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Why does it feel like the Dolphins just can't cover tight ends?

With big games by opposing tight ends such as Cleveland's Jordan Cameron and Indianapolis' Coby Fleener already this season, is it time to worry about the Dolphins ability to cover tight ends?

Opposing tight ends have done well so far against the Miami Dolphins. What does it mean with a game against the greatest receiving tight end of all time coming up?
Opposing tight ends have done well so far against the Miami Dolphins. What does it mean with a game against the greatest receiving tight end of all time coming up?

If I had asked you weeks ago to predict which 2 tight ends would give the Dolphins the most trouble in the first 4 weeks of the season, I think pretty much everyone would have said Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez in week 3 and New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham in week 4. Some of you might have guessed Indianapolis Colts TE Dwayne Allen, who had a very nice rookie season last year as one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL and had arguably his best game of the season last year against the Dolphins.

One thing I guarantee is that few, if any, would have named Cleveland Browns TE Jordan Cameron and Indianapolis Colts backup TE Coby Fleener. Jordan Cameron is a third year tight end and former 4th round pick out of USC. As a rookie, Cameron had just 6 catches for 33 yards. He was more productive as a sophomore, with 20 catches for 226 yards in 14 games, but still, averaging 1.5 catches per game for just 16 yards per game isn't the most intimidating stat-line for an upcoming week 1 opponent. Likewise, Coby Fleener was drafted in the 2nd round of 2012, a full round before Dwayne Allen, but was the worse tight end as a rookie, with just 26 catches for 281 yards. Some of the criticisms that our own 2012 draft pick at TE Michael Egnew received as a rookie were echoed by critics of Fleener - poor blocker, didn't play as fast as his physical talent would suggest he should, suffered from concentration lapses/drops, etc.

Well, those last two guys I just described combined for 13 catches, 177 yards, and 2 TDs, with an average yards per catch of 13.6, in their games against the Miami Dolphins. If you extrapolate those 2 performances over a 16 games season, the "average" opposing number 1 tight end has been on pace for 104 catches, 1416 yards, and 16 TDs in a 16 game season. Those hypothetical 16-game totals don't include the numbers of the other TEs/FBs who caught passes. Browns TE Gary Barnridge, Colts TE Dominique Jones, and Colts FB Stanley Havili had a combined 4 catches for 34 yards, meaning total TE/FB production against the Dolphins by 5 players that probably only received ProBowl consideration last year from their family members has been 17 catches, 211 yards, and 2 TDs in 2 games, with 14 more games to go.

As you know, normally I'm a guy who likes to ask people to slow down and not overreact to limited samples. We're only 1/8th into a 16 game regular season. That being said, people upset at our tight end coverage have a point - those are discouraging numbers to be allowing to young, unproven tight ends the weeks leading up to matchups against Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham, who are two veteran, Pro Bowl tight ends that are fortunate enough to have veteran Pro Bowlers as their quarterbacks. There's no positive spin to this, but hopefully I can explain why those tight ends have been productive and how the team will likely try to limit the damage in the future.

1. Those tight ends I mentioned are not as bad as their prior stats make them appear.

Jordan Cameron may be a former fourth round pick, but he had gotten better each year in the NFL leading up to this year, and Browns fans told me prior to the game that Cameron had had an excellent training camp. Now, I usually take that information with a huge grain of salt because every team has "training camp All-Pros" that fizzle out in the regular season (Omar Kelly is still desperately trying to delete his Tweets from 2012 that claimed Legedu Naanee looked better in training camp than Brandon Marshall did the year before). Indeed, if Cameron had done well against us then disappeared the next week, I would have said Cameron's good week 1 game was due to us not defending him well. However, despite the fact that the Browns still didn't have #1 WR Josh Gordon back from suspension, and despite the fact that the Baltimore Ravens had game-film from the Dolphins-Browns game to warn them that Weeden would target Cameron a lot, Jordan Cameron torched the Ravens this past Sunday almost as badly as he torched the Dolphins. He had 5 catches for 95 yards against an opponent that knew he was Weeden's favorite pass target with Gordon out of the lineup, and Cameron could continue to thrive once Josh Gordon returns and begins drawing coverage away from him.

Likewise, Fleener may have under-performed as a rookie, but he's a former 2nd round pick, and the new offensive coordinator of the Colts was his offensive coordinator back at Stanford. Tannehill credits having Mike Sherman as his OC with helping him adjust to the NFL, and it's not crazy that a 6'6", 250 lbs guy like Fleener who runs a 4.51 40-yard dash could develop into a very good receiving threat in the NFL with a good QB like Luck and an OC who knows how to use him in Pep Hamilton. Dwayne Allen wasn't downgraded to "Doubtful" until the day before the game, meaning the Dolphins likely expected Allen as the #1 TE and didn't spend as much time preparing for Fleener. While I would never argue that Cameron and Fleener are surefire All-Pros, the Dolphins didn't have much film to prepare for either of them, and there were signs they were ready for a breakout season this year.

