The tape don’t lie: Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers, a review

Miami Dolphins' Jay Ajayi is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers' Ross Cockrell (31) and Mike Mitchell (23) in the second quarter in the NFL Wild Card Playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017 at Heinz Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell in the NFL Wild Card Playoffs at Heinz Stadium. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

Dolphins coach Adam Gase says, “The tape don’t lie.”

So each week, I gave the game tape a closer look.

There are no more weeks left in Miami’s 2016 season. An overachieiving campaign came to a painful end on Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Here are some things I noticed:

  1. Miami must add at least one strong, physical, aggressive, sturdy, bulky, ideally hurculean, nasty, intimidating linebacker this offseason. Watching what Le’Veon Bell did to the Dolphins defense was torture. And yes, Bell is one of the most talented running backs in the league. And yes, Pittsburgh has a very big, strong, talented offensive line. But. The Dolphins didn’t seem to have a chance. Time and time and time again, Miami’s highly-paid defensive linemen were tied up and their linebackers were swallowed up, washed out, pushed aside, rendered ineffective non-factors. On the first play of Sunday’s game, a tone was set. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins is blocked out of the play as Bell burst through a hole vacated by Ndamukong Suh and safeties Michael Thomas and Bacarri Rambo are forced to make a downfield tackle. Later in the first, Bell gains 15 yards through the middle as defensive end Nick Williams is not quick enough on a dive to corral Bell, linebacker Kiko Alonso is blocked hard by a fullback and linebacker Neville Hewitt is shoved aside by a guard. Throughout the season, the holes were too big and Miami’s defenders were too easily moved aside. As defensive end Cam Wake said after the game, the bleeding started early. In the second quarter, a well-designed offensive play. Pittsburgh’s right tackle comes all the way across the line to rub out an overpursuing right defensive end Andre Branch as Bell runs by. Bell patiently waits for his massive blockers to swallow up Miami’s defensive line and linebackers. Again. Miami desperately needs a hulking intimidator who can shed blocks and create fear with power and nastiness. Alonso and Hewitt are blocked out; Rambo takes a poor angle and Bell goes down after 26 yards, just short of the goal line. At the end of this season, Rambo did not make the type of touchdown-saving tackles that injured safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus regularly did. In the third quarter, Bell goes right through the middle again for 15 yards. Suh and Jordan Phillips are double-teamed. Bell patiently, patiently, patiently waits for a hole to develop and when one does, neither Alonso nor Jenkins have worked their way through trash and the blocks of larger men to put themselves in a position to make a play. The Dolphins desperately need one or two linebackers to pair with Alonso, who played fairly well this season, but needs help.
    bell3858
    Dolphins players are unable to break free as big, strong men in black and gold control the box.

    bell31013
    Le’Veon Bell, it seemed, never really felt like he was in danger of imminent tackle.
  2. Tony Lippett seemed tentative and is still learning how to best position his body. In an ideal situation, veteran cornerback Byron Maxwell would have been available and the second-year cornerback Lippett could have rotated in every third or fourth series. Lippett is a developmental player on the rise. But Sunday was a struggle. On the second play of the game, Lippett immediately seemed tentative and cautious as he allowed a catch to dynamic Antonio Brown. On the first touchdown of the game, shortly into the first quarter, Lippett had a shot to tackle Brown before he changed gears and exploded along the left sideline for a touchdown. But again, tentativeness. The rookie cornerback Xavien Howard seemed more comfortable, confident and aggressive from the start. Interestingly, Lippett told me the Friday before this game that he is trying to learn some things from Howard, who he considers aggressive. On the touchdown, Lippett was blocked to the inside by a tight end and and safety Rambo didn’t have the speed to make the angle to cut off Brown. Lippett’s inexperience showed at times on Sunday. Coaches know he’s still learning where to best put his feet. Less than six minutes later, another strike to Brown, beating Lippett. Lippett was not well-positioned and was on the ground after a completion. Another bad angle by Rambo and Brown was long gone and it was 14-0 Steelers. Lippett could have been more aware of his body position and the situation and what he had behind him if he were to miss the pass breakup and the tackle. Lippett has all the physical tools to be an above-average cornerback. He just needs more simmering.
    browntd1
    It appears Tony Lippett might attack Antonio Brown. Soon, Brown is gone.
    browntd2
    Tony Lippett is on the ground. And Bacarri Rambo is about to not put Antonio Brown on the ground. Brown put the Dolphins in a 14-0 first-quarter hole on Sunday.

