Dolphins coach Adam Gase says, “The tape don’t lie.”
- The Miami Dolphins never adjusted to the Baltimore Ravens attacking the middle of the field with tight ends. It was clear early and often what the Ravens planned to do on offense. And Miami could not find a way to stop it. On Baltimore’s first scoring drive, one play best illustrated how much room Ravens tight ends had to operate. It was a 15-yard connection over the middle between Joe Flacco and backup tight end Darren Waller. Flacco picked out a spot over and behind linebackers Spencer Paysinger and Kiko Alonso. As the play was happening, Paysinger was actually pointing to his left. When Waller catches the pass, at the Dolphins’ 8-yard line, freezing the game tape frame stunningly reveals there are seven Miami Dolphins encircling Waller and he is in the middle of what is essentially a crater. Paysinger and Alonso are left to chase from behind. Cornerback Bobby McCain and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus are watching from afar. Cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett and safety Bacarri Rambo will all close, with Rambo making a low tackle. But this is an example of how Flacco and coach Jim Harbaugh simply identified and repeatedly attacked a vulnerability in Miami’s zone defense. “It’s zone coverage,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Monday. “You just have to play as close as you can.” The Daily Dolphin went back and looked at all 12 catches made by Ravens tight ends (Dennis Pitta 9, Nick Boyle 2 and Waller 1) and the ones successfully defended by Miami (only three). Here’s which way Flacco went to his tight ends: left (3), right (3) and middle (6). Here are some of the players who were involved in trying to tackle or tackling Ravens tight ends: Kiko Alonso, Spencer Paysinger, Bacarri Rambo, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Andre Branch, Michael Thomas, Bobby McCain. It was almost everyone. After the game, Thomas told me there simply needs to be tighter coverage. And Rambo cited a need for better communication. But it was painful to go back and see how many different ways the Ravens exploited a soft middle. How did some Dolphins not point at and scream as loudly as they could before the snap: “Tight end! Tight end! Tight end!” Well, maybe they did. Surely other teams will try to emulate the Ravens moving forward. Imagine the ways New England might have tried to utilize Rob Gronkowski and will likely use Martellus Bennett (5-114 against Miami in Week 2). Surely Jermaine Gresham of the Cardinals and Charles Clay of the Bills (the former Dolphin) will enjoy watching the this Ravens tape. Miami now has some serious issues at linebacker, beginning with a thumb surgery for Alonso which will either keep him out or limit him even further against Arizona at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. Then linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who has struggled all season, and once did show some promise covering tight ends, has issues with a knee and a hand a more and missed the Ravens game. Alonso, who never makes an excuse, was a step slow a few times in pass coverage, surely in part due to a hamstring issue. Neville Hewitt, a young, athletic linebacker who played safety in college, only recorded 23 snaps last Sunday. Could he be part of the solution? Something must change in the way Miami defends the middle of the field, particularly against tight ends. Gase admitted Sunday the team didn’t have an answer. Challenge or not, one must be found.
- Ryan Tannehill made one of his worst throws of 2016. In the third quarter, Tannehill simply threw an inaccurate pass to Jarvis Landry that was behind the receiver, tipped into the air and intercepted by Ravens safety Eric Weddle. “When you throw that route, you better put it out front,” Gase said after the game. Tannehill had only been intercepted once during Miami’s six-game win streak. Tannehill was in the pocket on the play and most of his best plays this season have actually come when moving out of the pocket, even on the run. Tannehill may have been affected by pressure from his left. Tannehill’s career has been marked by poor season starts and poor season finishes. Tannehill’s 2016 season did not start strong (1-4 with 6 touchdowns and 7 interceptions) and the final four games of this season are a brilliant opportunity to show a career 8-12 December record (with a below-average 83.7 passer rating) was a pre-Gase problem. Tannehill has lost three consecutive December road games, as well as four of five and is 3-6 in his career in December road games.
- The Dolphins have major draft needs but running back isn’t one. Jay Ajayi gained 61 rushing yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the NFL’s top-ranked rush defense. Ajayi did it even though left tackle Branden Albert had the use of one hand and left guard Laremy Tunsil had the use of one shoulder and center Anthony Steen has two hands and shoulders but not the run-blocking ability of injured Mike Pouncey. Ajayi also had a season-high six catches. If Ajayi can stay healthy, there is no reason not to think he is Miami’s workhorse back in 2017, with Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams as changeups. Ajayi is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Consider that when Ricky Williams broke Miami records in 2002 and 2003, he averaged 4.8 and 3.5 yards per carry. Larry Csonka averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 1972. In fact, its eerily similar how Csonka performed in 1972 and Ajayi is in 2016. Once again, against the Ravens, Ajayi showed how prolific a tackle-breaker he is. In the first quarter, Ajayi ran into the back of right guard Jermon Bushrod, cold ran through the tackle of a defensive back, exploded left and stiff-armed a defensive back at the end of the 19-yard gain. On a gain of six yards in the second quarter, Ajayi worked so hard he deserved 20. It’s a play typical of his season. Ajayi runs inside, completes a 360-degree spin out of the tackle of a defensive lineman, then breaks the ankle tackle of a linebacker before stiff-arming a defensive back who finally brings him to the ground. In the third quarter, Ajayi should be stopped by a defensive lineman in the backfield but escapes, then he breaks away from another tackler and it takes multiple Ravens to drag him down as he continues to churn his legs. Ajayi has the talent to be a Top 8 NFL running back again next season.
- Tony Lippett is not a finished product and Xavien Howard might be needed. Lippett had made some strides this season. But Sunday was not a good day for the second-year cornerback. Lippett does a nice job along sidelines and in jump ball situations using his athleticism and length. But the Ravens correctly identified that he can be attacked on slants. In the first quarter, Steve Smith, Jr., ran away from Lippett on a 23-yard gain. On the very next play, Mike Wallace beat Lippett to the inside for 12 yards. In the fourth quarter, the game was essentially sealed when Breshad Perriman caught a 53-yard touchdown pass after Lippett couldn’t work past a teammate as he tried to stay with Perriman across the field. If rookie Xavien Howard has come further than Chris Culliver did in his rehab (I kid) activation should be strongly considered for this week. A rotation of Lippett and Howard could also give Miami a better read into exactly what they have at cornerback headed into the 2017 season.
- EXTRA POINTS. Earl Mitchell surpassed Jordan Phillips in defensive tackle snaps and showed eye-opening speed on a play in the first quarter. Mitchell dropped back into coverage and then exploded to pressure Joe Flacco and force a throwaway… Former Penn State linebacker Mike Hull plays with tremendous effort on special teams and went all-out on Sunday when he got his chance to step in for an injured Alonso. In the second quarter, Hull properly diagnosed a screen to the running back and promptly dropped him. On the same drive, Hull sniffed out an end-around and ran a decent disatance for the tackle. Hull has some solid instincts… Andrew Franks is smart. Really smart. Smart enough to know he can’t miss a few more field goals, or Miami will find someone else to complete that task. Franks and the Dolphins saw Ravens kicker Justin Tucker drill a 55-yard field goal… In a game in which few Dolphins ever exhibited tight coverage, cornerback Byron Maxwell did just that, continuing his stretch of solid play. Maxwell also was one of the few Dolphins to make a nice play against a tight end (Abdul-Quddus had one). Maxwell punched the ball out of Pitta’s hands for a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter.