In a way, the Miami Dolphins’ weird-but-effective victory over the St. Louis Rams was the perfect way to go into their bye.
They ended up on the right side of the score for the second straight week, allowing this young team a full month of good feelings – and, as the business end of the franchise surely hopes, increased fan enthusiasm.
But there was enough that went wrong at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday – like getting outgained by more than 2-to-1 and allowing another quarterback to throw for 300 yards – that Joe Philbin’s coaching staff will have plenty of teaching material to last the next two weeks.
“I told the staff, ‘Let’s find three or four things that make a difference in our production in the second half of the season,’” Philbin said Monday, a day after his team evened its record at 3-3 and moved into a four-way tie atop the AFC East.
“I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel,” he added. “Maybe just make some adjustments to what we’re doing. Let’s not fix nine million things. We don’t have time for that.”
At or near the top of the Dolphins’ off-week to-do list: fixing their suddenly sluggish ground attack.
In the four games since Reggie Bush romped through the Raiders for 172 yards and two touchdowns, the Dolphins’ running game has steadily regressed.
They’ve averaged just 89.5 yards per game on 2.9 yards per carry in the last month. They ranked second league-wide in rushing after Week 2; now they’re out of the Top 10. And if you take out Bush’s 65-yard touchdown jaunt against the Raiders, Miami has averaged less than 3.4 yards per rush all season.
On Sunday, they mustered just 19 rushing yards on 18 attempts – the fourth-worst ground performance in team history.
The Dolphins have gotten away with it the last two weeks because Ryan Tannehill has been excellent. But even the best rookie quarterbacks need balance. Ben Roethlisberger had it in Pittsburgh. Joe Flacco got it in Baltimore.
If the Dolphins want to stay in the playoff hunt for the long term, Tannehill will probably need it too.
“You don’t want to put all the pressure on a rookie quarterback,” said center Mike Pouncey.
When asked Monday if the struggles against St. Louis were a matter of blocking, execution or the Rams’ scheme, Philbin answered D: All of the above.
Ever since Bush torched the Raiders, defenses have crowded the line of scrimmage, blitzed regularly and dared Tannehill to beat them. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said opposing teams have loaded the box with an extra defensive player “almost 100 percent of time” – not just in base defenses, but sub packages as well.
The Rams had success by creeping a safety up to the line of scrimmage on the tight end’s side and shutting down cutback lanes when Miami tried to run away from the extra defender.
Sherman and Pouncey both said that strategy will only change once defensive coordinators believe Tannehill will consistently beat them through the air. Until then, the burden is on the offensive line to create running lanes even when it is numerically overmatched – which takes both a good scheme and powerful execution.
That didn’t happen Sunday, as Jonathan Martin, John Jerry and Richie Incognito all had below-average grades in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The only place the Dolphins had any success was behind Pouncey, the website found.
The bye week will give the Dolphins a chance to both get better, and get healthy. Running back Daniel Thomas missed the Rams game after his second concussion in as many weeks.
Lamar Miller, meanwhile, played just four snaps on offense and didn’t get a carry – which Philbin attributed not to Miller’s pass-blocking, but to the fact that the Dolphins ran only 49 plays (including a kneel-down to end the game).
Miami can take a bit of solace knowing that, after its week off, the next team up is the Jets – whom the Dolphins gashed for 185 rushing yards in the teams’ first meeting.
“Every week with this team it’s kind of a new hurdle for us,” Philbin said. “Now we have to go on the road, we’ve got to win a division game. That’s going to be a huge challenge. That’s really all that matters right now.”