This is part 2 in a series of articles looking at the specific traits of new Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's system that has been installed this offseason. These articles are an attempt to be as specific as possible about what fans should hope to see from the offense this year versus what was seen last year. Every offensive coordinator's system tries to create mismatches and generate big plays, but individual systems differ in how they attempt to achieve those goals (and obviously, some are more effective than others).
In the previous article in this series, the first topic was explaining the importance of improving the Dolphins' offense because of the high scoring opponents on the 2014 season schedule. Then, the benefits and downsides of playing at a faster tempo on offense were discussed because Lazor himself has stated tempo is a top priority in his scheme. Last but not least, reasons why the Dolphins failed to play at a faster tempo last year were reviewed in an "In Defense of Mike Sherman" section that will part of each article looking at how the approach of Lazor's predecessor was different (or similar). I recommend you read these articles in order, so if you didn't read the first article, you can click here to review it before coming back to this article. The main topic in this article is versatility.
Versatility at Every Position
Similar to how a chef's options are limited by the ingredients he has available, a coach can only be as creative as his players allow him to be. In order to have as many options as possible on any given play, Lazor's system emphasizes player versatility at every position.
Quarterback - A new wave of young, mobile QBs who can both run and throw at elite levels like Andrew Luck, RG3, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson are making Pro Bowl appearances (and in the case of Kaepernick and Wilson, Super Bowl appearances), due to how difficult it is for defenses to stop them. It's easy to forget at times the Dolphins have a mobile QB who didn't just play a wide receiver his first 2 seasons in college (after a redshirt year) but was actually very good at it, earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention as a wide receiver one season. Lazor so far has signaled that he intends to showcase Tannehill's athleticism as a staple of the offense. There are regular reports of Tannehill running the read-option in practice and keeping the ball on those plays, which is something he was reluctant to do at times last year despite the big play potential he showed against the Steelers. In addition, Tannehill has been asked to make plays outside of the pocket by design (rollouts) and has done well in that area too. One of the next articles in this series will be focused on Lazor's tactics for helping Tannehill's development, but suffice to say for now that Tannehill's full athletic skillset will be utilized in Lazor's offense.
Running back - Last year, we saw plenty of plays in which the running backs were used as pass blockers, and a fair amount of plays in which they were used as runners. However, there's a type of football play some offenses use in which the offensive linemen block the opposing defensive linemen only briefly before allowing the defenders to get upfield, at which point, the quarterback is tasked with making a short throw to a running back. If the play works out as designed, the defensive line is converging on a quarterback who no longer has the ball, while the running back has the ball in space with multiple blockers in front of him. Those types of plays are called "running back screens."
I felt the need to explain that play because those types of plays were VERY RARELY USED the past 2 seasons with Mike Sherman as offensive coordinator, so some fans may have forgotten those plays exist. How rare were they? Only 4.8% of Tannehill's passing yardage last year came from screens of any type (WR or RB or TE), which was near the bottom of the league in terms of usage rate. Dolphins running backs contributed a total of 91 yards from screen passes, or about 2.3% of Tannehill's total yards. Quarterback Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles was fortunate enough to have 16.4% of his passing yardage come from screen passes (7.4% coming specifically from running back screens), which is one of the reasons why he was able to keep his interception rate so low. Short passes to running backs, either as a primary target of a screen play or a checkdown target after the main receivers are well-covered, tend to be safe throws (unless Mark Sanchez is throwing the pass and Randy "Primetime" Starks is nearby to intercept them).
Those safe throws to running backs were mostly absent from the Dolphins' offense last year. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined for 38 catches, while the Eagles' LeSean McCoy had 52 by himself despite playing in an offense that ran the ball 47% of the time (highest in the NFL). This offseason, multiple beat reporters have commented on how Dolphins running backs are being heavily featured in the passing game. The signing of free agent running back Knowshon Moreno, who is coming off a 60-catch season with the Broncos, fits in with the belief that Lazor is trying to build in more easy throws for Tannehill in the offense.
