The Dolphins have a tight end problem, one that isn’t particularly surprising on defense, but one they never saw coming on offense.
It was clear for all to see last Sunday against Philadelphia, when Eagles tight end Brent Celek found vast open territory and rumbled for 60 yards on one busted coverage early in the game and 134 yards overall.
Meanwhile, on offense, the Dolphins yet again failed to maximize the receiving skills that Jordan Cameron displayed during a Pro Bowl season for Cleveland two years ago and again when he averaged 18 yards per catch last season.
Miami’s tight end issues, especially defensively, cause some anxiety this week, with Dallas’ Jason Witten — a 10-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro — visiting Sunday.
Considering their difficulties in recent years, it isn’t surprising that the Dolphins rank in the bottom five of the league in defensive metrics against tight ends.
What is surprising is how little impact Dolphins tight ends have made in the passing game.
The Dolphins expected the combination of Cameron and Dion Sims would be one of their greatest strengths.
And although Sims remains a good blocker — and Cameron has improved in that area — their impact in the passing game has been modest.
That’s partly the result of lack of opportunities (more so in Sims’ case) but also the byproduct of poor chemistry between Ryan Tannehill and Cameron.
Cameron, who caught 80 passes for 917 yards for Cleveland two years ago, is on pace for 37 for 476 yards. He ranks 26th among tight ends in catches and caught one pass for 5 yards in each of the past two games.
And this is troubling: Cameron is catching a lower percentage of his targets (44.7 percent, 21 for 47) than any other tight end in the league with a minimum of 30 targets.
Only two players — receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (Carolina) and Brandon LaFell (New England) — have a lower completion percentage on targets than Cameron.
Sims, who had 24 catches for 284 yards last season (11.8 average), has only eight for 53 (6.6 average) and has been targeted sparingly in five games since returning from a concussion in the opener.
Interim coach Dan Campbell implied Sims should have made a touchdown catch on Miami’s final play of the first half against Buffalo two weeks ago.
Campbell said a week ago that he wanted the tight ends more involved in the passing game. But they were thrown a combined four passes against Philadelphia, with two catches for 13 yards.
So why aren’t the tight ends catching more passes?
Campbell said it’s largely because the Dolphins believe they often need them as extra blockers to help the offensive line.
“They’re asking a lot from us for that,” Sims said. “I’m accepting my role and being patient. Jordan has accepted his role. We all know what Jordan can do. He’s a great receiver.”
Defensively, the Dolphins have allowed 581 receiving yards by opposing tight ends. Only five teams have relinquished more.
And tight end receptions against the Dolphins have averaged 13.5 yards per catch; only Jacksonville, at 13.6, is worse.
Celek had only seven receptions for 71 yards all season before steamrolling through Miami’s defense for 134 yards on four receptions.
“We’ve addressed it and we know that we have one of the all-time great tight ends this weekend,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “We’ve got to make sure we know exactly where he is and don’t ever get in that situation again.”
Witten is tied for the league lead in tight end receptions with New England’s Rob Gronkowski (49) and is eighth in yards (445). Keep in mind that Witten has put up those numbers playing with backup quarterbacks the past seven weeks.
Tony Romo returns for Dallas on Sunday, and Romo and Witten have combined on more career completions (646) than any quarterback/tight end combination since 1991.
The Dolphins have assigned tight end coverage to both linebackers (Kelvin Sheppard, Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins) and safeties (Reshad Jones, Walt Aikens, Michael Thomas), with mixed results and too many communication breakdowns. Of that group, Jones is probably best-equipped for the job.
Rookie Neville Hewitt is expected to fill in Sunday for Jenkins, who’s listed as doubtful with an ankle injury. Campbell hopes Misi (listed as questionable with an abdominal injury) will be able to play. Cornerback Brice McCain also is questionable; linebacker Spencer Paysinger is doubtful.
▪ Campbell said the Dolphins have “changed some things schematically that I think are going to help” on third down. Miami ranks 31st in third-down conversions.
▪ Receiver DeVante Parker did not play at all last Sunday and “hopefully, he’ll get more reps than zero,” Campbell said. “It can only go up from there.”