense, meaning 6 defensive backs. That's a favorable defense to run against because having 2 extra defensive backs on the field means a defense has to play with 2 fewer run-stopping linebackers/defensive linemen. In the screenshot, #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 are all linebackers/defensive linemen. #6 is actually Troy Polamalu, their strong safety, but he's lined up only 5 yards away from the line of scrimmage like a linebacker. #7 (CB Ike Taylor), #8 (Safety Will Allen - no relation to the former Dolphins cornerback), #9, and #10 are all defensive backs.
Hmm, isn't that weird? There's only 10 defenders on screen. Where's the 11th man?
Why, hello there free safety Ryan Clark! We didn't see you since you were lined up so far downfield...coincidentally on the same side of the field as Mike Wallace. Actually, it's not a coincidence. The two pictures above illustrate how the Steelers' defense chose to defend the Dolphins for much of this game (even when in nickel). They put their #1 CB (Ike Taylor) on Brian Hartline and had him play press-man to disrupt Hartline's route and therefore his timing with Tannehill, which is smart given how Hartline is mainly used on timing routes to the outside. Meanwhile, they put their #2 CB on Wallace AND had their free safety line up 20 yards deep on Wallace's side of the field, making it nearly impossible for Wallace to get open deep when he was up against two defensive backs who were 10 and 20 yards deep pre-snap. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau quite clearly decided that he didn't want to see any highlights of Wallace getting open deep for 50+ yard TDs, and he schemed to prevent that from happening. Polamalu meanwhile was allowed to freelance in the middle of the field.
However, because the Steelers were in dime on this particular play, they had an "extra" safety (Allen) lined up on Hartline's side of the field as well - though Allen was not nearly as deep downfield (10 yards) as Clark (20 yards). This is where coaching comes into play: If this were a passing play, Tannehill's options would be:
1. Mike Wallace facing off-man coverage with DEEP safety help over the top,
2. Brian Hartline facing press-man coverage also with a safety on his side of the field, or
3. Likely shorter throw to either Rishard Matthews or Charles Clay, with a lot of "traffic" in the middle of the field (LBs and DBs) and Polamalu reading Tannehill's eyes the entire time.
A coach calling a passing play in this situation would be probably setting up the quarterback to fail.
Luckily, Sherman went with a great playcall that set up Tannehill to succeed instead.
In orange, you see how our LG, RG, RT, and C will block. The LG, RG, and RT block defenders at the line of scrimmage to the right, while C Mike Pouncey will make a key block on the linebacker next to Polamalu.
In red, you see LT Bryant McKinnie's assignment is to ignore the OLB (Jones) and go straight to Polamalu (who is lined up as a linebacker). Meanwhile, the fullback Charles Clay's job is to head left (away from where the linemen are blocking) and block the safety lined up on the same side as Hartline. Hartline is tasked with blocking the CB covering him, Ike Taylor. The job of the running back (Lamar Miller) is to take a potential handoff to the right.
Now, you might be thinking, "Well, that's a stupid blocking scheme. It leaves a free defender coming from the left unblocked by the LT, so he is free to chase down any runner. This run is doomed to fail regardless of where the ball goes." Well, that would be true, except it's Ryan Tannehill's job to prevent the OLB from making a tackle. How?
Well, on this particular read-option play, Tannehill is asked to "read" Jones. If Jones bites on the potential hand-off to the running back, Tannehill is supposed to keep the ball and run to the outside. If Jones decides to go after Tannehill, Tannehill should actually hand-off the ball to the running back, who won't have to worry about Jones if Jones is chasing the QB.
Since we all saw the game, we all know what Jones decided to do.
First, you can see the offensive line blocking to the right and creating a decent sized hole, with Pouncey quickly reaching a linebacker. McKinnie ignores Jones completely on his way to Polamalu. Clay (who was lined up on the right) is sprinting to the left but also ignores Jones. Jones sees what appears to be a handoff and commits to the "inside," meaning Tannehill should keep the ball and run to the outside.