Tight End - Charles Clay was creatively used last year by Sherman, and that should continue. This year, the tight end getting the most hype is 2013 4th round pick Dion Sims. Much like they were used last season, the tight ends in Lazor's system will be asked to line up all over the field in a variety of roles. Sims quietly earned a healthy number of snaps last year (17.5 snaps per game), but he was almost exclusively lined up in-line next to an offensive tackle to be used as a blocker. He ran routes as a receiving option just 5 snaps per game on average last season. This year, his blocking has reportedly improved, and he's making more plays in the passing game.
Rookie 5th round pick Arthur Lynch has been limited by an undisclosed injury for most of this offseason, so there hasn't been much reported about him. Last, 2012 3rd round pick Michael Egnew has been used more as a receiving threat in practices, but his reviews have been mixed at best, with reports of him dropping the ball and not getting consistent separation. According to Dolphins tight end coach Dan Campbell, Egnew still struggles with his route running, and despite being drafted as a potential receiving threat, Egnew's receiving skills are behind his blocking skills.
Wide Receiver - Joe Philbin himself said that one goal is to expand Mike Wallace's route tree. Wallace has confirmed that he's been asked to run routes from both sides of the field, in the slot, and even out of the backfield. Of all the receivers on the roster, Wallace is the guy whose 2014 game film should look the most different compared to his 2013 game film. OTAs began this offseason with Lazor calling for an end around involving Wallace, so the combination of some shorter routes and handoffs should make it easier to get the ball in Wallace's hands. Unsurprisingly, Wallace has one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new offense, recently saying, "It’s fast. It’s going to be good. We catch a lot of people off guard. We got a lot of play action, a lot of shots. I feel like I know what’s going on. I feel a little more in control."
Like Wallace, other receivers such as Hartline, Matthews, and Landry are also lining up in different spots, and the focus will also be to get them the ball in space. Just 2.5% of Tannehill's passing yardage in 2013 came from screens to tight ends and wide receivers, compared to Foles earning 9.0% of his yardage from those WR/TE screens. The Dolphins wide receiver rotation is deep with good route runners who can work intermediate routes, which fits the scheme's goal of getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. However, this group will be asked to occasionally get open deep as well as make defenders miss on wide receiver screens. Given how infrequently wide receiver screens were used under Sherman, it's unclear how effective (or ineffective) those plays will be under Lazor. However, those plays are almost certain to be tried more frequently.
Offensive line - The emphasis on quicker throws and screen passes should make the offensive line's pass blocking duties easier to fulfill, but the offensive linemen will be asked to make more blocks in space as part of those screen passes mentioned earlier. Ja'Wuan James, Branden Albert, Shelley Smith, and Mike Pouncey are all offensive linemen who are light on their feet (for 300+ lbs men), and they will be asked to roam in space more with Lazor than with Sherman.
In Defense of Mike Sherman
Like Lazor, Sherman also talked about prioritizing versatility. So why is a common fan criticism that he wasn't particularly creative in his use of players, aside from Clay?
Sherman was asked why Tannehill wasn't heavily featured as a runner as a rookie and for most of the 2013 season.
"Last year , there was a specific reason. I wanted to make sure we developed his skills as a quarterback. He’s going to be recognized as a pocket quarterback before he’s going to be recognized in this offense as a running quarterback." - Mike Sherman
Sherman added that while they freed up Tannehill a bit to run more in 2013, the focus was on getting him comfortable staying in the pocket and working through his progressions from there.
As for the read option, Sherman said he used Tannehill on running plays occasionally "just to keep people honest for the most part. Some weeks we used it. Some weeks we didn’t." The goal was to use the tactic with the element of surprise (the Steelers didn't seem prepared for it), but Sherman deliberately did not make it a staple of the offense each week. In fairness to Sherman, the referees decided in 2013 to allow late QB hits on read option plays, with the justification being that the QB is "threatening" to become a runner, so he deserves less protection. Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the 49’ers complained about it publicly since Kaepernick was taking "late" hits even on hand offs to Frank Gore. Sherman felt he was protecting Tannehill from even more hits by limiting his read-option runs, which is a fair reason to limit its use.
