After watching the Dolphins the past three weeks, it might be hard to believe they are in the upper half of the league in many special-team categories.
Going into Sunday’s game at San Francisco, the Dolphins lead the league in gross punt average and are 11th in net average. Miami is also in the top 15 in kickoff return, average start after kickoff and punts inside the 20.
Miami is also outside the top 15 in numerous categories — a statistic helped along by the play of the special teams in the past three games.
The Dolphins gave up a punt- and kick-return touchdown in games against the Bills and Seahawks and also helped along the Patriots in last weekend’s home loss.
Coach Joe Philbin had praise for special-teams coaches Darren Rizzi and Dave Fipp, saying he sits in on their install meetings and thinks “they teach exceptionally well.’’ Philbin added that Miami has stressed special teams a little more this week.
“Let’s face it, the last few weeks we’ve had some issues,’’ Philbin said. “We’ve had some things like returns for touchdowns and those types of things you can’t have. You can’t function real well with those type of plays. So, we’ve addressed it, we’ve made corrections and devoted extra time. Hopefully the dividends will pay.’’
Miami’s special teams had its strongest game of the season in a 30-9 victory over the host Jets on Oct. 28.
In that game, the Dolphins recovered their own onside kick, scored a touchdown when Olivier Vernon recovered Jimmy Wilson’s blocked punt and then got a blocked field goal from Vernon.
Since then, however, the Dolphins have made gaffes that have put themselves in some bad positions.
In the 19-14 loss at Buffalo on Nov. 15, Miami gave up a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown to Leodis McKelvin.
Miami, which got a 96-yard kickoff return of its own from Marcus Thigpen against the Bills, also gave up a 98-yard kickoff return to Leon Washington that came after Miami tied the score in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks. The Dolphins rallied to win 24-21.
The Dolphins tried to put those two games behind them but made two big mistakes against the Patriots that led to a pair of touchdowns.
“We know there are a lot of good returners out there who can make big plays, especially if we aren’t exactly where we need to be,’’ said Jason Trusnik, who leads Miami in special-teams tackles. “Everyone has a job to do out there, and if there’s a breakdown or two, these returners get a chance. They are there to make plays. It’s a little frustrating, but we just go back to work.’’
Against the Patriots, punter Brandon Fields couldn’t handle a low snap after the Dolphins’ offense went three-and-out. The Patriots tackled Fields at the Miami 12 and scored five plays later for the initial lead.
“I’ve fielded thousands of snaps, but my job is to punt the ball. I can’t do that if I don’t catch it,’’ Fields said. “That is on me. I have to get the ball off. It ended up being a costly play in the game.’’
New England also cashed in when Jimmy Wilson was called for roughing the kicker in the second quarter after the Dolphins stopped the Patriots on three plays.
Instead of punting back to Miami, the Pats took over at their 44 and continued to move downfield — making it 14-3 when Wes Welker pulled in a 7-yard pass from Tom Brady.
“Obviously part of our job is to create big plays and to eliminate them on the other side,’’ said Fields, who made up for the botched punt by following up with a 58-yard blast on his second attempt later in the first.
“With special teams, you are dealing with the exchange of field position. On a big play for or against you, it can really affect a game.’’
One of the special-teams stats in which the Dolphins are near the bottom of the league is field goals.
Miami is ranked 26th in the league as Carpenter has connected on 17 of 22 field goals although Carpenter has been strong lately.
Since going through a three-game stretch in which he hit on five of nine attempts — including game-winners against the Cardinals and Jets — Carpenter has hit 11 of 12.
“We take pride in our special teams, so for us to stumble in areas we know we are strong in is definitely frustrating,” Miami special teams ace Marlon Moore said. “But that’s why we come back here and come back to work. We had solid kickoff and punt coverage last week. We need to build on that.’’