While navigating the twists and turns of an unpredictable season, the Miami Dolphins have arrived at the late-season pit stop to fill up the tank and change the tires one last time before charging towards the finish line of the 2021 NFL season.
A cloud of doubt covered Hard Rock Stadium as a loss to the Buffalo Bills meant seven-straight losing efforts for the Dolphins — for the second time in the Brian Flores era. The sun, however, has started to leak through that cloud as flying offensive linemen, spitballs —and a devastating defense — have changed the tone with a five-game winning streak.
The Dolphins pulled up to the bye week with a 6-7 record, closing in on a spot in the playoff hunt with a month left in the season. An undefeated November changed the tone in Miami and the team’s strengths are rising to the surface. With that in mind, the anchors that held Miami down early in the year remain.
No team has ever overcome a 1-7 to make the playoffs. The Panthers climbed out of a 1-7 hole in the 2004 season with a five-game winning streak but finished the season with a record of 7-9.
If Miami wants to make history, the Dolphins are hoping to be on the right side of these three questions.
1. Will a running back take advantage of opportunities out of the backfield?
The Dolphins are sandwiched between the Jets and Houston in terms of the worst rushing offenses in the league. Ranked No. 31, the Dolphins average just under 79.2 rushing yards per game this season.
Myles Gaskin has played 57 percent of Miami’s passing plays, Salvon Ahmed is just under 20 percent and Malcolm Brown, who is on injured reserve, has been on the field for 14.53 percent of plays.
While Miami’s offense is pass-oriented — ranked seventh in pass play percentage — the Dolphins run the ball 24 times a game, No. 22 in the league. Keep in mind, that number has jumped to 32 carries a game over the last three and Gaskin is the 13th-most targeted tailback in the passing game with 4.3 per game.
Gaskin, who has seven touchdowns on the year, has eclipsed 50 rushing yards three times in 13 games this season despite 154 rushing attempts, which is No. 11 in the league.
It is clear the Dolphins like to keep backs engaged, but the unit has lacked big plays. A struggling offensive line and a stable of backs that converted just four plays of at least 20 yards this season have the rushing attack sputtering out of control.
Gaskin’s consistency has given him the advantage in the backfield. Not only has he played in every game this season, but he has caught 45 of 56 targets on the year. He currently ranks third on the team in targets behind Jaylen Waddle (114) and Mike Gesicki (90).
With that in mind, the Dolphins will need to establish the run as the wind begins to bite and it becomes harder to throw the football. Will Gaskin and Ahmed turn things up following the bye week? Will we see Duke Johnson in another game? Can a healthy Phillip Lindsay come in and run away with the job?
2. Can the Dolphins run through the rookie wall?
Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland have all played a major role in the Dolphins turning the season around.
Waddle has already broken Miami’s rookie record for targets in a season with 114, which ranks sixth in the NFL. He is 15 receptions from tying Anquan Bolden’s record of 101 receptions as a rookie. Waddle has established himself as a featured player on offense and the chemistry with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is undeniable.
With six sacks in three games, Phillips broke Miami’s rookie record for sacks in a season — with four games to play. Phillips has 8.5 sacks on the year, which is currently No. 11 in the NFL and he has at least three tackles in each of the last four games. Phillips getting to the quarterback for six sacks in three games was the first time it happened since Julius Peppers back in 2002.
A secondary consisting of Holland, Byron Jones and Xavien Howard just haven’t seemed fair of late. The Dolphins have allowed an average of 190 passing yards over the last three games, which is good for an average of 12 points per game.
Holland is doing a bit of everything with 51 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. The second-round draft pick is often featured on Pro Football Focus for his coverage ability.
Jevon Holland has been ELITE in coverage over the last three weeks— PFF MIA Dolphins (@PFF_Dolphins) November 19, 2021
❌ 120 coverage snaps
❌ 9 yards allowed
❌ 4 forced incompletions
❌ 87.1 coverage grade (2nd among Safeties) pic.twitter.com/BbjUaf8Ncc
General manager Chris Grier must be smiling ear-to-ear watching this draft class hit the ground running. The thing is, much like the season wasn’t over at 1-7, it isn’t over at 6-7.
Will the rookies maintain their high standard of consistency for another month?
We can call it a rookie wall — or we can simply call it rookies figuring out the game — but the trio of Phillips, Waddle and Holland have played such a large role in Miami’s success — can it continue? They’ll have to run through that wall as only the Kool-Aid Main can.
3. Will Jason Sanders make THAT field goal?
Sanders signed a much-deserved five-year contract before the 2021 season. He converted 90 percent of field goals in 2018 before that number jumped to 92.3 in 2020.
The concern, however, seems to come in the odd years. In 2019, Sanders finished with a 76.7 field goal percentage while missing seven field goals.
Through 13 games in 2021, Sanders has already missed six field goals. Additionally, he has missed two field goals between 30 and 39 yards this season — more than his previous three seasons combined.
There is no doubting Sanders, who was 8-9 from 50-plus yards last season, but the Dolphins have lost four games by three points or less. As the room for error slims, can Miami rely on the 2020 All-Pro?