There have been several examples this season of Tannehill incorrectly choosing to hand-off the ball in the read-option when keeping the ball was a better option. I believe Tannehill has been coached to simply hand-off the ball whenever it's unclear what the edge defender is doing. In other words, "When in doubt, hand-off the ball so you don't get sacked." This time, Tannehill makes the correct read, and you'll see below what happens:
In the yellow box, you see Hartline blocking Ike Taylor. In the blue box, you see McKinnie blocking Polamalu. The black line shows that Charles Clay is about to block the Steelers' safety (Allen) who was lined up on this side of the field. The red box shows Jarvis Jones delivering a terrific hit on a running back who does not have the ball. Meanwhile, there's no unblocked defender to tackle Tannehill.
Steelers' FS Ryan Clark by this point has finally made his way over to this side of the field, but he first bit on the run-fake to the inside, then took a poor angle by underestimating Tannehill's speed and can't make the tackle. #24 Taylor disengages from Hartline's block but can't chase Tannehill down until after the QB gains nearly 60 yards. Click here to watch the clip again.
That's the power of the read-option. The read-option CAN be stopped by a discliplined defense. Over at Grantland.com, a great writer named Chris Brown (who unlike a more infamous namesake has never assaulted Rihanna) broke down tactics to counter the read option. Luckily for the Dolphins, the Steelers apparently never read that article since they did a terrible job on this play.
By keeping the ball and punishing the Steelers with his legs early in the game, Tannehill set up the team for a touchdown later. This video clip at NFL.com is titled, "Daniel Thomas walks into the endzone." The Dolphins' rushing attack has at times averaged under 1 yard per carry this year, so how did Thomas "walk into the endzone" behind the offensive line's inconsistent blocking? Well, the read option is involved.
The Steelers this time are in their base defense near the goal-line. Luckily for the Dolphins, the read-option can be successful even against base defenses that feature 7 defensive linemen/linebackers if the defenders don't know what to do. The Steelers end up calling a blitz involving one of their ILBs as everybody else is playing man-coverage.
The Dolphins have 2 TEs (Dion Sims is to the left of McKinnie), 2 WRs, and 1 RB. One Steeler ILB moves to blitz just prior to the snap (following the yellow arrow) as the other defenders appear to be in man-coverage. As before, the red box is for the outside linebacker whom Tannehill will be "reading" - in this case, Jason Worilds. Last, the FS lined up behind Worilds tasked with guarding Clay (marked by pink lines).
As before - with Clay not blocking the OLB, and no offensive linemen assigned to the OLB either, a run play would seem destined to fail. The Steelers are in their base defense, calling a blitz up the middle that would blow up an inside run, and the Dolphins are leaving an edge defender completely unblocked who could prevent an outside run if Tannehill hands the ball off to the running back.
Upon seeing this, Dolphins fans prepare to angrily write, "Stupid Mike Sherman doing Mike Sherman things!!!!"
Yet this happens:
Thomas runs untouched into the endzone after initially running to the inside before cutting back to the outside. But wait - what the heck happened to the unblocked OLB (#93) who was covering the outside? Why is he so far behind Thomas, who isn't exactly a speedster?
The answer is, Worilds was nervous about Tannehill keeping the ball because of Tannehill's long run earlier in the game. Instead of moving inside immediately to meet Thomas after the handoff, the OLB stayed outside, which Tannehill read correctly and led to the hand-off. The OLB didn't realize until it was too late that Tannehill didn't have the ball. In effect, Tannehill "blocked" the "unblocked" OLB by being a decoy. Meanwhile, both Polamalu and the non-blitzing ILB assigned to Thomas bit on the inside run before Thomas demonstrated good vision by cutting back to the outside, and the remainder of the Steelers' defensive front (including the blitzing ILB) was pushed to the inside by the offensive line. Cutting to the outside when the outside defender is busy staring at the quarterback gives a running back a hole that looks like this:
Easy TD. Rewatch the play here and specifically watch the OLB fail to pursue Thomas until it's too late.
Again - the read option has been less effective this year because several teams spent the offseason coming up with tactics to limit its effectiveness, so I wouldn't expect us to have tremendous success with it every week. However, the Steelers had revealed earlier this year that they didn't know how to stop it, and the Dolphins used that to their advantage. The players (particularly Tannehill) get credit for executing these plays well, but the offensive coordinator deserves praise for calling these plays against an unprepared defense - in other words, Mike Sherman put the offense in a position to succeed given their matchup, which is what a good coach does. The offense was far from perfect against the Steelers, and the read option was curiously absent later in the game when the Dolphins were trying to run out the clock despite the earlier success (sound familiar?), but scoring over 30 points against a good defense was still a step in the right direction.