Hello Phinsiders. Last week we looked at Miami's defense and their struggles to cover a TE. This week, I wanted to focus on Miami's running game. The running game has stalled the last several weeks. Did you know that it has been 5 games since Miami had a running back gain 80 yards in a game? That's right. Since Jay Ajayi rushed for 100+ yards 3 straight weeks (2 of those weeks over 200 yards), he has failed to top 80 yards in a game.
Miami is in the thick of the playoff hunt in the AFC at 8-5. In their last 3 games of the year, they face division foes in the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and New England Patriots. The Jets and Bills games are on the road, in New York, in December, where running the ball is going to be a must if the team wants to win. Add that to the fact that Ryan Tannehill is hurt and Matt Moore is now the starting QB, limiting the passing game with a solid run game is critical.
So, why has the running game stalled the last couple of weeks? Starting with the San Francisco 49ers game, breaking down film the last 3 weeks, the reason is fairly obvious. Last week, when breaking down the Dolphins defense, there wasn't a simple answer for why they struggled covering TE's. This week, when talking about why the running game has stalled, the obvious reason is that the OL isn't blocking well. What the OL is failing at more times than not is climbing to the 2nd level of the defense and blocking LB's. LB's are untouched at the Point Of Attack because 1) the OL is getting held in the double team by the DL and can't get to the 2nd level or 2) they aren't athletic enough to get there even when they have a free path.
Let's look at some plays. In this play, the Dolphins are in a 2 TE, 1 RB set. The play is a simple stretch play to the right using the Zone Blocking Scheme. This play is a staple of the Miami running game and will be featured a lot in this post.
Miami's blocking assignments are basic. The key block is the RG / RT double team of the DT, climbing to the playside LB. Again, this is a basic, simple outside zone stretch run play.
You can see that the double team is pretty effective. Bushrod and James dent the LOS and drive the DT back. But what doesn't happen is James doesn't come off the double team in time to block the LB who is sitting in the hole waiting for Ajayi. Now, in some instances, the RB can outrun the LB to the sideline and pick up a decent chunk of yardage. On this play, that can't happen because Sims isn't getting movement at the point of attack on the OLB. The play results in a 1 yard gain with the LB making the play in the hole. Miami's OL failed to get to the 2nd level and block the playside LB.
Let's now take a look at how this play should be blocked. This is essentially the same play, but Miami has only 1 TE on the LOS.
On this play, the RT has a clear line to the playside LB. The C and LG are doubling the NT and climbing to the backside LB. To create a cutback lane for Ajayi, the double team is a key block IF the C and LG can turn the playside shoulder of the NT.
One of the things I love about OL play are the subtle plays that need to be made to be effective as a unit. This screen shot was taken right at the snap of the ball. Look at the C, focusing on his left arm. His body is moving to the right to climb to the LB yet his left arm is on the NT to his left to help the LG get playside. That is text book technique.
The LG is able to turn the NT with the C's help, while the C climbs to the LB, creating a huge cutback lane for Ajayi. Both LB's are blocked and Miami is running away from the unblocked defender. This is how you block this play and the result is a 13 yard gain. I also want to give Jay Ajayi some credit on this run for seeing the cutback lane. He has really good vision on stretch plays, much better than Lamar Miller exhibited last year running the same play.
A couple of weeks ago, in my Old School Play Of The Week, I discussed the Counter Trey. Guess what? Miami runs a version of that play as well. This time against Baltimore, it wasn't blocked very well.
The key blocks on this play is the kickout block by the RG on the LDE of the defense and the block by the FB on the playside LB. The key secondary block is the double team by the LT and LG on the DT climbing to the backside LB because the backside LB is reading the FB and will be following him to the run. Miami misses both LB's.
At this point in the play, Miami's blockers are in pretty good shape to execute their blocks. But a bad route by the FB and the LG can't disengage from the double team (I think he is getting held) allows both LB's to flow to the hole.
You can see the FB completely miss his block on the frontside LB and the backside LB is untouched as well. The frontside LB meets Ajayi in the hole, but Ajayi breaks the tackle.
