During their six-game joyride, the Dolphins injected a jolt of confidence in a fan base that has had understandable trust issues with this franchise.
But for many who witnessed the Baltimore Ravens’ 38-6 drubbing of the Dolphins on Sunday, that confidence has been replaced by doubt and uneasiness, with two concerns at the forefront:
▪ Now that Baltimore has crafted a blueprint for dissecting the Dolphins’ defense, will opponents copy that approach and enjoy similar success?
▪ Was Sunday a harbinger of another Dolphins December debacle?
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Since 2009, the Dolphins are 13-18 in December and have had a winning record in just one of those seven years — 3-2 in 2013 — and even that year ended miserably with consecutive losses to Buffalo and the Jets, foiling a potential playoff berth.
“Intensity is taken up a notch [in December],” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Everyone is fighting for the same thing.”
The Dolphins, who play host to Arizona on Sunday, have lost three of their past four December home games dating to 2014. What’s more, they’ve been outscored 109-33 in their past three December road games, all losses, dating to 2014.
And there’s this: Tannehill, who threw three interceptions Sunday, is now 8-12 in December. For his career, he is completing 61.4 percent of his passes in December games, his lowest for any month in his career. He also has a mediocre 83.7 career passer rating in December, compared with 91.7 in November.
At least the Dolphins can take comfort in knowing that a lot of their players weren’t around for past December swoons.
But this concern is more worrisome: Will other teams seize on Dolphins’ deficiencies exposed Sunday? Among those shortcomings:
▪ Because the Dolphins’ linebackers “are a liability in coverage,” as CBS’ Rich Gannon said, the Ravens attacked the middle of the field, finding gaping holes between two linebackers or one linebacker and a safety. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco completed 14 of 15 passes in the middle of the field in the first half for 172 yards.
But these issues went well beyond Kiko Alonso, who was limited to 46 of 72 defensive snaps because of a broken right thumb. Alonso underwent surgery Monday that leaves his status in doubt for Sunday’s game at Arizona.
Safety Bacarri Rambo said the fault lies with the players for not being in the right spot and that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph “had a great game plan” and used about the same amount of zone coverage that the team normally uses. Rambo said major scheme changes weren’t made at halftime.
So what happened?
“When you play a team that’s a spacing-type team, everyone has to be on a string and working together,” coach Adam Gase said. “If you have the slightest guy off, it creates an open window. [Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco] did make some really good throws. I know early [the pass coverage in zone] was loose. I know we tried to tighten it up, but it wasn’t going our way.
“We didn’t get on the same page fast enough. We’ve got to make those windows tighter [in coverage]. We have to take away his first progression.”
▪ Dennis Pitta’s ability to carve up the Dolphins’ defense — he had nine catches for 90 yards and his first two touchdowns since 2013 — might incline other teams to target their tight ends against Miami.
Over their final four games, the Dolphins face tight ends that rank 13th (New England’s Martellus Bennett), 20th (Buffalo’s Charles Clay) and 26th (Arizona’s Jermaine Gresham) in yardage among tight ends.
“What’s surprising to me,” Gannon said, “is they didn’t have a better plan to slow down Dennis Pitta. Your job as a defensive coordinator is to have a plan.”
▪ Another thing Dolphins opponents will see from film study: Cornerback Tony Lippett is vulnerable on slants. He was victimized repeatedly Sunday, including a 23-yard slant to Steve Smith and two slants to Mike Wallace for substantial gains.
He wasn’t close to Wallace on a 17-yard gain that set up Baltimore’s field goal to end the first half. And he failed to catch Breshad Perriman on his 53-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
Joseph has said there’s a possibility Xavien Howard could rotate with the other corners (presumably Lippett, primarily) when he’s deemed healthy enough after knee surgery that has sidelined him for eight games. Gase said he’s not sure if Howard will be able to play Sunday.
“Arizona is one of the toughest offenses we’ll face, and the things they saw against Baltimore, they will [try to use against Miami],” Rambo said. “If they don’t, the next opponent will. It’s a copycat league.”