Lerentee McCray got his hands on the ball.
Damien Williams and MarQueis Gray whiffed on the block.
But Matt Darr’s deflected punt Sunday was as much on Kenyan Drake as anyone.
And if the Dolphins didn’t get a historic performance out of Jay Ajayi, it could have cost them the game.
Drake’s holding call on the previous play gave the Bills a second chance to get after Darr, and McCray made the most of it.
“That next play shouldn’t have ever happened,” special-teams coach Darren Rizzi said Monday, still with a noticeable degree of frustration. “He didn’t need to hold on the play. If I was officiating, I probably would’ve called it myself.”
Here’s the back story:
The second quarter had just begun when the Dolphins had to punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 38.
Darr, as he has been much of the season, was nails, drilling a punt that traveled 45 yards in the air. Excellent hang time left Brandon Tate no choice but to signal for a fair catch inside the 20. But away from the action, Drake wrestled his man to the ground, drawing the obvious flag.
Darr had to punt again. And then disaster ensued. Instead of starting at their 17, the Bills took over on the Miami 40 — functionally making Drake’s infraction a 43-yard penalty. The Bills scored a touchdown on the short field.
Not to pick on the rookie running back, but this illustrates how the Dolphins’ special teams — usually a rock for the team — have been shaky for much of the season.
Along with the deflected punt, the Dolphins have had two field goals blocked. On Sunday, they surrendered a 30-yard punt return.
And perhaps the unit’s signature breakdown came in the Dolphins’ Thursday night loss to the Bengals. Miami was in a deep hole in the third quarter, and Terrence Fede made it even deeper when he inexplicably body-slammed punter Kevin Huber well after the kick.
Rizzi lit up Fede with wide-eyed rage on the sidelines in a moment caught by cameras that quickly went viral. Coincidentally or not, Fede has played in just one of three games since.
It has been that kind of year for the Dolphins’ special teams, which have committed far too many of the team’s 53 penalties (tied for eighth-most in football). Miami has a net deficit of 103 penalty yards in 2016.
But that’s just the beginning of Miami’s statistical woes.
The Dolphins rank last in field goals blocked (0.3 per game), 24th in field-goal percentage (75) and 22nd in kickoff returns (20.3 yards per return). Plus the Dolphins are one of 25 teams that have not blocked a punt nor a field goal this year.
It hasn’t been all bad on special teams. The Dolphins are one of 13 teams that have yet to miss an extra point. They’re in the top half of the league in net and gross punting averages. Miami’s punt-return game ranks in the top 10 (11.6 yards per return). The team is 10th in kick coverage (19.2). Opponents are netting just 35 yards per punt, the second-lowest figured in the league behind the Lions.
Put it all together, and the Dolphins’ special teams ranked 14th league-wide through Week 6, according to Football Outsiders, based on estimates of how many points the kicking units contribute to the team. As of Tuesday afternoon, the analytics website had not updated its rankings to reflect Week 7.
A bright spot has been safety Michael Thomas, whose nine special-teams tackles this season are tied for second in the league. However, the Dolphins will likely ramp down Thomas’ kick- and punt-coverage exposure now that he’s starting in place of the injured Reshad Jones.
Thomas played just 17 of 32 special-teams snaps along with all 57 plays on defense in Sunday’s win over the Bills.
“It is a challenge; you have to find that delicate balance with a guy like Mike Thomas for example, who played a lot of defense [Sunday],” Rizzi said. “We didn’t take him off of everything, but he came off of some teams.”
Rizzi added: “It’s every special-teams coach’s — I don’t want to call it a struggle — but challenge during the year, when you have guys through injuries. And everybody’s got them, we’re not alone there.”