The defenses attempting to stop the Dolphins’ offense make no attempt to conceal their priority.
In fact, they have begun to tell Dolphins players to their face.
“When people play us, they're going on the field talking saying, ‘You're not running today,’” right tackle Ja’Wuan James said.
For all of the criticism of quarterback Jay Cutler, the running game – primarily the team’s inability to create holes for Jay Ajayi – has been the biggest issue.
The Dolphins are averaging 3.2 yards per rush, which ranks 29th in the league. Last year, they were eighth at 4.5 per carry.
What’s more, Miami’s 66.3 yards rushing per game ranks 30th, down from 114 per game last season (ninth).
And ESPN’s K.C. Joyner, who studies tape of every play, points to one glaring reason: historically bad blocking.
Joyner said the Dolphins have had good blocking on just 23 percent of their planned rushing plays (which excludes quarterback scrambles, for example). Joyner describes good blocking as “when the offense doesn’t allow the defense to disrupt a rushing play.”
For perspective, the Dolphins are the only team with a good run blocking rate of less than 30 percent. Joyner said in his nine previous years of tracking blocking, a team has never finished a season with a good blocking rate as low as Miami’s is now.
“It’s very, very rare to even be as low as 30 percent,” he said.
Here’s why that matters: Ajayi has averaged 9.1 yards per rush with good blocking this season, 2.2 yards with bad blocking.
And the Dolphins overall have averaged 8.7 yards per rush with good blocking but just 1.7 without it.
So is this a case of Dolphins blockers just being beaten physically by their opponent?
“You can point out anything,” center Mike Pouncey said. “It’s just not getting the job done. We’ve got to do a better job in the first half to run the ball well. That gives coach a lot of confidence. It opens up our offense a lot more. We can do play action and stuff like that. We’ll get it rolling this week.”
So who’s primarily to blame for the poor blocking? As is often the case, Dolphins coaches and the evaluators at Pro Football Focus don’t agree.
PFF says Pouncey has been a poor run blocker this season, ranking only 29th among 34 centers in run blocking this season. But offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said Pouncey has been the team’s best run blocker and “played extremely well all three weeks.”
Among 68 qualifying guards, PFF ranks Anthony Steen 43rd as a run blocker and Jermon Bushrod 60th. Bushrod has been very critical of his play the past two weeks.
Among 67 qualifying tackles, Laremy Tunsil is ranked 37th as a run-blocker and James 42nd.
“I would not put it all on the line or the run blocking,” Christensen said. “Sometimes it’s the quarterback. Sometimes it’s a tight end jumping offsides. Sometime it’s not getting lined up. It would be widespread the blame, including me.”
Asked how tight ends Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano have done as run blockers this season, coach Adam Gase said: “We’ve been OK, but we haven’t been good enough. I know we can get better with what we’re doing.”
Ajayi, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, has just 62 yards rushing on 23 attempts the past two games after gaining 122 on 28 in the Chargers opener.
He has seemingly maximized the yards available to him; 148 of his 184 rushing yards have come after contact.
“It’s very rare that he’ll make a mistake with his run reads,” Gase said.
But… “there have been a couple of times that I wish he would just take what he can get to get us the first down,” Gase said.
One thing the Dolphins players and their offensive coordinator apparently don’t agree about: if defenses are playing them differently than a year ago.
James said that’s absolutely the case: “We're catching people in eight-, nine-man boxes. A lot of that is guys playing us different now compared to last year. They’ve got guys in the box that are on top of us.”
But Christensen said there’s no difference in how defenses are playing them from last December: “They are playing us the same. We just haven’t handled it as well. We’re getting an extra man in the box. People start with let’s stop the run first. The only advantage they have now is a whole year of film on us.”