     

  3. Rookie Laremy Tunsil out-performed veteran Branden Albert. Albert showed outstanding toughness by playing through a significant wrist injury down the stretch for the Dolphins. But overall he did not have his typical Pro Bowl-caliber season. And on Sunday, it was a struggle. In the third quarter, Albert could not stop a speedy linebacker from shooting into Miami’s backfield and dropping Jay Ajayi for a 1-yard loss. Twice, blitzing defenders ran in from Matt Moore’s left side and sacked him for critical lost fumbles. Now, many players were involved in those failures, including offensive linemen, Moore, tight ends and running backs. And Pittsburgh deserves credit for some nicely-disguised blitzes. But Albert didn’t seem as mobile as he has been in the past. Miami does not want to create a self-inflicted lineup “hole” but it will at least be discussed if the time has come to move Tunsil to left tackle. Tunsil was very good throughout the season, and strong on Sunday at the entirely unfamiliar left guard position. Tunsil said after Sunday’s game he’s willing to do whatever is best to help his team. But clearly his future is at left tackle. A memorable moment for Tunsil occurred in the second quarter, when the guard literally pancaked Steelers defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, creating a giant hole on a 7-yard Ajayi run. Tunsil is the real deal. But will Miami chose to move him over and replace his mentor, Albert, in 2017?
    tunsilblock
    Pittsburgh Pancakes! Laremy Tunsil does his thing.

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    On this play, Jay Ajayi is about to take a tackle for loss. The man about to tackle him got past Branden Albert, who was playing through injury.
  4. Kenyan Drake should have an increased role in 2017. Drake had three kickoff returns for 101 yards on Sunday, which was almost completely overlooked because of the final score. But Drake led the Dolphins with 5.4 yards per carry in the regular season. Early on, coaches said he needed to mature. And even Drake conceded there were a few things he could do to more quickly become the consumate professional. But Drake is legit quick, fast, explosive and dynamic. He has already shown the potential to mock his third-round draft status. In the third quarter against Pittsburgh, Drake had a terrific 58-yard kickoff return, making an explosive cut at Miami’s 22 and deking a Steeler out of his pants. He accelerated. He made a tackler miss. Drake showed why he is destined to take the traditional sophomore leap. If he’s focused and hungry, he’ll make a greater NFL impact next season.

    drakereturn
    Kenyan Drake is about to put on the fake and turn on the afterburners.
  5.  EXTRA POINTS. Linebackers Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt had nice blocks on Michael Thomas’ short fake punt conversion in the second quarter… Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips had two of those highlight-reel plays defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has spoken about, notably beating a double team and dropping Le’Veon Bell for a 2-yard loss in the first quarter. Remains to be seen if Phillips can harnesses all of his talents on a consistent basis… Running back Damien Williams is an excellent pass-catcher, sparkplug and a very good special teamer. But at times, he is susceptible to the blitz. And opposing defensive coordinators seem to know this, too… Despite the final result on Sunday, Miami is still very fortunate to have Matt Moore under contract as the second-string quarterback next season… While I believe Miami really likes what defensive end Andre Branch and wide receiver Kenny Stills bring to the table, they are not players without flaw. And if another team offers a deal outside the Dolphins’ budget, I could seem them leaving… My “Tape Don’t Lie” All-Underrated Dolphins for 2016: 1) Ryan Tannehilll 2) Isa Abdul-Quddus 3) Ja’Wuan James 4) MarQueis Gray 5) Neville Hewitt…. And, finally, my “Tape Don’t Lie” Scrappiest Dolphins for 2016: 1) Jarvis Landry, 2) Jay Ajayi, 3) Kiko Alonso 4) Bobby McCain 5) Damien Williams. Also considered: Byron Maxwell, Mike Hull, Reshad Jones and Mike Pouncey (but both on injured reserve)…. Thanks so much for reading this season.

    moorefumble2
    Matt Moore and Jay Ajayi are friends, but this is less than ideal. There’s always next year.

