It took the Buffalo Bills all of two and a half minutes Sunday to accomplish something the Dolphins have done just once all season:
Run for — and gain — a first down on third-and-medium yardage.
Needing 6 yards, Fred Jackson tore through the line and gained 9 yards, setting the tone for what went on to be a frustratingly long day for the Dolphins’ run defense.
Buffalo gashed Miami for 203 yards on a ridiculous 51 carries, keeping the Dolphins’ offense on ice for most of the afternoon. The Bills ultimately called designed third-down runs seven more times (including one negated by penalty), reaching the sticks on two of those occasions.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins ran the ball just once on their 14 third-down tries. Coincidentally or not, it was just one of two third downs they converted all day.
Sunday was the continuation of a run-adverse, season-long trend. Out of the Dolphins’ 204 third-down attempts this year, they have run the ball only 23 times. And 15 of those instances came on third-and-1.
“There is no opposition to it,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said this week when asked about the paucity of runs. “[The Bills] hadn't really done a lot of that prior to this game. To their credit, they had a couple of good looks and executed their plays well, but we are certainly open to any way we can move the chains.”
He continued: “It’s not like we are not going to run the ball. It’s just the defenses we anticipate, we don’t think it is real advantageous to do that.”
By design or not, it's had a real effect on the team’s balance, or lack thereof. The Dolphins have thrown the ball a staggering 63 percent of the time, and yet have been no more efficient than last season.
A year ago, when they were closer to a 50-50 run-pass split, Miami averaged 311.5 yards per game and 5.1 yards per play. This year, even with the ratio skewed? The numbers are flat — 314.1 and 5.0.
One more stat: The Dolphins ran 40 times on third down a year ago — nearly twice as often as they have in 2013.
“It's brilliant if you get it,” offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said. “It’s one of those things that is kind of a roll of the dice. If you get it, you’re like, ‘Oh, they ran it on third-and-5 and got the first down.’ If you don't get it, there are some people there scratching their heads.”
If nothing else, it adds an element of surprise — something sorely lacking from the Dolphins’ game plan. Of their 327 runs this year, 188 came on first down (57.5 percent).
“It depends on the down and distance, [but you want to be sure] the defense is always on their toes,” said Dolphins running back Lamar Miller, who leads the Dolphins with 636 yards, despite getting just 10.7 carries per game. “I feel like if it’s third-and-2, you can maybe run the ball and be able to get a first down. But if it's like third-and-10, most definitely throw the ball.”
Said Clabo: “It takes a little bit out of the pass rush if they think you might run a draw or turn around and hand it off [on third down].”
At this point, anything is worth trying at least once. The Dolphins have the league's seventh-fewest rushing yards (1,348) this season. Yet that meager total has as much to do with quantity as quality.
Only Atlanta and Dallas have run the ball fewer times. And for all the talk that this is a passing league, five of the league’s six run-heaviest teams are in line to make the playoffs.
When the Dolphins decide to run the ball (and stick with it), they tend to have the most success. Take for example their 36-carry game against the Jets four weeks ago, which was probably their most complete win of the season.
New York has the league's third-best run defense (allowing 88 yards per game), yet the Dolphins were committed to running the football. Perhaps they will be again this Sunday, when the Jets visit South Florida in a true must-win game for the Dolphins.
“They ran the ball well against us and they stopped our run pretty good,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “So I think each game’s different. … Clearly you’ve got to go out and execute on both sides of the ball.”
Said Philbin: “Usually, football is a game of leverage. If you have leverage or an advantage numbers wise, you may want to run it as opposed to pass it. If they have more than you’ve got, it becomes a little bit of a dicier proposition. You just have to weigh those factors when you are putting your plan together.”
• Although the Dolphins did not practice Wednesday, they did release an injury report. The good news for quarterback Ryan Tannehill (knee): He would have participated fully. As expected, he should be fine for Sunday.
Running back Daniel Thomas (ankle) is the only player who would not practiced Wednesday.
Six players would have participated on a limited basis Wednesday: Chris Clemons (knee/hamstring), Brian Hartline (knee), Koa Misi (triceps), Marlon Moore (wrist), Jared Odrick (wrist) and Paul Soliai (ankle).