For all of their shortcomings, say this about the Dolphins:
Once again, they appear highly proficient at stopping the run.
What’s more, they’re running the ball more successfully than nearly every other team in the league.
Those two factors give the Dolphins hope that this season might exceed expectations, despite deficiencies at receiver (beyond Brian Hartline and Davone Bess) and shaky depth in their secondary.
“We’ve been talking about running the football and defending the run and making a team one-dimensional,” coach Joe Philbin said.
That was achieved Sunday in a dominant Dolphins display. Miami gashed Oakland for 263 yards on the ground on 43 attempts and held the Raiders to 23 yards rushing on 14 carries.
That effort, combined with sharp work in both areas in Houston, vaulted Miami near the top of the league leaders in both categories.
Consider that the Dolphins have run for 342 yards, or 171 per game, which is more than every team in the league except Buffalo.
Also, Miami’s 5.5 yards-per-carry average tops every team except the Bills and 49ers.
Reggie Bush, who said before the season that he wants to lead the league in rushing, ranks second with 241 yards (behind Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller, at 292). His 6.0 per-carry average trails only Frank Gore’s 6.1 among players with at least 30 rushing attempts.
Bush, who has 40 carries, broke several tackles on his 23-yard touchdown run against Oakland, then accelerated past numerous Raiders defenders on his 65-yard touchdown scamper.
“Part of the paycheck you’re earning is how many guys can you make miss, how many tackles can you break?” Philbin said. “Can you finish a run off? Reggie displayed all that. He has run the ball hard and physical.”
On the 23-yard touchdown run, Bush bounced outside, even though that wasn’t Philbin’s initial preference on a third-and-1.
How do you coach that?
“No, no, no! Yes!” Philbin cracked.
But seriously “Runners have to trust their natural instincts,” Philbin said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said of that play: “If he did it exactly the way I wanted him to do it, it would have been a 2-yard gain.”
Sherman said he’s not surprised by Bush’s success running between the tackles.
“I remember Reggie coming out of college,” Sherman said. “He was so much faster than everybody else that it was easier to run around them than through them.”
Sherman said Bush’s “durability is what amazes me. He’s out there [Monday] like he didn’t play a game [Sunday]. Very impressive young man.”
Rookie running back Lamar Miller out of the University of Miami also had an impressive regular-season debut with 65 yards on 10 carries.
“Sometimes a young player plays too fast, may be nervous or anxious,” Philbin said. “I don’t think that was the case with Lamar. He had a bit of elusiveness, wiggled through cracks.”
The offensive line was stout in run-blocking. Philbin said left guard Richie Incognito and center Mike Pouncey “stood out” against Oakland.
“Incognito played a really good game, better than in Houston,” he said. And “we’ve been impressed with Pouncey both weeks. He plays the game the right way. I don’t want to give him too much [credit], or he’ll start getting a big head.
“Overall, they controlled the line of scrimmage. You don’t usually get a 250-plus yard rushing game in the NFL.”
The Dolphins have adapted splendidly to a zone-blocking scheme. That gives the running backs “a little more freedom to make some cuts,” Sherman said.
Defensively, the Dolphins ranked third against the run in 2011 and are fourth in average rushing yards allowed per game so far this season (53.0).
Even more impressive: They’re allowing just 2.2 yards per carry, which leads the NFL and is well below the league’s 4.1 average.
Defensive tackles Randy Starks (eight tackles, two sacks this season) and Paul Soliai (three tackles, two for loss) have been exceptional clogging the middle in Miami’s new 4-3 base defense. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle believes both have been helped by losing weight, noting that Soliai not only can outmuscle offensive linemen but also outrun some of them now.
Who else has excelled against the run?
Philbin mentioned Cameron Wake. Coyle admitted “we had some concern going into the season with [Wake’s] size and matchup ability” as a 258-pound defensive end. But “he’s been very strong at the point of attack.”
Coyle also cited defensive end Jared Odrick (“played much better this week than opening week”) and linebackers Koa Misi (“a force in taking on lead blockers”), Karlos Dansby (“played better”) and Kevin Burnett.