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The big play: Antonio Brown ends Dolphins’ season with second TD

The Dolphins needed a much better effort than this by Bacarri Rambo. (Getty Images)
The Dolphins needed a much better effort than this by Bacarri Rambo. (Getty Images)

The Dolphins were in bad shape from the beginning against Pittsburgh on Sunday, and trying to contain the Steelers’ talented skill players was a major challenge without Reshad Jones, Isa Abdul-Quddus and Byron Maxwell.

The remaining defensive backs collectively did not earn a passing grade on that test. Antonio Brown had two long touchdown scores early, including this one that put Miami down 14-0:
Continue reading “The big play: Antonio Brown ends Dolphins’ season with second TD”

Dolphins coach Adam Gase: “We’re close” to Ryan Tannehill practicing

Adam Gase will make his playoff debut as a head coach Sunday. (AP)
Adam Gase will make his playoff debut as a head coach Sunday. (AP)

DAVIE–Dolphins coach Adam Gase is three days away from making his playoff debut and leading the franchise into its first postseason game in eight years.

As he prepares to do that, he’s balancing plenty of personnel issues. Here are his updates after today’s practice:
Continue reading “Dolphins coach Adam Gase: “We’re close” to Ryan Tannehill practicing”

Pilates, puzzle pieces: Amid more injuries, Miami Dolphins’ secondary tries to hold it together

Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard breaks up a pass intended for Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard breaks up a pass intended for Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

You wouldn’t expect a pro football player preparing for the playoffs to spend a significant portion of his workout in bare feet on workout pads or using a gadget called a “reformer.”

Such is the state of the Dolphins’ banged-up secondary that second-round draft pick Xavien Howard continues to rebound from knee surgery by getting massages and doing Pilates, in addition to football practice. To say he does the extra work daily doesn’t do it justice.

“Two hours a day,” he said.

Howard is one of the lucky ones. The desperate situation in the secondary was no more comforting Wednesday when cornerback Byron Maxwell and safety Bacarri Rambo were unable to practice.

Maxwell has missed the past two games with an ankle injury. Rambo — himself a fill-in for Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones — has soreness in his chest.

Maxwell did not speak to reporters Wednesday, but coach Adam Gase said both defensive backs are day to day. Rambo did not sound concerned about soreness in his chest and said he expects to practice Thursday.

“I’ll be there,” Rambo said. “I’ll be ready Sunday. That’s all that matters.”

It’s what matters to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who lost Howard for 10 games this season … then lost Jones … then lost his other starting safety, Isa Abdul-Quddus.

Miami Dolphins free safety Walt Aikens (35) celebrates on his way to scoring a two-point conversion on a blocked extra point by Arizona Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)
Miami Dolphins free safety Walt Aikens (35) celebrates on his way to scoring a two-point conversion on a blocked extra point by Arizona Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

“We just mixed and matched,” said safety Walt Aikens, one of the players getting extra reps Wednesday. “It’s like puzzle pieces. When someone goes down, we’ve got to put a new puzzle piece in and they’ve got to take the place and continue to do what we’re supposed to do.”

Pilates and puzzle pieces can be a tough way to keep a secondary together.

“The story of our season,” safety Michael Thomas said.

The Dolphins ranked 29th in total defense, 15th in pass defense and 30th in run defense. But they were able to keep Pittsburgh’s offense in check in their 30-15 victory in October, when Ben Roethlisberger passed for 189 yards and threw two interceptions before injuring his knee, Le’Veon Bell ran for 55 yards and Antonio Brown had four receptions for 39 yards — numbers the Dolphins would love to see repeated Sunday.

Thomas called Brown, who had 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, a “dynamic” player.

“If you let him catch it with nobody around him, that’s where he shows he’s very dangerous,” Thomas said.

Too often, Patriots receivers, especially Julian Edelman, were romping unchecked through Miami’s defense last Sunday in New England’s 35-14 rout. But Aikens and Thomas said they had no issues communicating in practice Wednesday, with both safeties calling signals.

Howard returned at an opportune time, three weeks ago against the Jets, when he was credited with three passes defensed. He made six tackles against Buffalo and three against New England as he works toward being 100 percent.

