When Ryan Tannehill navigated the Dolphins on a game-winning 13-play, 75-yard drive late in the fourth quarter of the home opener against Atlanta, it not only pushed Miami’s record to 3-0 but lifted hopes about how this augmented offense could perform under pressure.
As it turns out, that drive seems to have been an anomaly.
Look closely at what this offense has done in the fourth quarter the past two months — or more specifically, what it has not done — and it’s clear something is terribly wrong.
The Dolphins have had the ball for 23 offensive possessions in the fourth quarter of the past seven games. They haven’t scored a touchdown on any of them and have as many missed field goals during those possessions (three) as successful ones (three).
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How have the other drives ended? With 11 punts, three interceptions, a fumble and the clock expiring twice.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating for me, and it’s frustrating for our players that we’re not more successful ” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.
The Dolphins have scored only 40 points in the fourth quarter — a pace that leaves them in danger of setting the club record in that category — while allowing 56 points in the fourth. Their franchise low for fourth-quarter points in a 16-game season is 57, set in 2001.
And consider this: The Dolphins have just four fourth-quarter touchdowns all season.
One of those was on defense (Reshad Jones’ interception return against Baltimore) and another happened in the Saints game long after the outcome had been decided.
That means the Dolphins offense has scored only two meaningful fourth-quarter touchdowns all season: one in the Cleveland opener to extend its lead to 20-10 and another to win the Falcons game in the final minute.
“My diagnosis is we better get that fixed because we have to score some touchdowns in the fourth quarter if we expect to win,” Sherman said.
Why is the offense unraveling late?
• Leaky pass protection. In the past seven games, the Dolphins have allowed 17 sacks in the fourth quarter. Those plays have resulted in losses of 119 yards, but that doesn’t even begin to quantify the corrosive impact.
Most have been drive killers. One resulted in a Tannehill fumble that doomed the Dolphins in the Buffalo game.
During this seven-game stretch (Miami is 2-5 in those games), the Dolphins haven’t had a single game without allowing a fourth-quarter sack. There were two more in the Carolina game, resulting in 8- and 10-yard losses.
• Not running the ball enough. Factoring in sacks and scrambles by Tannehill, the Dolphins have had the intent of passing on 98 fourth-quarter plays during the past seven games. Conversely, they have intended to run the ball only 20 times.
Those 20 runs have gained 82 yards, a decent 4.1 average. In many cases, the Dolphins needed to throw because they were trailing and didn’t have a lot of time to score. But in several other instances, Sherman eschewed the run when it was a viable option.
During the fourth quarter Sunday, the Dolphins threw 12 times and called three running plays for backs, which resulted in gains of 2, 4 and 3 yards. But Tannehill accounted for runs of 19 and 11 yards by scrambling.
Perhaps Tannehill should run more in the fourth. During this seven-game stretch, his five fourth-quarter runs have yielded 57 yards.
• Problems with the passing game. Aside from his brilliant game-winning drive against Atlanta, Tannehill’s fourth-quarter work has been subpar statistically. Poor pass protection certainly has been a factor.
In the past seven games, Tannehill has completed only 48 percent of his fourth-quarter passes (37 for 76) for 430 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions (two on long heaves to end the game).
Last season, he had an acceptable 83 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter, including six touchdowns and three picks. That ranked 23rd in the league.
This season, he’s 33rd in fourth-quarter passer rating, at 61.7, with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Overall, Tannehill threw for 310 yards Sunday, but the Dolphins ran for just 52, on 3.1 per attempt.
“The 300 yards passing, I’d give that away any day to get 150 rushing,” Sherman said. “You have to be able to run the ball to be effective. We have to find a way to get the balance we so desperately need. We don’t have that balance right now.”
So it’s no surprise the Dolphins are the only team in the league that has not scored at least 28 points in any game.