Here are words Ryan Tannehill has seldom uttered in November, at least since his NFL career began:
“I feel great.”
Yes Tannehill, the league’s most sacked quarterback from 2012 through 2015, is downright fresh heading into the last two months of the season. Part of that is due to the bye; the Dolphins haven’t had a game since Oct. 23.
But that’s just part of the story.
Here’s the rest: His pass protection has been excellent.
Once the Dolphins finally got their five starting offensive linemen on the field at the same time, the Dolphins’ line has gone from one of the league’s most porous to one of the best. Tannehill has been sacked just once in the last two games.
Branden Albert is back to Pro Bowl form. Mike Pouncey is running the show at center. And Laremy Tunsil has developed into one of the league’s premier young guards.
But again, there’s more than that.
Ja’Wuan James, who played so poorly against the Browns that Adam Gase yanked him for all of overtime, is again at the top of his game.
Why? He’s finally gotten comfortable with the way the new Dolphins’ coaching staff wants him to play.
James was used to setting up with a certain technique; it’s what he did in college and his first two years as a pro.
But when Chris Foerster took over as offensive line coach earlier this year, he brought a new approach.
Just like it took Ryan Tannehill some time to learn Gase’s offense, it took James a third of the season to feel comfortable in Foerster’s system.
“It shouldn't be that big of a difference, but I needed to get more consistency,” said James, the Dolphins’ first-round pick in 2014. “And do it better everyday.”
James continued: “It's still a work in progress right now. Just coming off this bye, we had practice [Tuesday]. I was doing good things at practice and I also saw myself revert back a little bit. I've got to stay on top of it and stay in the rhythm.”
Which suggests that James could still get better as the year goes on.
He’s already won back over Gase, who was clearly frustrated with James’ breakdowns in protection early in the season.
“He’s been really good the last two weeks,” Gase said. “He’s been outstanding. He’s done a great job. Very rarely has he had any kind of missed assignments.”
James has shown growth in both the pass and run game. Gase mentioned how, when doing film study on Jay Ajayi’s long gains the last two games, James is often in the picture at the end of the run. That means James is blocking on not just the second level, but the third.
Having the five linemen playing together has helped James, too. Nine different players started on the offensive line in the season’s first six games, but having the core group together has improved communication and continuity.
James’ attitude throughout his slump has helped too. Even after his benching in Week 3, he came back with the same work ethic as ever, Gase said.
Encouragement from Albert and Pouncey played a part, as well. During James’ rough stretch, his teammates helped pick up his confidence, telling him: “You know you can play football. You've done it your rookie year and last year. We know what you can do. Just don't let it get into your head.”
Added offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen: “He’s improving. He hasn’t been earth-shaking, but all we want is for him to keep improving, and he has really done that.”