Do Dolphins have tools to fix woes in red zone?

Do Dolphins have tools to fix woes in red zone?

Published Sep. 13, 2012 6:57 p.m. ET

DAVIE, Fla. — In today’s NFL, it’s tough to score in the red zone — the area inside the opponent’s 20-yard line — without some basic weapons.

Here’s the checklist: a head-banging running back, a space-clearing tight end, a wide receiver who can go up and get the ball, a crafty quarterback who is proficient at throwing the fade or the back-shoulder pass, and an offensive line that can consistently protect that quarterback.

The Miami Dolphins haven’t shown any of those traits. That’s why they were 24th in the 32-team NFL in red zone touchdowns a year ago. It’s also why they were 0-for-3 in red zone touchdowns in last week’s 30-10 loss at Houston.

Don’t kid yourself. Miami is in crisis mode heading into Sunday’s home opener against Oakland. But don’t try to tell that to shifty running back Reggie Bush.

“We have the pieces to the puzzle,” he said. “We’ve just got to put them together.”

View that statement skeptically. Put more stock in veteran wide receiver Brian Hartline, who admitted just one game into the season the lack of red-zone touchdowns has mushroomed into a pressure situation.

“I think it’s getting to the point now where there’s so much emphasis on it, it’s really taking away from concentrating on the small things,” he said, “and we’re putting the extra pressure on ourselves.”

The red-zone issues were supposed to be put to bed in the past two offseasons. But so far the Dolphins have failed.

Miami drafted hard-nosed running back Daniel Thomas in the second round last year, but he’s been somewhat of a project. Thomas, who hasn’t stayed healthy or demonstrated a knack for blitz pickups, left Sunday’s game with a head injury, possibly a concussion. He’s questionable for this week’s home opener against Oakland. His backups, rookie fullback Jorvorskie Lane and rookie tailback Lamar Miller, well, let’s just say they’re his backups for a reason.

Miami drafted angular tight end Michael Egnew in the third round this year, but he, too, has been ineffective. That leaves the job to starter Anthony Fasano, who is a capable receiver, but that’s where that particular skill set ends.

The Dolphins didn’t draft a wide receiver this year, failing to replace Pro Bowl selection Brandon Marshall. He dropped a lot of potential touchdown passes last year and then depreciated faster than a brand new Kia being driven off the lot. He was acquired for a pair of second-round picks in 2010, and he was traded to Chicago for a pair of third-round picks in 2012.

Miami cut veteran wide receiver Chad Johnson during training camp, which was probably a wise decision. But their receiving corps lacks athleticism, creativity and explosiveness.

Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose specialty so far has been batted-down passes, tried a variety of red-zone receivers against Houston, completing throws to a running back (Bush), two wide receivers (Anthony Armstrong and Davone Bess) and a tight end (Fasano). None produced a touchdown.

The offensive line? They tied a franchise record with 52 sacks last year and remain a work in progress.

This would all be OK if Miami scored on big plays, but that’s as rare as a Dolphins playoff appearance (one in the past 10 years).

Last week the Dolphins had 10 red-zone plays, excluding their 39-yard field goal. They resulted in nine yards and a fumble. Tannehill was four of nine passing for 14 yards and he had one pass batted down, a problem that’s already been well-documented.

Bush had one rush for minus-5 yards and a fumble. Bush had another carry in which he was smothered for a two-yard loss, but that was negated by a Texans offsides call, giving Miami its only red-zone first down play.

Perhaps the best things Miami could do in the red zone are develop an effective running game and stay away from large deficits, two issues that weren’t lost on Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. Miami’s first red-zone possession came in the first quarter, when the game was still on the line. Its final two came in the fourth quarter when the game was basically decided, as the Dolphins trailed by 20 points.

“I remember walking over to the (offensive line) at one point early in the fourth quarter, the beginning of the fourth quarter I think, and I said, ‘Hey, guys, strap it up,’ ” Philbin recalled. “This is an O-lineman’s worst nightmare when there is no run game and when we have to throw the ball every play.”

On those final red-zone possessions Tannehill was under pressure on almost every throw and often had to get rid of the ball quickly as Houston’s defense brought the house. Fasano said the problems are mental, not physical.

“A lot of it is attitude,” Fasano said, “determination to get in the end zone, determination to have no negative plays. Penalties down there, sacks, all those negative plays, mental errors, miscommunications are magnified.”

Many outsiders doubt whether the Dolphins are capable of racking up red-zone touchdowns. Bush is one of the believers.

“We have the right guys here,” Bush insisted. “We have the guys that can make plays. We have the right amount of talent here.”

We’ll see if that talent surfaces Sunday.