The Dolphins have arrived at the midpoint of an adversity-laced season with the same 4-4 record as a year ago, but with an entirely different feel to it.
Last season’s team steamrolled into the halfway point, with three consecutive wins to erase a 1-4 start.
This year’s team stumbles into the midpoint with two consecutive losses, a leaky pass defense, a minus 63 scoring differential and an offense that has topped 20 points only twice.
“Last year felt different a little bit,” coach Adam Gase said Monday, a day after the Dolphins lost 27-24 to Oakland. “I know we had the same record.”
Gase admitted “we are not exactly where we want to be. We have had too many ups and downs. It seems like when we finally get moving on offense, we stub our toe on defense. When they have a couple good drives, to where they’re three and out, we don’t get anything going on offense. Defense has been keeping us in games all year. I feel like we are close to clicking.”
The glass half full view?
This team is still very much in the playoff race, with only six AFC teams with more wins. Jay Cutler is starting to play better, with seven touchdown passes in his last eight quarters. And the run defense remains stout, allowing just 3.7 yards per carry, ninth best in the league.
And Gase drew encouragement from this: “Last week, our guys prepared the right way. That’s what has me somewhat excited moving forward.”
But problems persist, most of which need to be solved for the Dolphins to thrive in a grueling second-half schedule that features two games against both New England and Buffalo and difficult games at Carolina (on Monday) and at Kansas City. Among them:
• The Dolphins remain last in the league in points per game, at 14.5, down from 21.1 last season. The three teams directly ahead of them – the Giants, Browns and 49ers – are a combined 1-24.
Miami ranks last in yards per play, 31st in yards per game and 30th in rushing yards per game.
• Lack of big plays. Miami had three plays of 40 yards or more compared to nine last year; only six teams have fewer in 2017. The Dolphins have 23 plays of 20 yards or more, which is 19th.
No Dolphins receiver has a play longer than 36 yards, and Gase suggested it’s difficult for that to change because with opponents “playing two man, you are not going to get those throws. We are calling it and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do with the ball with the coverages we’re getting.”
He said there have been some deep balls called that never materialized because Cutler smartly didn’t throw into coverage.
“There are times I’m calling shots and nobody knows I’m calling shots,” he said. “When you’ve got three guys on two, and you’ve got a linebacker on Kenyan Drake or Damien Williams, you could force it in there [to a receiver], but I don’t think we’ll like the result.”
• The Dolphins’ 73 penalties are seventh most in the league and many of Sunday’s 11 (for 107 yards) came “at the worst time,” Gase said.
• Leaky pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks have a 102.6 passer rating against Miami, third-worst (from a defensive standpoint), ahead of only Cleveland and Oakland.
But Derek Carr, in throwing for 300 yards Sunday, did much of his damage against safeties (primarily Reshad Jones) and linebackers (Kiko Alonso allowed five catches for 82 yards to tight end Jared Cook, who had 8 catches for 126 yards).
“We gave them too much air; we should have had tighter coverage,” Gase said.
There was improvement Sunday in two areas where the Dolphins have struggled – third down efficiency on offense (Miami is 31st at 31 percent but 5 for 12 on Sunday) and rushing yards per attempt (Miami is 30th at 3.3 but averaged 4.8 per carry Sunday thanks to Drake).
“Our guys have a great opportunity,” Gase said. “It’s who wants to do it right week in and week out? Eight games. See what you’re made of. We’re close to doing some good things.”