Dolphins have trio of problems

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Palm Beach Post (Florida)

By BRIAN BIGGANE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

While the vexing ruling on Pittsburgh’s fumble won’t soon be forgotten by the Dolphins and their fans, other issues that contributed to Sunday’s 23-22 loss will need to be addressed as coach Tony Sparano and his team prepare for Sunday’s game at Cincinnati.

Sparano on Monday discussed some of the areas that were deficient: red-zone offense, third-and-long defense and kickoff coverage.

“Those things were in our control,” he said. “We can’t make excuses for them. I won’t settle for that.”

Miami is far from out of the playoff race at 3-3 but, after losing three of its last four, has problems it needs to fix.

Red-zone offense

The Dolphins rank 10th in the AFC in third-down efficiency in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on only 6 of 12 drives inside the 20. No team in the conference has averaged as few as one red-zone TD per game.

Obviously frustrated by the inefficiency, Sparano said he spent extra time on refining the red-zone strategy coming off the bye week two weeks ago and drilled on it again last week.

“We just have to look where these plays are breaking down,” he said, “because the design of the plays (is) good.”

Sparano said he is encouraged that the Dolphins have scored at least a field goal on 11 of the 12 possessions.

“We’re lucky we have the kicker we have,” he said. “The wind out there (Sunday) was tough.”

Kickoff coverage

The Dolphins had a great start on kick coverage Sunday, forcing a fumble on their first kick, a touchback on their second and tackling Emmanuel Sanders at the Pittsburgh 19 on the third.

But by day’s end, Sanders had averaged 28.8 yards on five returns, including a 48-yarder late in the game that set up the Steelers’ winning drive.

“I don’t have an excuse for it,” special teams captain Pat Cobbs said.

Actually, he did. Three members of the unit — Nolan Carroll, Austin Spitler and Reshad Jones — left the game with minor injuries in the second half, when Sanders did most of his damage.

The loss of Carroll had the biggest effect. The fastest player on the unit, his job is to disrupt the blocking scheme, forcing the return to the short side of the field.

“His going down changed the dynamics of the team,” Cobbs said. “He has a big role, and we practice with him in that role. When he came out it affected the whole thing.”

“We felt like we were making our presence known,” Carroll said. “That was the best we had done. We were able to force the fumble and start them inside the 20. After that it wasn’t so good.”

Third-and-long defense

The Dolphins are tied with San Diego for first in the AFC in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert only 35.9 percent of their opportunities.

While that number has been even better the last two weeks (9-of-32, or 28.1 percent), Green Bay and Pittsburgh repeatedly converted on third-and-long.

All three of the Packers’ conversions came on third-and-10 or longer, while the Steelers converted a third-and-16, third-and-11, third-and-10 and third-and-9.

“Third-and-long is supposed to be a money down for us, an easy down — we should get teams off the field,” strong safety Yeremiah Bell said. “It’s definitely something that needs to be corrected.”

Sparano gave credit to quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger for their ability to escape pressure and keep plays alive.

“We let the quarterback get out, and I said that was going to be a problem if it happened,” Sparano said.

“We get noisy and think he’s going to run, and then the ball ends up over your head.”

“It’s small things,” defensive end Kendall Langford said. “Something goes on up front, something in the back, and it all ties together. But it hurts.”

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