The importance of the Dolphins' offense this upcoming season cannot be emphasized enough. The Dolphins' defense has been the team's strength for several years, but they will face a tough set of offenses this upcoming season. The Dolphins have 2 games against the Patriots (3rd in points per game in 2013), and 1 game each against the Chiefs (6th in ppg), Packers (8th in ppg despite Aaron Rodgers missing a lot of time last season with injury), Bears (2nd in ppg), Chargers (12th in ppg), Lions (13th in ppg), Vikings (14th in ppg) and last but not least, the Broncos (1st in ppg and one of the best in NFL history).
Nine of the Dolphins' upcoming sixteen regular season games in 2014 are against opponents that had top-15 offenses last year, while the Dolphins' 2013 schedule only featured six games against "above-average" offenses. The Dolphins' defense in 2013 finished in the top 10 when ranked by points allowed per game, but they faced only the 18th hardest (or 14th easiest) group of opposing offenses according to Football Outsiders. It's very unlikely that the opposing offenses this upcoming season will average out to be "mediocre." In addition, the NFL has ordered referees to emphasize defensive pass interference calls more this year, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers himself admitted that the likely effect of that new point of emphasis is that pass-heavy offenses can expect to score even more points this year.
Most expect the Dolphins defense to play well, but it will be difficult to limit those opponents to scoring under 21 points per game given the quality of the offenses and the NFL-mandated emphasis on penalizing pass interference. To have a shot at beating those teams, the Dolphins offense therefore must be able to regularly score 21+ points per game, and one of the Dolphins' offseason moves to boost the offense has already been getting rave reviews before a single game has been played.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross: "Bill Lazor is a major improvement at offensive coordinator."
Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace: "Everybody is excited about the new offense."
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill: "It's been great. Just the difference from last year, moving guys around, is huge. ... [I]t’s going to create a lot of mismatches on offense. "
With all the hype about new Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, and with the first preseason game on Friday, it's now time to break down specifically what fans should look for when watching the Dolphins' offense. Rather than settle for generalities like "more mismatches" and "more big plays," I've decided to break down concrete changes that have been reported about the offense, and ask fans to comment on how they feel about them. This endeavor will be split up into multiple articles, and without further delay, let's start with the cornerstone of this offense:
TEMPO! TEMPO! TEMPO!
If you're a longtime Dolphins fan, you've seen this happen countless times: The New England Patriots have the ball, and it's 2nd down and long. The Dolphins defense is in its favored "nickel-package," which involves taking a run-stopping linebacker like Koa Misi off the field and replacing him with a defensive back to improve pass coverage. Quarterback Tom Brady drops back to pass and fires a quick throw to one of his receiving targets, gaining enough yardage to set up 3rd and short.
Rather than slowly jog to the new line of scrimmage, Brady immediately begins yelling at his teammates to get lined up to run a new play as quickly as possible. The Patriots are about to snap the ball on 3rd and short with 20 seconds left on the playclock, and meanwhile, the Dolphins' defensive front 7 has just barely gotten on their side of the new line of scrimmage and still haven't lined up properly. The Patriots snap the ball with half of the Dolphins defenders still standing fully upright, unsure of what the defensive playcall is, and the Patriots get a first down courtesy of a QB sneak against a soft defensive front. The Patriots continue to play at a high speed in order to trap the soft defensive front on the field by preventing substitutions, and the drive ends with their running back breaking through the tired Dolphins defensive line and scoring a touchdown.
That (painful) example shows the power of an offense playing with tempo. Bill Lazor was quoted as saying the number 1 goal with his offensive system is playing with high tempo, so it's only natural that we start by discussing the benefits (and downsides) of emphasizing tempo. There are several important benefits, including:
1. It's frustrating for the defense to not be able to sub-in their favored run-stopping personnel for obvious running downs (3rd and short) or their favored pass-stopping personnel for obvious passing downs. In particular, offenses that play with tempo can exploit weaknesses over and over again if they "trap" either run-stopping personnel or pass-stopping personnel on the field. Many defensive coordinators like the Dolphins' own Kevin Coyle prioritize versatility because specialists against either the run or the pass can become liabilities against smart offenses that can play fast and put those specialists in situations that exacerbate their weaknesses.
That is the concrete explanation for one way this offense hopes to create mismatches. It will try to force slow-footed linebackers to cover shifty slot receivers and tight ends, and it will try to force nickel defensive backs to be physical and defend against running plays.
2. An offense playing with high tempo can catch the opposing defensive coordinator off guard if the coach still hasn't chosen a new playcall by the time the offense starts the next play. In this situation, the offense gains an enormous advantage by playing against a defense that has no coherent plan for the next play by snapping the ball quickly.
One advantage every offense has over every defense is that the offense knows beforehand how quickly the next play will start, while the defense does not. Playing with tempo isn't about playing fast all the time - it's about varying the pace to keep the defensive players and coaches off balance before ramping up the pace when favorable mismatches exist on the field.
3. If the offense is able to string multiple first downs together, it tires out the defense since it prevents substitutions. Substitutions aren't done only to get specialists on or off the field for particular down and distance situations.
Substitutions are also motivated by a desire to keep players fresh, so if you're playing against a "deep" defensive front, you can minimize that strength of your opponent by not letting them substitute in fresh players during a long drive.
The Dolphins have usually been the victims of tempo and rarely have been the tone-setters using tempo to their advantage given their anemic offenses of the past few years. It's gotten easy to forget as a Dolphins fan that technically, our own team, the Dolphins, is allowed do that stuff too!
Lazor has made it very clear that he views playing with tempo as a must, so one of the ways fans can evaluate his success in installing his new system is by looking to see how often the Dolphins pick up the pace when favorable matchups exist on the field.
