Football, for the untold millions spend on scouting and analytics, is a simple game.
Take the Dolphins’ surprising struggles on defense. They are on pace to surrender the most points since their disastrous 2007 season for one basic reason: Drives that used to end in field goals now result in touchdowns.
“Stats don’t lie,” linebacker Jelani Jenkins said. “We’ve got to do a lot better job in the red zone. When they get down there, we have to hold them to field goals. When we do that, we have a lot better chance to win the game.”
And yet, recent history suggests it won’t get better any time soon.
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The visiting Dolphins (2-3) tangle with a potent Bears (3-3) team Sunday in a true crossroads game for faltering Miami.
Chicago, with its gunslinging quarterback (Jay Cutler) and tall set of targets (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett), usually doesn’t miss from point-blank range.
The Bears rank seventh in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 68 percent of their opportunities, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
Miami, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically generous inside the 20. The Dolphins’ red-zone defense ranks 19th. It has allowed a touchdown 59 percent of the time. Should that trend continue, it will be the worst showing by Miami since, again, its one-win 2007 campaign.
“It hasn’t been quite as good [as in recent years],” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “It’s definitely an area we need to improve upon.”
And yet, it seems to be getting worse. Over the past three games, the Dolphins have allowed a touchdown on all but two of their opponents’ last nine trips inside the 20.
What’s so puzzling about this reversal is that the Dolphins’ defense overall has been quite good most every other area.
Miami ranks sixth in total defense (allowing just 332 yards per game) and is in the top half of the league in both pass and run defense.
For sure, red-zone coverage is an issue. The Dolphins are on pace to surrender nearly twice as many passing touchdowns as they did in 2013.
In the secondary, Jimmy Wilson and Louis Delmas each have allowed quarterbacks to complete at least 75 percent of passes thrown in their coverage area this year.
Brent Grimes has already given up more touchdown passes (two) than he did in all of last season.
“I feel like I’ve been playing fine,” Grimes countered. “Some things happen, but I feel like I’ve been playing well. Coaches feel the same way. Opposing teams feel the same way. We just have to play.”
Better in-game coaching would certainly help.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has faced pointed criticism from his own players after a series of calls that backfired.
Gripes include using defensive end Cameron Wake and linebacker Jason Trusnik in coverage on touchdown passes against the Chiefs, and lining linebacker Philip Wheeler up one-on-one against Andrew Quarless on the decisive play against Green Bay.
No matter who’s to blame, it can’t continue, or this once-promising season will soon unravel. The Dolphins already trail the division-leading Patriots by three wins, and just 9 percent of 2-4 teams have gone on to make the playoffs since 1990.
So are the Dolphins goals still within reach?
“Yeah, they are; they are realistically,” receiver Brian Hartline said. “We’re early in the game, only five games in. We put ourselves a year ago at 8-6 with two games to go, and there was many times in that season where we thought everything is over.
“A lot of things change quickly in the NFL.”
That change must begin with Miami’s red-zone defense.
▪ The Dolphins elevated defensive back Lowell Rose from their practice squad to the active roster. Defensive tackle DeAndre Coleman has been cut.