How can Miami Dolphins solve big problem: lack of big plays?

Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker, trying to elude the Titans’ Brian Orakpo, has an ankle injury and might be out Sunday. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

DAVIE — Call them big plays.

Call them chunk-yardage plays.

Just don’t call them a big part of the Dolphins’ offense.

It’s no secret that the Dolphins haven’t been scoring and have the lowest-rated offense in the NFL. But through one-fourth of the season, they haven’t even been able to make big plays with nearly the frequency of their first season under Adam Gase.

Not only are they hitting big plays less than half as often, but they’re trending sharply in the wrong direction, bottoming out with not a single play of 20 or more yards last weekend’s victory against Tennessee.

For a team with an offensive-minded coach, a standout running back and one of the top receiving trios in the NFL, the results have been startling.

Worse, the Dolphins are in danger of heading to Atlanta without receiver DeVante Parker (ankle) while at the same time the Falcons appear to be bringing back their Pro Bowl receiver, Julio Jones (hip flexor).

So why the misfirings?

It goes beyond the obvious, such as Jay Cutler replacing the injured Ryan Tannehill, plus the familiar responses of failure-to-execute and missed assignments. The Dolphins say they’ve often faced zone coverages designed to prevent anything deep. They say the defenses they’ve seen on the field aren’t matching what they’ve expected to see based on film study. Case-in-point: calls made by Dick LeBeau, the Titans’ Hall of Fame defensive coordinator.

“Coach LeBeau did a great job as far as mixing it up and calling some pressures at the right time and playing a lot of middle-field open,” Gase said. “It surprised us a little bit, and then we adjusted and started making some hay there towards the end of the game.”

The Dolphins drove 58 yards to produce the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, a 6-yard pass from Jay Cutler to Jarvis Landry that ended an otherwise plodding, frustrating afternoon.

Jarvis Landry says, ‘We have to find a way to beat zone pressures.’ (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you think you’re going to line up the way you practice all week and sometimes they just don’t do that,” center Mike Pouncey said. “When we get into games, we’ve got to be able to figure that out. Right now, we’re trying to figure it out.”

Speaking of figures, the ones on the stat sheet aren’t pretty.

Last season, the Dolphins made 58 plays of 20 yards or more. At their current pace, they’ll finish the season with 28.

In their 2-2 start this season, the Dolphins have seven plays of 20-plus yards and are one of only three teams that haven’t hit any of 40 yards or more.

Last year’s team was third in the NFL with 15 pass plays of 40-plus yards and tied for the NFL lead with five such runs.

To put it another way: After making 20-yard plays 6.35 percent of the time last season, they’re at 2.95 percent now.

“A lot of teams are going to not play us man to man,” said Landry, who is averaging 7.0 yards on 30 receptions. “A lot of teams are going to play us zone. So for us, we have to find a way to beat zone pressures, to find ways to get into zones and hit them.”

Will relief come Sunday?

“I think this week we’ll see a little bit more man to man and hopefully as we get opportunities, just make the plays,” Landry said.

Receiver Kenny Stills had nine touchdown receptions last season but has one this year. He agreed that defenses “are doing a good job of trying to keep everything in front of them and making us earn it,” but doesn’t think it has dented confidence.

“We know what we can do,” he said.

This week, Gase said there are three “hotheads” on offense — Ajayi, Landry and Gase himself — and things can get heated on the sideline when the chains aren’t moving. Even the running game has bogged down. Ajayi has three carries of 9 yards or more in 76 attempts.

“Once we can get those explosive plays, of course it’s going to help the run game,” Ajayi said. “It’s also going to help if we can get explosive plays in the run game, which we haven’t been able to do that much. I just think it comes down to execution. If we can just really line up, do what we need to do, clean up the details, execute and make those big plays, our offense would be able to run a lot smoother.”

Outside of quarterback, the cast of characters is largely the same on offense. After a 1-4 start last year, an offensive spark came seemingly out of nowhere in the victory over the Steelers that jump-started the season. In that game, the Dolphins had six plays of 30 or more yards, with Ajayi accounting for half of them. That’s almost as many big plays in one game as this team has in four.

The Dolphins had four 20-yard plays in the opener against the Chargers, one  against the Jets, two against the Saints and none vs. the Titans. Their longest play of the season was a bit of a gift, a 17-yard pass to Stills with a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty tacked on.

Now, offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said, the challenge is for everybody to keep plugging away — for example, receivers running a thousand routes to make 100 catches, including some home runs.

“That’s hard for all of us to do, to just keep doing it when you don’t know when you’re going to have some success in doing it,” Christensen said. “That’s the challenge for me. That’s the challenge for Adam. You keep dialing up plays and all of a sudden, you get hot and the thing starts moving in chunks. But you don’t know when it’s going to happen.”

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