Barry Jackson

The Dolphins’ problem that can never get fixed and what must happen now

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill scrambles for yardage as guard Josh Sitton tries to block Baltimore Ravens offensive linemen Za’Darius Smith in a preseason game. With Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore out for the season, the Dolphins offensive line is once again in an unenviable position.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill scrambles for yardage as guard Josh Sitton tries to block Baltimore Ravens offensive linemen Za’Darius Smith in a preseason game. With Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore out for the season, the Dolphins offensive line is once again in an unenviable position. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

It’s the Dolphins problem that seemingly never gets fixed longterm – at least not this century. And now, once again, the Dolphins’ grand offensive line plans have shattered to a million pieces.

Season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore were misfortune, not personnel miscalculations. But let’s also be clear about this:

Somebody – anybody - on this line must consistently rise above mediocrity or this running game - tepid the past two weeks and averaging 3.8 per carry (22nd in the league) - will remain grounded. And if Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James are ever going to play like the dominant first-rounders the Dolphins would have expected, now would be a good time.

Pro Football Focus ranks Tunsil 31st and James 34th among 74 qualifying tackles, meaning they’re slightly above average. But Miami needs more than that, now that its two centers were players cut elsewhere Sept. 1 and its left guard (Ted Larsen) is a player they envisioned as their utility-man.

The Dolphins’ belief – as conveyed to NFL people last year –that Tunsil is a Hall of Fame left tackle remains far from reality. There have been good moments for Tunsil, but Sunday against New England wasn’t among them. He was called for two penalties, giving him four for the season after committing 12 last season, which was third most among NFL players.

Tunsil wasn’t particularly to blame for the horrible rushing stats, but he was beaten by his man – as was center Travis Swanson – on a sack against Ryan Tannehill.

“I don’t want to take about that game,” he said Wednesday. “We didn’t execute our jobs.”

Tunsil said he reviewed tape of every game last season and entered this season with one goal: “to dominate.” He’s been adequate, but the Dolphins need more.

As for James, he was beaten on two running plays, resulting in one for no gain (Ted Larsen also had a role in that) and another for a loss of two when Kyle Van Noy shot past James, forcing Kenyan Drake to reverse field. PFF rates James 63rd among tackles in run blocking, which is toward the bottom.

Here’s the good news on James: He was Miami’s only offensive lineman who did not allow a quarterback pressure of the seven linemen who saw action in Week 4. James was among the league’s best in pass-protection last season and has allowed one sack but just four pressures in four weeks this year.

The Dolphins initially were leaning against bringing back James this season. Adam Gase noted at the time of his season-ending injury last November that he was looking for more consistency from James and said James had three “very outstanding” games that were head and shoulders above the rest and a couple of others that James could have played better.

But the Dolphins changed their mind because of a weak free agent class, where the alternatives were very expensive, and convinced themselves James could improve. An impending free agent, James is playing for his Dolphins future the rest of the season.

Let’s be clear: Blame can be shared across the board for the embarrassingly deficient run game the past two weeks, with Miami producing seven yards on its first seven carries against the Patriots. Right guard Jesse Davis whiffed on a block that resulted in a one-yard loss for Frank Gore. Tight end Mike Gesicki was beaten on another play, foiling a Frank Gore run that was limited to two yards.

Though Miami has allowed only eight sacks (12th best in the league), the Patriots put pressure on Tannehill all day despite often rushing only three or four.

PFF ranks Davis 50th and Larsen 55th among 71 qualifying guards. So the guard play must be better too. Larsen has allowed two sacks since replacing the injured Sitton, per PFF.

Drake didn’t go from the league’s leading rusher last December to six yards on eight carries the past two weeks because he suddenly regressed, though there was one run last Sunday where he left yards on the field. This dramatic dropoff in Drake’s numbers can mostly be attributed to poor blocking and lack of rushing attempts.

Davis and Swanson said offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn hasn’t mentioned the Sitton and Kilgore injuries to the group.

“The standard should not drop off,” Swanson said. “It’s something everyone understands.”

The offensive film session after the Patriots game “was very tough,” Davis said. “It wasn’t sugercoated.”

The issue is whether this diminished line is good enough to be any better than what we’ve seen.

CHATTER

After Sunday’s debacle, Tannehill, Cam Wake and Kenny Stills stood in a meeting and implored Dolphins players to stick together and said “we’re in a good place at 3-1,” Jakeem Grant said.

The Dolphins are hoping the fact this team is closer than last year’s will make a difference. We’ll see.

One example: Grant said Tannehill and Stills took the offense to dinner Tuesday, aimed at keeping “the brotherhood locked” amid adversity.

Per Pro Football Focus, Dolphins rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 33.1 passer rating against this season is second-lowest among all cornerbacks with at least 45 coverage snaps.

  Comments