However, Tannehill finished 2013 as one of the 5 best passers on designed rollouts, according to both Pro Football Focus and ESPN's Total QBR rating systems. I can't think of a reason to excuse Sherman's failure to use Tannehill's ability to throw on the move more often (only 28 designed Tannehill rollouts all season, compared to Russell Wilson's 73).
At wide receiver, a common fan criticism was that the Dolphins rarely were creative in moving the starting wide receivers to different sides or to the slot. The bulk of the criticism was focused on the lack of creativity in using Mike Wallace, who was lined up on the right boundary over 90% of the offense's snaps in 2013. However, there's a sound reason for keeping Wallace to the side as much as possible. One of the principles of good passing play design is creating both "vertical stretch" and "horizontal stretch" of the opposing defense.
Creating "vertical stretch" involves forcing the defense to have to account for receivers at multiple distances from the QB (deep, intermediate, and short). Mike Wallace can create deep "vertical" stretch wherever he lines up because he's so fast. It's hard to appreciate Wallace's effect on defenses based on what you see in the television broadcast since sometimes, the safety on Wallace's side of the field is so deep he's not even on the TV screen.
If you're not careful, when you first see the image below, you might think that the Steelers are defending Wallace (lined up at the top of the image, in his customary right boundary WR spot) one-on-one with a cornerback in off-man coverage.
However, there's only 10 defenders on the screen.
Steeler #25 is a safety about 20 yards deep on Wallace's side of the field that you couldn't see in the first screen shot. Wallace vertically stretches a defense before the play even begins - that safety is too deep to provide early support on a running play, particularly one to the left side. If Wallace runs a "go" route downfield, that safety drops back even further in order to prevent Wallace from getting past him, creating a large "safety-free" zone where other players could catch the ball without fear of a safety making the tackle.
"Horizontal stretch" is forcing the defense to defend across the field horizontally (from sideline to sideline). When Wallace lines up at the slot receiver position, he's closer to the center of the field. If he's running a shorter route in the middle of the field, any deep safety tracking Wallace stays in the middle of the field rather than dropping back towards one of the 2 sidelines. Safeties want to stay in the middle of the field because that allows them to help out more teammates. When they're forced to retreat towards either sideline, it's harder for them to provide support in the middle of the field or the opposite sideline.
Wallace is the only Dolphins wide receiver whom defenses were very reluctant to risk single coverage on deeper routes. If you line him up in the slot too much, you put him in a position to make plays against a slot cornerback who might not be as fast as the boundary cornerbacks (Hooray!). However, when he lines up in the middle, he no longer drags a safety towards the sideline as much as he would if he were on the boundary, so targets like Charles Clay have less open space in the middle of the field. People talk about how much Chip Kelly used wide receiver DeSean Jackson of the Eagles in the slot, but he only lined up in the slot 26.5% of the time last year. I wouldn't expect to see Wallace in the slot more often than that, so that means he'll be in the slot maybe once every 4 plays. Speed to the outside creates space for the other players, which is why Jackson and Wallace are fixtures on the boundary. However, as for the question of why Wallace was only on the right boundary, and never on the left boundary? I have no idea.
Tempo is foundation of Lazor's offensive system. There are multiple advantages to being able to play at a faster pace, one of which is the preservation of mismatches by preventing the opposing defense from making substitutions. One of the ways to generate those mismatches in the first place is with versatile players who can be asked to do different things depending on the opponent. Last year, the Dolphins offense flashed creativity at times in the use of players like Charles Clay and Ryan Tannehill. This year, everyone will be asked to do more, especially Tannehill, Wallace, the running backs, and perhaps Sims.