Feeble Miami ground game reminiscent of Marino era

Even in the Dan Marino era, when running backs were mostly

decoys, the Miami Dolphins relied on their ground game more than

this year’s team.

The Dolphins have run the ball less than 22 times per game,

their lowest average since 1988, and the third-lowest average in

the NFL. They had only 12 rushing attempts in Sunday’s 19-0 loss at

Buffalo, renewing debate about the team’s run-pass balance – or

imbalance.

Rediscovering an effective ratio this week will be essential if

the Dolphins (8-7) are to make the playoffs. To clinch the final

AFC wild-card spot, they need a victory Sunday over the Jets, along

with a loss by the Ravens or a win by the Chargers.

The Dolphins are in the postseason hunt despite a running attack

that has been almost nonexistent at times, including at Buffalo.

They rushed for 2 yards against Tampa Bay, 14 against the Bills, 20

against Cleveland and 22 against Baltimore.

”It comes down to our ability or our inability to execute,”

offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.

A patchwork line, thinned by the team’s bullying scandal, finds

it difficult to create holes. The backs seldom break tackles, and

the coaches often seem reluctant to run.

At Buffalo, the Dolphins ran the ball nine times in the first

half and three in the second. They tried 40 pass plays, and Miami

never advanced inside the Bills 30-yard line.

When the plays don’t work, the play-caller gets grief. Sherman

acknowledged he lost faith in the run game.

”Of those 12 carries, our longest run was 3 yards,” he said.

”A lack of productivity in the run game caused me to veer off into

another direction.”

Coach Joe Philbin said he would prefer to see more handoffs.

”I’d like to have run the ball more than 12 times the other

day,” he said. ”I’d also like to have a longer run than 3

yards.”

The absence of a run threat has allowed defenses to tee off with

their pass rush, and Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 58 times, a

franchise record and the NFL high. At Buffalo he endured seven

sacks, including one that sent him briefly to the sideline with a

left knee injury. Afterward Tannehill said he was fine, and he took

part in practice Tuesday.

Tackle Bryant McKinnie said the Dolphins’ inability to run made

them so predictable that the Bills’ pass rushers got into a rhythm

anticipating the snap, making them even tougher to block. McKinnie,

a 12-year veteran, said he suggested to his position coach changing

the cadences to keep defenders from getting too much of a jump.

”There are always ways to counter that,” McKinnie said

Tuesday. ”I suggested some things that I did on other teams with

the snap count that helped us. It’ll work. It will keep the

defenses honest.”

Even with such tweaks, jumping-starting the ground game against

the Jets won’t be easy. Their run defense has allowed only 3.3

yards per carry, lowest in the NFL.

But Miami ran for 125 yards – and the offense totaled a

season-best 453 – in a 23-3 victory over the Jets in Week 14.

”We want to run the ball,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. ”We’ve

been our best when the run game has been successful.”

The Dolphins have won the past four games when they rush for

more than 100 yards. But they’re averaging only 90 per game, which

ranks 26th in the league.

Miami’s two leading rushers, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, are

averaging less than 4 yards a carry. The last time that happened

with the Dolphins was in 1999 – Marino’s final season.

Miller has two touchdowns, which would be the lowest total since

1980 for a player leading the Dolphins in rushing. He ranks 28th in

rushing yards with 636, and Thomas ranks 50th with 406.

The Dolphins have called run plays just 35 percent of the time,

a rate that doesn’t reflect a robust offense. The only teams

running less often are Cleveland and Atlanta, both 4-11. The Denver

Broncos run the ball 40 percent of the time, even though they have

a guy who has thrown 51 touchdown passes

”We should mix it up and be able to do both,” Sherman said,

”and I think we have the ability to.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and

http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve-Wine