Because Ajayi broke a tackle, this is a positive play. But, as a coach, what I appreciate on this play is the block of the FB. His block in the circle is on the backside LB. He missed his primary blocking assignment, the frontside LB, but didn't quit on the play. Instead, he hit somebody and that allowed Ajayi, after breaking the initial tackle, to gain positive yards. The lesson here is you are going to miss blocks and assignments, but you keep playing and you find someone to hit. That's football right there.
Here is another stretch play against Arizona. Again, the key block is the C getting to the LB.
The other key block is getting to the backside LB to allow for a cutback potential by the RB. The frontside is blocked well, the backside, not so much.
Luckily, Ajayi was able to stay playside and outrun the backside LB for 6 yards. But here is what happens when you can't get to the playside LB. This is the exact same play, run out of the same formation, against basically the same front, later in the game.
Only this time, the C can't get to the frontside LB.
This play results in another case where the playside LB is untouched in the hole.
The play ended up in a loss of 3 yards. Not even Ajayi can break every tackle in the hole.
The theme of the last couple of weeks for the running game has been when Miami gets stuffed it is usually because the OL didn't make it to the 2nd level of the defense. And they are not getting to the 2nd level more times than not. Miami's opponents have made a concerted effort to stop the run by loading up the box. That means there is always going to be an unblocked defender, which is fine IF you block the other defenders and Miami isn't doing that lately.
One of the reasons for this might be the injury to Mike Pouncey. While I don't think he was any more than average at blocking a DT at the LOS, he was very good at climbing to the next level. Steen doesn't have the same athletic ability and struggles to get there.
One other thing I'm going to mention here about the run game. This is subtle, but it could be a problem. Do you know what a "Tell" is in poker? Basically a "Tell" is a behavior a player has that signals the other players what their intentions are. For example, they drum their fingers on the table every time they bluff. That's a "Tell" that observant opponents can pick up on.
Players in football can sometimes have "Tells" as well (you were probably wondering where the Hell I was going with this). Back in the day, we used to call them "Cheats" in that a player would cheat to make his assignment easier on any given play. The most common "Cheat" is on the OL with the player being in a 3-point stance. If the player had his weight forward in his stance, it meant run because he was firing out at you as a defender. If the player had his weight back in his stance, it meant pass because he had to back up to pass protect.
Another "Cheat" can be alignment on offense. On defense, a blitzing player can show his blitz and the offense can pick it up simply by how that player is aligned or by other players that have to accommodate the blitzing player's responsibility. Say a CB is blitzing and isn't showing it. But the QB can see the safety shading to that CB's side of the field therefore telling the QB that the CB is coming on a blitz. He can see that just in the alignment of the defensive players.
The same holds true for a defense as well in that sometimes they can pick up the play or play direction just by the alignment of players on offense. That may be happening on Miami's offense. A couple weeks ago I discussed the Center Line and how the defense needs to match the offense on either side of the Center Line. Look at these pictures and notice how Ajayi is set up in the "I" formation in relation to Tannehill and the C.
Do you see how he is slightly off center to the QB's left? Every running play is to the offensive right in these pictures, yet Ajayi is offset left. Over the last 3 games, this has been a consistent alignment for Ajayi when in the "I" formation running right. When the running play is going to the offensive left, Ajayi in the "I" formation is more centered or slightly to the offensive right.
Ajayi may be tipping the direction in which he is running based on his alignment. That could allow the LB's to flow quicker because once they read run, they know the direction based on Ajayi's alignment. This is a "Tell" or a "Cheat" and it is something that Quality Control Assistant Coaches are looking for when they breakdown film. You have to remember, players and coaches are looking for every little advantage that they can get. Zach Thomas, when he played for Miami, used to pick up on these subtle little things all the time from an offense. It's why he seemed to know the play before the offense ran it because he picked up on trends and "cheats".
I'm not saying Ajayi is definitely tipping play directions. I haven't done near the film study it would take to confirm this. But I guarantee that other teams are doing that amount of film study. That could be another reason why the run game has stalled in Miami the last several weeks. There is something on film that could be tipping the defense. Just a thought.