Coaches on Sunday made the curious decision of limiting the usage or playing time of several Dolphins considered among the team’s key players — defensive backs Reshad Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, receiver Albert Wilson and running back Kenyan Drake.
But the Dolphins’ offensive and defensive coordinators made clear Tuesday that they will not explain the reasoning behind any of those decisions.
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham refused to discuss why Raekwon McMillan (22 snaps) and Reshad Jones (32) played well under the team’s 77 defensive snaps.
He also refused to say anything about the curious use of Fitzpatrick, who played only a dozen snaps in the position where he ranked best in the league last season.
Last season, Fitzpatrick was on the field for 944 defensive plays, second most on the team behind Kiko Alonso. He was the Dolphins’ slot cornerback 40 percent of the time, the boundary corner 30 percent, free safety 17 percent and strong safety 3 percent.
And it’s important to note that Fitzpatrick last season was best among all NFL slot corners in completion percentage against (51.3) and passer rating against (49.7).
But on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins used him only 12 snaps at slot cornerback, four at boundary cornerback, seven on the defensive line (in an edge role) and 26 snaps in the box, where he was playing within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, essentially in a linebacker-type role.
Also, he played 49 defensive snaps, which was ninth most on the team. Fitzpatrick had his worst game as a pro after a strong rookie season, allowing all six passes against him to be completed for 117 yards and three touchdowns.
But associates say he is being misused, and Fitzpatrick said Monday that coaches could have put players in better positions.
Asked multiple times Tuesday why the Dolphins don’t use Fitzpatrick more in the slot considering he was the league’s best at that last season, Graham said only: “We tried to do what was best for the team and deploy players in the right spots.”
The Dolphins decided going into the game that Bobby McCain needs to be on the field most of the time (he played 59 of 77 snaps), and that Fitzpatrick and Reshad Jones would share snaps, at times with the three of them playing together. Walt Aikens would also be weaved in some.
Asked why the Dolphins wouldn’t make greater use of Jones — one of the defense’s top players in the past decade — Graham refused to answer, saying: “He did a good job in his role. We’re looking for him to grow in that role.”
Dolphins coaches decided in August that linebacker Sam Eguavoen would play more than McMillan because Eguavoen could be trusted more against the pass, in their eyes.
But they appear to have underestimated the value of McMillan against the run; he graded out among the best in the league in run defense the final five games last season, according to PFF. Graham refused to say why he believes McMillan didn’t warrant more playing time Sunday.
Offensively, O’Shea said a calf injury wasn’t the only reason Wilson — who has led the league in yards after catch the past two years — played only six of 50 offensive snaps. But a team source said the calf injury was the primary reason he didn’t play more, because the team didn’t want him to hurt it worse in the second half.
“Albert is someone we would like to have the ball in his hands,” O’Shea said. “We tried to do that early.”
Asked why Drake didn’t get the ball on the team’s first two series, O’Shea said: “We know he’s very talented with the ball in his hands, but we have a lot of players that deserve the opportunity to have the ball.”
Other takeaways from the league-required coordinator press briefings on Tuesday in the wake of the 59-10 loss to Baltimore:
▪ O’Shea made clear he doesn’t blame Kalen Ballage for his negative rushing output (minus-1 yard) on five carries: “The running back position relies heavily on guys around him. I have always had respect for Kalen’s running style, one that excited me.”
▪ Both coordinators took some measure of responsibility for Sunday’s debacle. O’Shea said: “I can be better as a play-caller.”
Graham said: “I have to do a better job of coaching.”
▪ As the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero reported, some players were upset that coaches didn’t adjust their game plan, which was based on the assumption that the defense would face a downhill running game and would be unlikely to be skilled enough to throw deep. That game plan wasn’t adjusted even after Lamar Jackson beat the Dolphins on vertical throws on multiple occasions.
Graham defended that game plan, saying Jackson’s “team was a very successful rushing team.”
▪ Though several of these coaches, including O’Shea, were with New England many years, including last season, O’Shea indicated that likely wouldn’t be especially helpful in preparation for Sunday’s home game against the Patriots: “Sometimes familiarity with other systems is overrated, because execution is what’s most important.”
▪ O’Shea suggested there could be lineup changes this week, based on matchups. “We’ve stressed to the players this is blank canvass,” he said. “Our personnel will be based on whatever combination we feel is best for this game.”