“I’m just going out there every day doing a lot of recovery, doing extra work,” Howard said. “I’m trying to get my body right. I’m getting a lot of massages and doing Pilates and stuff like that to keep my quads strong so I won’t have my knee doing all the work.”

Howard agreed two hours of such work is not standard operating procedure in the NFL, especially at Week 1 of the playoffs.

“That’s unusual,” he said. “By me being a rookie, I went through a lot of injuries, so I’ve got to protect my body.”

He doesn’t consider the work particularly stressful because his body has gotten used to it. Best of all, it seems to be working.

“I’ve got confidence in my knee,” Howard said. “I’m going out there, playing. I’m not even worrying about my knee or anything like that.”

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DB Bacarri Rambo quickly adapts to Miami Dolphins ‘because I’ve got a big brain’

Dolphins safety Bacarri Rambo (30) pushes San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of bounds during the second half of Sunday's game. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Dolphins safety Bacarri Rambo (30) pushes San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of bounds during the second half of Sunday’s game. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

In just 1 1/2 weeks, Bacarri Rambo had gained enough confidence in the Dolphins’ coaching staff that they had him  on the field more often than not.

In a month, he has gone from straight off the street to starting at safety for the Miami Dolphins.

Part of it, of course, is need because Reshad Jones is out for the season. Part of it, he says, is the kind of hunger only a player out of a job would know.

But there’s more.

“Why do you think I wear a 7 5/8 in hats?” he said. “Because I’ve got a big brain and I absorb a lot of information.”

It’s a funny quip, but Rambo made the point for more than a laugh. He’s serious about this brain business.

“I made dean’s list my freshman year,” Rambo said of his high school days. “The good dean’s list. I was real good in math. I was on the math decathlon team.”

Algebra I & II, geometry, calculus — Rambo says he conquered them all. So if math is as easy as pi to this guy, how hard can Cover-2 be?

“I feel like I was bred to play football because that’s all I know,” Rambo said.

Rambo was a sixth-round pick of Washington in 2011, entering the draft early after playing for Mark Richt at Georgia, where he was teammates with Jones. He split time between Washington and Buffalo, appearing in 32 games, but found himself recovering from a torn meniscus in January. Just when he was kicking around working for a car dealership, the Dolphins called with a deal of their own.

And just like that, 11 days after signing, he was playing 35 snaps (60 percent of the defensive plays) against the Jets. Against the Rams, it was upped to 41 snaps, or 66 percent, and he responded with five total tackles. Then came Sunday’s 49ers game, when Rambo was elevated to starter, played 50 snaps (64 percent) and tied for second on the team with seven total tackles. He’s also on special teams.

“I feel like I’ve done OK,” he said.

Rambo doesn’t hide the fact he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder.

“I just want to prove to everybody that should have gave me a chance,” he said. “It just drove me to go out and show them they made a huge mistake by signing me and letting me be in the position I was so long. But the Dolphins and the organization gave me a chance. I’m very grateful for that.”

Rambo said that between studying the playbook and hearing advice from Jones on the sidelines, the adjustment has been smooth. He said he thrives on getting thrown out there in pressure situations.

“It gets you more respect,” he said. “It makes people notice your name more.”

As if the name RAMBO on his jersey blends in.

“It just makes it easier,” said the former free agent making a name for himself.

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Seven Miami Dolphins players to watch vs. New York Jets

The last game was a nice start for Kenny Stills, but it's only a turning point if he keeps it going. (Bill Ingram/The Post)
The last game was a nice start for Kenny Stills, but it’s only a turning point if he keeps it going. (Bill Ingram/The Post)

DAVIE—Can the Dolphins climb back into the playoff picture after their 1-4 start? A win over the Jets on Sunday would put them in decent position for a second-half run.

If Miami is going to end its three-game losing streak in this series and level out at 4-4, here are seven players that have to come up big:
Continue reading “Seven Miami Dolphins players to watch vs. New York Jets”

New Miami Dolphin Bacarri Rambo: In saddest moment, Mark Richt was there for me

Baccari Rambo, shown as a member of the Buffalo Bills in 2015, says of his former college coach, 'Coach Richt is like the true definition of a father figure.' (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Baccari Rambo, shown as a member of the Buffalo Bills in 2015, says of his former college coach, ‘Coach Richt is like the true definition of a father figure.’ (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

It can’t happen this weekend — Bacarri Rambo has too much on his plate — but it will happen soon.

Safety Bacarri Rambo, the newest Dolphin, will hop in his car, point it down I-95 toward Coral Gables, and pop in on his old coach, Mark Richt, at the University of Miami.

Although it’s natural for Rambo to do that because of their days together at the University of Georgia, the reason for the visit has little to do with football.

It has everything to do with life.

“A lot of guys talk about coaches being father figures,” Rambo says. “But Coach Richt is like the true definition of a father figure.”

Rambo learned that in 2011 in the most painful way. Rambo was becoming a father himself for the first time when his infant son died unexpectedly.

The Dolphins' Lamar Miller (26) is defended by Buffalo's Bacarri Rambo in 2015. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
The Dolphins’ Lamar Miller (26) is defended by Buffalo’s Bacarri Rambo in 2015. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

“He was there in my corner,” Rambo says of Richt. “He walked me through it and just told me God doesn’t make mistakes and just coached me up on that.”

Like Richt, Rambo is devoutly religious, so the impact was immediate. Days later, “I had the game of my career.”

It’s not every day you hear a Georgia Bulldog deliver what sounds like a recruiting pitch for the Miami Hurricanes, but once Rambo starts talking about Richt, that’s exactly what happens.

“I feel like with him coming to Miami, he’s going to not only develop players into football players but he’s going to develop them into young men — to be a great husband, a great father, a great brother, great in every aspect of their life,” says Rambo, 26, who now has two daughters. “He’s going to touch guys in places that they probably are not getting at home or growing up, just keeping their faith.”

Pointing to his fellow Bulldogs, Rambo adds, “You can tell he means a lot to all the players at Georgia that played up under him because when he left, guys were like throwing up The U. They would never support The U if Coach Richt isn’t there.”

Richt explained his approach with players in the spring.

“I’m trying to go day by day and do the things that we need to do to be as successful as we can possibly be,” Richt said. “That starts with the players. Everything I’m trying to implement is to help them become better students, better players, better people. That’s all there is to it. If you build good men, you’ve got a chance to build a good team. That’s the thing we’re working on the most.”

Rambo said Richt also supported him when he considered entering the draft early, in 2011. In 2013, Rambo became a sixth-round pick of Washington. He has since split time between Washington and Buffalo, playing 32 games with 11 starts, making 100 tackles and three interceptions.

Although Rambo technically is taking the roster spot left when running back Arian Foster retired, he’s actually filling a hole in the secondary created when Reshad Jones was lost for the season because of a rotator cuff tear. That, too, hits close to home for Rambo because they were teammates at Georgia in 2009.

“Reshad is like a brother to me,” Rambo says. “He was one of the guys that taught me the way.”

As Bulldogs, Jones and Rambo were competing for a pass once, and “Next thing you know, I see another red helmet coming dead in my chest,” Rambo says. “Knocked me out.” Like a typical NFL receiver, Rambo ended up on the worst end of his meeting with Jones. He suffered a concussion.

Rambo visited Jones a few days ago, “trying to coach him up on his surgery and to keep his spirits up,” but the opposite happened. Jones was coaching up Rambo on the Dolphins’ defense.

“Injuries happen, but I hate it happened to him,” Rambo says.

Rambo has been there. He had surgery on a torn meniscus in January and barely had a nibble from the NFL until Miami called. Rambo had been filling out job applications at the time and had a promising lead via an old strength coach at Georgia: He’d been in touch with the owner of car dealerships.

Wednesday, Rambo sat in a near-deserted Dolphins locker room. Teammates had begun to scatter for that rare bye weekend off. Some were planning trips to Haiti or The Bahamas as part of the organization’s extensive Hurricane Matthew relief efforts. Some were heading home. Some were grateful to be doing anything that did not involve football.

Rambo is thankful he doesn’t have that luxury.

“I’m here,” he says. “I’m in my playbook, trying to learn the plays. I had my bye week for eight weeks. Longest bye week ever.”

Palm Beach Post staff writer Matt Porter contributed to this story.

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