The team that lost three of its first four games needs change.
The Dolphins need to change direction. Change their results. Do something different because what they’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked well enough.
You know this. I know this. And the folks who are traditionally the most reluctant to change because it suggests mistakes were made previously, the Dolphins themselves, know this.
And that’s what I’ve been told you’re about to see against the Tennessee Titans.
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The Dolphins are going to change the way they approach Cameron Wake’s playing time, I was told in no uncertain terms this past week.
The Dolphins are going to change their approach with how they use their running backs.
The Dolphins are going to make changes with Byron Maxwell, following his benching last week in Cincinnati.
There could be other changes coming as well, but obviously the Dolphins don’t just announce these things. They view all this as secret stuff that could affect their ability to win a game, so everyone is sworn to secrecy.
Except there’s only so much a coaching staff can do with a 46-man, game-day active roster. So let’s examine the possibilities the Dolphins have clearly studied and decided needed change.
Wake is an elite pass rusher. Even coming back from last October’s ruptured Achilles’ tendon, Wake has already shown his explosiveness in getting to the passer is still intact.
The Dolphins rightly recognized this would be the case and decided the best way to use Wake’s greatest skill for the longest time possible — including in years to come — would be to make him a pass rusher almost exclusively.
Sparing Wake the grunt work of run-stopping on early downs, the theory goes, would save him for impactful situations and game-deciding passing downs.
Except the plan has gone sideways. The Dolphins say they want to use Wake between 35 and 40 plays. Except he’s played 35 plays only once in Miami’s four games — that against Cleveland in the season’s only victory.
In a loss to New England, Wake played only 16 plays. In the loss to Cincinnati, Wake played a season-low 15 plays.
So why is the plan failing? Because other teams have coaches, too, and they’ve decided if the Dolphins keep Wake on the sideline on early downs and bring him in mostly for passing downs, they simply pass on first down — while Wake is on the sideline.
The Dolphins are stuck here because their answer isn’t simply to let Wake play on early downs. I’m told putting him at defensive end on early downs in Miami’s Wide 9 scheme effectively turns him into a “five-technique” end similar to the ones in 3-4 defenses.
Five-technique ends are usually 300 pounds and young and able to absorb the punishment of a running game. Their job is to let their linebackers tackle on run plays and rush on passing downs.
Wake has never been that guy and never will be.
So what to do?
The Dolphins have to change their entire scheme or accept that one of their potentially most dangerous players is just a part-time guy who hasn’t seemed to matter much in three of four games this year, all of those losses.
Or the Dolphins must move Wake out of his defensive end spot.
I don’t think the Dolphins are going to accept the first two options. I do think moving Wake around so he’s not a grunt absorbing blockers on early downs but still on the field and capable of pass rushing would be a wise idea.
So Wake needs to stop being a defensive end in the classic definition of the position and play elsewhere.
The Dolphins are promising a shift in strategy with their running backs. The philosophy so far has been to make it a party for everybody!
The Dolphins have used Arian Foster, Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Isaiah Pead and Damien Williams in the backfield this season. It’s a wonder they haven’t given Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams a couple of carries.
But coach Adam Gase suggested this week the philosophy of using everyone is changing when he was asked whether he knows how he’s going to approach this game.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “That’s all you’re getting. That’s the one time … I’m not giving you that one this week.”
Gase is being coy because obviously he’s going to change things. If he was going to do the same thing everyone has already seen on tape, he’d have no reason to be secretive.
The reasons the carries have been so spread out is Foster, who is supposed to be the lead back, has missed the past two games and Ajayi, who was supposed to be No. 2, missed the opener for disciplinary reasons.
But that was September. It was a time for Gase, the offensive play-caller, to learn his players and figure out what they do best.
It’s now October. If the Dolphins are going to be relevant, it’s time for Gase to know who his thoroughbreds are and ride them.
I don’t know what the strategy will be starting with this game. But I can tell you what the right strategy is: Pick your best guy that day and give him the ball. And when he gets tired, give the next best guy the ball for a spell.
And pick the best pass protector and pass catcher and play him on passing plays.
What’s so hard about this?
The Dolphins’ best running back right now is Ajayi. He’s healthy, which is something Foster is not yet. Ajayi had his best game of the season against Cincinnati, gaining 33 yards on six carries. So give him the football until he collapses.
And when that happens, the Dolphins should give Drake the ball. Drake is the team’s second-best running back right now. He is more a speed and outside runner, so he complements Ajayi’s more downhill style.
So Ajayi first, Drake as a change of pace, and somebody on third down — either Drake or Damien Williams.
NASA ran the calculations and agrees this complex solution is correct.
I would concede, however, not everything is so apparent and obvious. The Maxwell benching is such an example.
Maxwell was good in the offseason, camp and the preseason. And then something happened after the Seattle season opener that people inside the Dolphins noticed, and not because it was a positive sign.
Maxwell seemed to shrink suddenly from playing his position. It happened when he gave up a key 22-yard completion to Doug Baldwin on fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter of the game. The Seahawks went on to win the game.
And Maxwell went into a shell.
Dolphins defensive coaches not only benched Maxwell last week but they didn’t even let him play against Cincinnati, hoping to deliver the message that he needed to get himself back to what he was in camp.
That changes now because Maxwell will start against Tennessee.
“This is not the first time anybody’s ever been a starter, then dressed for the game and not played, and then had another opportunity to go back on the field,” Gase said. “That’s what makes this game a little tougher than what a lot of people give it credit for, as far as you have to come to work every day, and when your number is called, you need to be ready to go.
“I’ve always expected him, no matter what has happened, to come out, compete every day in practice, and then when his opportunity comes in games, we’re looking for him to make plays. We’re looking for him to get hands on the ball. We’re looking for him to have tight coverage.”
In other words, the Dolphins are looking for things to change.