TAMPA -- With the Dolphins pinned at their own 2 early in the second quarter, their offense started a disastrous two-play sequence that summed up their rushing attack Monday night against Tampa Bay.
Charles Clay rushed up the middle, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy stuffed him for a 1-yard loss. Then Lavonte David flew unblocked through Miami’s offensive line and flattened Daniel Thomas for a safety.
The Dolphins rushing attack improved from there, but not by much.
With linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin out and on opposite ends of the locker room scandal, the Dolphins ground game struggled to gain anything against a middle-of-the-pack rushing defense.
Only two Lamar Miller runs — a 4-yarder and a 1-yarder late in the first quarter — went for positive yards in the first half. Miami finished with zero rushing yards in the first two quarters and completed the game with only 2 yards on 14 attempts.
“It means we’ve got to get better,” Miller said.
Monday night was a return to Miami’s early season struggles, reminiscent of the Dolphins’ 20-yard output in a season-opening win at Cleveland and a 22-yard performance in a loss to Baltimore.
Miami had seemingly improved since then and had just had its best two rushing games of the year: The Dolphins ran for a season-high 157 yards against Cincinnati in their last game and 156 the game before against New England.
Miller had been at the center of it. His 4.8-yard average entering the night was third-best in the league. The former Hurricane was coming off of a career-high 105-yard game against the Bengals and had averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his past three games.
But only four of his first seven carries gained yards against Tampa Bay.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Miller had gained only 2 yards — yet was still tied for the team lead with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Thomas lost 2 yards on his four attempts, and Clay’s two carries totaled zero yards.
“They just did a good job of game planning and stopping the run,” Miller said of the Buccaneers.
Of Miami’s first 14 runs, seven failed to gain positive yardage, and none went for more than 4 yards. That inability to gain position early forced the Dolphins into nine instances of third-and-8 or longer and forcing them to rely on Tannehill’s arm and a breakout game by receiver Rishard Matthews to stay competitive against the reeling Buccaneers.
The Dolphins’ offensive success came only after they almost entirely abandoned the run. They ran the ball once on a nine-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that cut the deficit to 15-7 late in the second quarter. The lone rush: a 2-yard loss by Miller.
Miami’s ground game was equally sluggish on its next scoring drive. Thomas’ 1-yard rush set up third-and-long, so the Dolphins had to settle for a 40-yard Caleb Sturgis’ field goal.
The Dolphins’ biggest run of the game came midway through the fourth quarter. On third-and-1 from its own 29, Miami’s line surged forward, and Tannehill plowed for 2 yards and the first down.
The success was short-lived: Miller lost 3 yards on the next play. Moments later, Miami failed to convert on third-and-long and punted the ball away.