In Defense of Mike Sherman
In each one of these articles, I will make a good faith attempt to explain why under our previous offensive coordinator, the Dolphins didn't meet certain goals. In this case, why didn't the Dolphins play faster under Mike Sherman?
If reading about Dolphins coaches promising to play with tempo is giving you a sense of deja vu, it's because the coaches have claimed each offseason since 2012 that their goal was to play fast, and they practiced at "warp speed" with veteran quarterback David Garrard as first team QB in 2012. However, the Dolphins haven't been able to regularly reach that high tempo with Tannehill at QB (yet). One of Tannehill's areas of growth in his sophomore season was in his execution of 2-minute drills near the end of each half, which is when the offense is forced to play quickly to try to score before time runs out. Arguably, the Dolphins' offense last year functioned best near the end of each half, when much of the playcalling burden was placed on Tannehill as part of a no-huddle, up-tempo attack. However, Tannehill hasn't yet shown he can regularly change the tempo like more veteran quarterbacks who often choose to increase the pace of the offense long before the end of each half. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady increase tempo not only to try to quickly score before halftime, but they also will do it to try to catch the defense off guard in the first and third quarters too. This will be the next step in Tannehill's maturation as a QB - developing a feel for when it's time to kick the offense into a higher gear.
Secondly, and most importantly, negative yardage plays are death to high tempo offenses. Sacks and tackles-for-loss slow down offenses in multiple ways. To begin, if Tannehill was just body-slammed by a 320 pound defensive lineman, he's not going to be able to quickly begin a new play since it might take him a few moments to get off the ground. Next, if the offense if faced with 3rd and 13 instead of 3rd and 3, the playcalling becomes more predictable - an obvious passing play. Also, with the defense more likely to be aggressive in calling a blitz given the down and distance after a negative yardage play, the offense will be pressured to make substitutions (for example, replacing the main running back and tight end with players who are better blockers), and that allows the opposing defense to make their own substitutions. Failing to convert on third down then forces the defense back on the field after getting less rest.
The Dolphins had a lot of negative yardage plays in 2013, whether it was the 58 QB sacks allowed, the fact that 21% of running plays ended with the running back being tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage (5th worst in the NFL), or the fact that the Dolphins only successfully converted 3rd and short when running the ball at a 56% rate (5th worst in the NFL). The Dolphins this year hope to have fixed those issues through a variety of moves including heavy investment in the offensive line in free agency and the draft, a new offensive line coach, adding more running back talent, and a heavy emphasis on Tannehill making quicker throws in the pocket as well as making more throws outside of the pocket to avoid pressure (this last point will be discussed more in a later article). However, the combination of terrible run blocking, poor pass blocking, and coverage sacks limited the ceiling of the 2013 offense.
Third and finally, there are benefits to playing at a slow pace, especially for a young group on offense led by a young QB. Fewer pre-snap penalties on offense is one benefit, and the Dolphins' offense was among the least penalized in the NFL last year. In 2013, the Dolphins' were called for the 3rd fewest false starts in the NFL, and they committed a total of three other pre-snap offensive penalties (2 illegal formations, 0 illegal shifts, 0 offensive offsides, and just 1 illegal motion). Those penalty numbers could have been higher if the Dolphins played faster.
The Philbin-led Dolphins since 2012 have generally played at a methodical pace with a young QB leading the offense, and that no doubt helped Tannehill settle in and read the defense pre-snap. Football Outsiders calculates the Dolphins had the 14th fastest offense in the NFL last year, once controlling for factors like possessions in the final 2 minutes of the first half or possessions when losing late in the game, which naturally skew the raw pace of an offense. A ranking of 14th is nowhere near what the Dolphins coaches claimed was the goal in 2013, but it wasn't too bad considering those factors working against them.
So overall, playing fast isn't always playing better because it's possible the offense makes more mistakes (ex. penalties or miscommunication on the playcall) or that the offense simply "fails" to get first downs faster, which in turn means the defense gets less time on the bench to rest after forcing defensive stops.
Lazor was specifically asked about the concern about penalties and mistakes, and he said bluntly that he's willing to risk those downsides in exchange for those advantages that come from playing more quickly. Football strategy is all about balancing pros and cons - if a particular strategy had all benefits with no downsides, it would be standard for all 32 teams. What makes a coach good at his job is if he's able to correctly evaluate the talent on the roster and choose strategies that emphasize the team's strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.
Lazor's stance is that the Dolphins have the ingredients for a good high tempo attack, with a third year QB with 32 games of experience, a deep cast of possession receivers who should be able to move the chains, a reinforced running back corps, and an offensive line that will hopefully be better at run blocking this year due to every member of the offensive line being recruited to fit the zone blocking scheme.
We'll see if he's right about that. I think he is, but the proof will be in the pudding. Many fans will be looking for the Dolphins to play fast starting in the week 1 preseason game against the Falcons. It's certainly possible the Dolphins do that, but it's worth remembering that the Dolphins only finished installing the entire offense on Tuesday, August 5th. The Dolphins may not yet be ready to play at full speed just 3 days later in Atlanta on Friday, August 8. What Dolphins fans can and should expect is that by the third pre-season game, generally considered to be a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season since it's the final preseason game that most starters participate in, the Dolphins first team offense demonstrate they can play with high tempo at times.
Pros and Cons of Committing to Playing Up Tempo
Limits effectiveness of opposing defense by preventing specialists from getting on the field, allowing for the creation of mismatches (LB covering a WR)
Places bigger mental burden on all players but especially the QB, who is asked to process information and make decisions at a faster rate
|Tires out opposing defenses by preventing regular substitutions||Can tire out your own defense if the offense fails to consistently get 1st downs|
|Increases the chances of defensive mistakes - coverage miscues or penalties||Increases the chances of offensive mistakes - route/protection miscues or penalties|