Heck, the Miami Dolphins' own Charles Clay's breakout (so far) 2013 season includes a 5 catch, 54-yard performance against the Browns, and a 5 catch, 109 yard performance against the Colts after two prior seasons of poor production. I'm sure Colts and Browns fans are very upset some no-name guy named Charles Clay put up big numbers on them, but if Clay plays well the rest of the year, it looks less bad in hindsight.

2. The production by opposing tight ends has been reliant on big plays

The 17 catches for 211 total yards allowed to tight ends includes 1 40-yard catch by Fleener, 1 22-yarder by Cameron, and 1 21-yarder by Cameron. Excluding those 3 catches, the Dolphins have allowed a more reasonable 14 catches for 128 yards, or 7 catches for 64 yards per game (9.1 yards per catch). I can be happy with the defense allowing 7 catches or so to tight ends per game if they're for short 8-10 yard gains. There's no defense in the NFL that shuts down tight ends, but limiting big plays is definitely possible for good defenses, and that includes our own because of how those big plays have occurred.

3. Our defensive coordinator has good options to better cover tight ends at his disposal...if he's willing to sacrifice some creativity.

I'm sure more than a few of you laughed out loud when I wrote that if you exclude 3 big plays, our tight end coverage hasn't been so bad. After all, if it was easy to stop those big plays, why haven't we?

Well, if it was a personnel issue preventing us from defending against those big plays, I would agree that stopping those big plays is easier said than done. However, the guys we brought in during the 2013 offseason to help cover tight ends - Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler - were NOT covering either Fleener or Cameron on those 20+ yard plays. And it wasn't our safeties - Chris Clemons or Reshad Jones - getting burned either. Who were the guys on those big gainers that were in coverage?

Brent Grimes, our 5'10" (rounded up while wearing shoe-inserts) CB, was covering the 6'5" Jordan Cameron on his 22 yard gain.

Derrick Shelby, our 270 lbs DE, was covering Jordan Cameron on his 21 yard gain.

Olivier Vernon, our other 270 lbs DE (he bulked up this offseason), was covering Coby Fleener on his 40 yard gain.

This is the part where you go, "Why on Earth were our smallest cornerback plus our two defensive ends trying to track these tight ends 20 yards downfield? What were Ellerbe, Wheeler, Jones, and Clemons doing?"

The answer is, well, this is was versatility is supposed to look like. Rather than use more conventional blitzes (i.e., rushing 4 defensive linemen plus 1 or 2 linebackers while everybody else drops back into coverage), Coyle wants to be creative. He wants to rush 2 linebackers while dropping 1 defensive end in coverage. He wants to blitz with a cornerback and a safety while dropping a defensive end (who lined up in place of a defensive tackle in our Speed Package) in coverage. He wants the Dolphins defense to blitz with positions most teams don't regularly use because quarterbacks today are smarter than ever and can diagnose and defeat conventional blitzes in their sleep. When the pressure makes it to the QB, Coyle looks like a genius, but when the offensive line picks up the blitz well enough, and the opposing QB figures out what's going on and notices a 270 lbs defensive end chasing an athletic tight end who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, a big play results. Here are how our players have done covering tight ends so far in 2 games, using data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Player Targets Completions Yards Yards per Target
Dannell Ellerbe 5 4 26 5.2
Phillip Wheeler 4 4 41 10.25
Koa Misi 4 3 32 8
Jason Trusnik 1 0 0 0
Reshad Jones 1 1 3 3
Chris Clemons 3 0 0 0
Nolan Carroll 1 1 13 13
Brent Grimes 1 1 22 22
Derrick Shelby 2 2 34 17
Olivier Vernon 1 1 40 40

I use Yards/Completion instead of Yards/Catch because the number factors in completion percentage as well as yardage. Just like with the Yards per Attempt stat for QBs, anything under 8 means the QB isn't very productive when throwing the pass - which is a good thing for defenders. As you can see, Wheeler, Misi, and Carroll have done okay, while Ellerbe, Jones, and Clemons have done very well. It's our defensive ends plus our smallest CB who have looked most uncomfortable in covering tight ends.

So to review, why am I worried but not panicking?

The tight ends who have done well against us aren't as bad as their stats leading up to this year may have led many (include myself) to believe.

Excluding 1-2 big plays per game, tight ends have been bottled up pretty well.

If worse comes to worst, Coyle can be less aggressive in his play-calling and allow our best coverage guys to spend more time on tight ends. If Wheeler, Ellerbe, Jones, and Clemons had been the ones failing in coverage, we'd be in huge trouble. However, it's been the other guys getting beat, so more of those 4 in coverage should lead to more success in covering tight ends...although that would mean less creative blitzes and could worsen our pass rush, leaving us vulnerable to bigger plays to WRs down the field. It all comes down to "pressure" versus "coverage."