Armando Salguero

Dolphins’ dilemma: Stick with a winning formula or adapt following injuries to the offensive line

The Dolphins’ offensive line is banged up and they are facing a top defensive line Sunday against the Rams, so they could choose to limit Jay Ajayi’s usage despite the run game proving to be a key to winning football for Miami.
The Dolphins’ offensive line is banged up and they are facing a top defensive line Sunday against the Rams, so they could choose to limit Jay Ajayi’s usage despite the run game proving to be a key to winning football for Miami. AP

The Miami Dolphins are dealing with a classic dilemma now and, no biggie, it could only determine the winner of their game Sunday and set the tone and direction for this team the remainder of the season.

Coach Adam Gase’s team, you know by now, is riding a four-game win streak primarily because everyone decided about a month ago that with a healthy offensive line and running back Jay Ajayi, the Dolphins could be a physical run-first team. Their success being that team helped defenders stay off the field, which kept them fresh and made them better, and kept quarterback Ryan Tannehill from doing too much, including making mistakes.

With all that coming together … Voila.

Winning.

The winning formula seemed to give the Dolphins a personality as a tough team that could push even the best run-stopping defenses and impose will on an entire game.

So it’s obvious the best way to continue winning is to continue being the same team.

“We want to be able to wear down defenses by the fourth quarter and create those big runs we’ve been able to have,” Ajayi said last week. “We want to keep on that course, keep productive on the ground and open up the passing game.

“I run angry and run hard through all four quarters. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Except it might all change.

The Dolphins’ problem in continuing to be the same team is they don’t have the same personnel. The healthy, whole offensive line that was the foundation for the past month’s success is gone now.

Left tackle Branden Albert is out following wrist surgery. Center Mike Pouncey is doubtful for the game and the Dolphins are not holding out great hope he can play. Pouncey, by the way, left California to see a specialist on the East Coast last week. He was then scheduled to rejoin the team out west.

The point is even if Pouncey gets the green light to play, he missed two days of practice and flew 5,000 miles round trip on aching hips. So even the best-case scenario for him playing Sunday is not optimal.

Meanwhile, backup Kraig Urbik is going to start in place of Laremy Tunsil at left guard and Anthony Steen is scheduled to start at center for Pouncey. So that dominant offensive line that led the Dolphins’ charge on this win streak?

Phffft! Gone. A memory.

There’s also this: The Rams are not a great team. They have a 4-5 record. Their offense is last in the NFL in points per game.

But they have an outstanding defensive front. Their defensive front is so good, Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen conjured memories of yesteryear’s Fearsome Foursome when talking about these Rams.

So practically the only thing the Rams do really well is precisely that which will match up with what is apparently now a Miami weakness. And at stake when that Rams strength and Dolphins weakness meet is the way the Dolphins want to play and how they have been authoring their recent victories.

That puts the Rams in perfect position to rob the Dolphins of their personality.

Of course, the Dolphins refuse to admit this is possible — at least in public.

“We won’t change what we’re doing, I don’t believe,” Christensen said. “We’ve got a good game plan, and we know it may be the best defense we’ve played this year. But we won’t change the philosophy. That part of it won’t change.

“Guys got to jump in and they’ve got to do their job. We’ve got to be on our mess and if we are, we’ll be right in this thing, and if we’re not, we’ll be out of it. We’ll have trouble with them.”

Privately, however, the Dolphins understand they might have to head in a different direction to move the football against Los Angeles.

And all this leads us to the Dolphins’ grand dilemma: Do they ignore the fact they are undermanned and facing perhaps the best defensive front they’ve seen all season and try to do what they’ve been doing — all the time risking failure and perhaps the game?

Or do the Dolphins move forward with the idea of letting Tannehill throw the football, making receiver Jarvis Landry once again the offense’s focal point, thereby going away from their winning formula with the hope that using this other approach works — even if it didn’t work earlier in the season when the team was 1-4?

My heart says the Dolphins should be stubborn about trying to stick with what has worked. If they’re going to lose, lose with their best approach, which is running the football.

My head says the Dolphins are going in that different direction. They’re not going to pound their heads into the Rams’ front defensive wall hoping it will be the wall and not their heads bleeding in the end.

We saw signs last week this is the direction Miami is headed. You will recall the Dolphins’ offensive line was healthy against San Diego, as even Albert played in the second half.

You should also note that Ajayi has owned the fourth quarter this season because the Dolphins keep using him and that has a cumulative effect on a defense The Miami running back averages 4.2 yards per carry in the second quarter, 6.1 yards per carry in the third quarter and 8.1 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.

Ajayi also averages 4.3 yards in carry Nos. 1-10, then the average climbs to 5.3 yards in Nos. 11-20. Ajayi becomes something of a beast in his 21st through 30th carries, as he averages 12.4 yards.

The point is the more carries the Dolphins give Ajayi, the better caliber Ajayi the Dolphins get.

But despite all this evidence that staying with the running game is good, the Dolphins last week ran Ajayi only three times in the fourth quarter. He lost 9 yards on those three carries.

“We weren’t out there as much as we were the past couple of weeks on offensive snaps,” Ajayi said. “I think we do a couple of things here or there, convert a couple of third downs, I probably end up getting those carries. Overall we have to do a better job on offense staying on the field.”

Either that or the Dolphins will have to find a new formula for success.

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