Blanket Coverage: How surging Dolphins have evolved into a playoff contender
In most years, reaching Thanksgiving meant three things: football, turkey and the countdown for the Patriots to clinch the AFC East. Since Tom Brady missed the 2008 season, the Patriots have won their division by one, three, five, five, four, three and two games.
But this season, through Week 11, the Patriots have just a two-game lead in the AFC East over the surging Dolphins, winners of five-straight games, and it could get a little tighter thanks to the coaching job done by Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
This isn’t to say the Patriots’ reign atop the AFC East is in danger, because their schedule down the stretch—28th-most difficult according to FootballOutsiders.com; Miami is 19th—makes them the prohibitive favorite, but it could get interesting. The Dolphins have the 49ers, Ravens (away), Cardinals and Jets (away) the next four weeks. The Patriots have the Jets (away), Rams, Ravens and Broncos (away). Given the way the Dolphins tend to play close games (they are 19th with plus-2 net points) against everyone, and the Patriots’ evolving issues on defense, the next month could shake out a number of different ways.
No matter what happens, Gase and Joseph should be lauded. To go from 1–4 and dead in the water after blowout losses to the Bengals and Titans to one game out in the wild-card race is amazing. FootballOutsiders.com has the Dolphins with the best chance (45.6%) to grab a wild-card spot by the end of the season over Denver (41.2%) and Kansas City (38.1%).
At 1–4, there were questions about whether or not quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a future, the defense was overpaid, and Gase was in over his head. And despite a 30–15 upset over the Steelers on Oct. 19, the season-ending injury to star safety Reshad Johnson seemed to be the tipping point from which the Dolphins could not recover.
While beating the Bills, Jets, Chargers and Rams (with a combined record 16–24) wouldn’t necessarily be considered signature wins, the way the Dolphins have played indicates that they are past their “same-old Dolphins” collapses with Tannehill at the helm in ’13 and ’14.
After the Titans’ loss, the Dolphins made a concerted effort to direct the offense through RB Jay Ajayi and not Tannehill. In the passing game, they dialed the scheme back to rely mostly on good run-action passes (playing to Tannehill’s strength of throwing on the run) or spreading out the field to give Tannehill a better pre-snap look. Designed shot plays were dialed up on occasion with aplomb by Gase in the perfect situation.
Give Tannehill credit as well. He’s improved some in his reads and his movement in the pocket, but he’s really excelled in crunch time against the Bills, Chargers and Rams. That being said, the victory over the Rams would be example 1A on why, after five-straight wins, I’m not ready to say I was wrong to write at 1–4 that “Tannehill, for all his talents, just doesn’t have the instincts for the position. If they ever come, it will be later in his career, like Rich Gannon.”
For 54 minutes against the Rams, Tannehill was back to his old tricks as he showed off everything that makes him so frustrating. He didn’t see blitzes coming or feel pressure, and failed to adjust in the pocket, leading to four sacks. There was a stretch of three straight throws in the third quarter when Tannehill should have been intercepted (one was caught). He had another near-pick in the fourth, and he missed some easy throws. You can make all the excuses you want about offensive line injuries, the Rams being good (they’re 9th in defense at FO, so not exactly elite), and RB Damien Williams being awful in pass protection, but the fact is the good quarterbacks in the league play better in those circumstances because of their instincts for the position. Tannehill, for whatever reason, still doesn’t exhibit those traits enough.
In the next three minutes against the Rams, Tannehill was solid. The Rams went to a soft zone and Tannehill picked it apart to score the first touchdown, as he should. And then in the final three minutes, like the comeback against the Chargers, Tannehill was superb. His three throws to Devante Parker, including the game winner with 40 seconds remaining were all outstanding and placed perfectly against good coverage.
It was Tannehill’s fourth game-winning drive or fourth-quarter comeback of the season, which should absolutely be celebrated. It should also be pointed out that Tannehill had 10 before this season, and four in ’13, so exhibiting some clutch play is not a new development. Also, Tim Tebow, who was a Gase pupil with the Broncos, had six in ’11, and Mark Sanchez, whom current-Dolphins EVP of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum adamantly believed was a franchise quarterback, had 10 combined in ’10 (six) and ’11. One is now playing baseball, and the other is on his fourth team in four years. I’m willing to bet Tannehill is better than both, but it goes to show that short-lived success isn’t an indicator of anything in the NFL. Tannehill will get the opportunity down the stretch and next season to show whether or not he can stack consistent success.
Joseph’s success on the defensive side of the ball, however, is more tangible and impressive. It took some time, but he’s gotten the mercurial Dolphins defensive players to buy into his scheme. A unit that was ranked 25th last year by FO (29th in passing, 20th in rushing) is now 7th (5th vs pass, 14th vs. rush).
On the defensive line, Joseph has found the right formula to get Ndamukong Suh, Jordan Phillips and Earl Mitchell playing in sync with outside rushers Cam Wake, Andre Branch and Mario Williams. Kiko Alonso is playing like he did with the Bills, and Joseph and defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo have worked wonders in the secondary. Byron Maxwell was thought to be done, and Xavien Howard, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain too green to be effective. With Jones, who had become an elite safety done for the season, there was no way Isa Abdul-Quddus and Michael Thomas were going to hold up in the back end. Yet the Dolphins are playing good football in the secondary.
The Dolphins probably won’t catch the Patriots to make the season finale between the two teams an AFC East title game, but New England has probably stopped the division title countdown. The Dolphins have certainly, at least, made things a lot more interesting and for that Gase and Joseph deserve a lot of credit.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing NFL storylines this week:
Go crazy, folks
Questionable officiating in Mexico: The game between the Texans and Raiders featured some of the most curious officiating I’ve ever seen. Besides the obvious DeAndre Hopkins catch-and-run on the first drive of the game, there was a three-play stretch starting at the 4:34 mark in the fourth quarter where head linesman Patrick Turner made highly questionable spots on all three plays, starting with Lamar Miller’s 3-yard gain on second down where he at least made the 15-yard line (if not inside it) and was instead spotted at the 16. Once is understandable, but three plays in a row? Apropos of nothing, this was the same crew, refereed by Tony Corrente, that also had a series of questionable calls in another late-season matchup between two first-place teams (Patriots and Broncos). Maybe this crew shouldn’t do those types of games. Then again, FootballZebras.com said the crew (which has changed some) graded out to an almost perfect score for Patriots-Broncos, if you can believe that.
Good for Cousins: He tried to backtrack from it this week, but make no mistake, Washington QB Kirk Cousins absolutely had a point when he screamed at GM Scot McCloughan, “How do you like me now?!” after torching the Packers on Sunday night. McCloughan placed the franchise tag on Cousins after last season and didn’t want to overcommit on a contract extension. Cousins knew exactly what he was doing, and after leading Washington to a 6-3-1 record, holds all the cards as long as he keeps it up.
Slow your roll
Rodgers personal life fair game?: Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report wrote a very thorough and timely feature last week about the leadership skills of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I’ve known Tyler for years, respect the heck out of him and think he’s uber talented. And as someone who has covered Rodgers and watched him closely since, I’ve been critical of his leadership style and how he deals with success and failure, and absolutely believe that could be a factor in his and the team’s struggles. But the part, which most have pulled out of the story, about Rodgers’ broken relationship with his family arguably pushes the line between what’s fair and not when covering an athlete. I’ve always believed (and maybe I’m just naïve and wrong) that a player is entitled to keep his personal life private unless it is affecting his job. In Dunne’s story, one person, who may or may not have an ax to grind with Rodgers, made the connection between Rodgers’ personal issues (which I believe are accurate) and his lack of on-field production. If another source backed that up in the piece, then the off-field/on-field point was definitely relevant. But there was no additional evidence in the story so it’s difficult to say that strong anecdote added to an otherwise strong story, or just satisfied our voyeuristic, TMZ-fueled curiosity with celebrities that we feel like we know, but never will and maybe shouldn’t.
Marijuana rules fine: You can make all the arguments you want about how the NFL should test for marijuana because attitudes have relaxed in this country, and several states have made it legal. The fact of the matter is that it’s not legal in every NFL state, so the league is in an impossible position. And as far as players, like reportedly Alan Branch of the Patriots this week, that test positive for pot? They have no one to blame but themselves. They enter the league and sign each contract knowing that it is against the rules to smoke pot. If they do it, they know they are going to get suspended. So I don’t want to hear any crying about it.
10 thoughts on Week 12
1. Thanks to injuries, Lions DE Ziggy Ansah doesn’t have a sack this season (after 14.5 last year) but the Vikings better take care of him on Thursday or he’s going to have a coming out party and wreck Sam Bradford’s Thanksgiving.
2. Washington better hope that DL Chris Baker, who is dealing with a hamstring injury, is ready to go in the showdown with the Cowboys. Washington’s defensive line isn’t exactly stout with Baker, but he’s the best player it has and needs to be strong up front against the Dallas line to have a chance at an upset.
3. The Colts are playing better on defense but the Steelers’ offensive line should be able to push the line around and create another big day for Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers should go against their nature and be run first on Thursday night.
4. With the emergence of LG Xavier Su’a-Filo, RT Chris Clark has continued to be the weak link of the Texans’ line. He’s going to need a lot of help when he’s matched up with stellar Chargers rookie DE Joey Bosa.
5. The Buccaneers-Seahawks matchup is going to come down to which underperforming line does a better job, and which quarterback (Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson are both playing well) deals best with the poor protection. Advantage Wilson and his quicker feet.
6. Not sure when the reported substance abuse suspension of Patriots DT Alan Branch is going to come down, but when it does, it will really hurt them. Branch has been, by far, the most consistent and impactful Patriots’ lineman, although Vincent Valentine and Trey Flowers have improved immensely.
7. He got off to a rough start this season but Panthers rookie CB James Bradberry has come on and would expect him to give Raiders WR Amari Cooper some problems. Great matchup.
8. You could make a case for defensive player of the year for Chiefs CB Marcus Peters (five interceptions, three fumble recoveries) just based off how much Kansas City struggled without with him against Tampa Bay (331 passing yards). Peters is still day-to-day with a hip injury heading into a huge divisional game with Denver.
9. Broncos are getting healthy at the right time as both CB Aqib Talib and DT Derek Wolfe are ready to go after the bye week.
10. The Packers’ offensive struggles, getting off man coverage and QB Aaron Rodgers not handling pressure as well as he used to, plays right into the strengths of the Eagles’ defense. If Green Bay doesn’t get right, and doesn’t generate some sort of legitimate running game (not Sam Montgomery), it could be another long night.