There’s good news for the Dolphins today: They are in the clear when it comes to playing overseas next season.
The NFL announced three pairings for the 2018 London Games, and Miami is not on the slate. The league will stage Seahawks-Raiders, Eagles-Jaguars and Titans-Chargers in the United Kingdom next year.
The Dolphins fulfilled their obligation to play a home game in London as part of the arrangement that will bring Super Bowl LIV to South Florida, but face the possibility of being selected as a road team for an international game next season. With the three London games solidified, the only remaining slots are for the one game in Mexico.
There’s been nothing official on the Mexico game, but multiple media reports say it will be Rams versus Chiefs.
That means the Dolphins will play all 16 games in the United States next season, which will be a welcome change for the team after last year’s travel schedule. Including giving up a home game to play in London, Miami ventured the fourth-most miles in the league at 27,520.
The most brutal stretch came in Weeks 2-4, when the Dolphins went to Los Angeles, New York and London for consecutive games. Anytime the team plays more than one time zone away, it leaves early (typically Thursday) to acclimate.
This year, with no international games and a full home schedule, the itinerary is much more manageable. The farthest west the Dolphins will go is Houston, and their most distant game is at Minnesota. Their entire schedule will be played in the Eastern and Central Time Zone.
That’s an obvious conclusion after completing 12 of 26 passes for 92 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He finished with a 52.1 passer rating, one the 15 worst numbers he’s posted in his 12-year career. It was his fifth-lowest yardage total.
When asked how much blame he takes for Miami managing just 178 yards on offense, he said, “A lot. I’ll take a lot of it.”
Cutler continued, “As a quarterback, whenever you win, you get a lot of praise; whenever you lose, rightfully so, you’re going to get a lot of blame. It’s the nature of the position.”
Under Cutler, the offense has deteriorated to the point where the Dolphins can’t win unless they get major defensive help. They likely wouldn’t have beaten Tennessee if not for one turnover that led to a long field goal and another that Reshad Jones returned for a touchdown.
And more importantly, even those type of monumental plays might not be enough to survive against teams in better shape than the Titans, who were equally dreadful with backup quarterback Matt Cassel.
“If we show up on offense, you’re looking at a really good team,” Cutler said. “If we keep playing the way we are offensively, and sooner or later we are going to run into a team that scores a few points and we are going to lose ball games like we did in London. That was a great (defensive) performance by in London, as well. We haven’t helped them out in three weeks.”
MIAMI GARDENS—As unique as this season has been, with major injuries and hurricane-related wreckage to the schedule, there’s a familiar feeling with the Dolphins right now.
And it’s not a good one.
Much like the overtime escape against the winless Browns a year ago, Miami’s 16-10 victory over the Titans on Sunday didn’t spark a ton of enthusiasm about where this team is headed. The offense—Adam Gase’s specialty—still looks like an absolute mess, and the Dolphins were fortunate to be facing one that somehow found a way to be worse.
The locker room was somber—at least the half that houses the offensive players.
“Obviously we’re excited to not lose,” running back Jay Ajayi said in total deadpan.
Kenny Stills, whose one catch accounted for 13 of Jay Cutler’s 92 passing yards, added, “Yeah it’s frustrating, but we came out with the victory, so it’s all smiles now.”
He was not smiling.
Nor should he be. The offense Sunday wasn’t discernibly better than when it got shut out by New Orleans last week and when it managed nothing more than a last-second touchdown in a loss to the Jets the week before.
When asked if there was even one area in which Miami showed any improvement from the week before, Cutler blurted incredulously, “Improvement?” before pointing to the 58-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.
“But I think everything leading up to that point was probably pretty bad,” he said.
Through three quarters, the offense had little to do with Miami’s 10 points. The first three came on a 41-yard field goal set up by Reshad Jones’ fumble recovery, and the other seven came when Jones returned another fumble 38 yards for a touchdown.
“It was nice that someone could score points,” Gase said dryly.
His side of the ball, meanwhile, had 104 total yards as it entered the fourth quarter. The offense couldn’t get past its own 15-yard line on the first two possessions and managed merely two first downs in the first nine.
At the end, Miami couldn’t grind away the final 2:51 to seal the win on offense. The defense had to sprint back out for the final 19 seconds to ensure the Titans didn’t pull off a crazy comeback.
Gase doesn’t often give specifics when something doesn’t go well, but he’s been backed into a corner by three straight weeks of offensive incompetence, the crowd chanting for backup quarterback Matt Moore and the media wanting to know why Cutler isn’t to blame after completing 12 of 26 passes for 92 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
He’s been pointing out for weeks that things around Cutler aren’t holding up, and after Sunday’s game went in on the offensive line’s blocking and dropped passes by the receivers. He swiftly dismissed any idea of a quarterback change.
“Jay’s way down on the list of things going wrong,” Gase said.
What’s going wrong here might have more to do with Gase. He’s in his second year shaping the personnel and running his offense, yet somehow the players don’t seem to be operating it correctly.
It’s gotten to the point that he’s dumbed it down, diluting a sophisticated attack by stripping it to the point that the Dolphins can at least execute the correct blocking assignments and run the right routes.
And they’re still having malfunctions.
“It’s all over the football field,” center Mike Pouncey said. “We’ll get it figured out. It’s early in the football season. But it’s not what we expected being in our second year in this offense.”
That part about it still being early in the season depends on your perspective. Yes, the Dolphins are just four games into the season and 2-2 keeps them in reach of the Patriots, Bills and Jets at 3-2. But strength of opponent gets increasingly difficult for Miami starting with the upcoming visit to Atlanta.
This was the segment of the schedule in which the Dolphins needed to clean up, and there’s no doubt they should’ve beaten the Jets and Saints if they’re as good as they believe themselves to be. Gase keeps saying last year was worse and they dug themselves out of that hole, but comparing everything against last season’s 1-4 start doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“A win’s a win,” he said, suddenly turning defensive at the end of a press conference in which he’d spent nearly all of it ripping his offense. “I know I must have missed the column that says style points next to the win.”
He’s right that aesthetics aren’t part of the equation for making the playoffs, but he knows what he saw against the Titans isn’t viable going forward. He’s been saying for weeks the offense has a lot to fix, and nothing’s changed.
It’s still early, but it’ll be tough for the Dolphins to come back from a 1-3 start and make the playoffs again. Considering the schedule they have over the next two months, they can’t afford to squander a home game against Tennessee.
The Titans are no pushover, despite giving up 57 points last week, but if Miami’s the team it believes itself to be, this is a game it should win.
As the Dolphins look to even their record at 2-2, here are five players under pressure against Tennessee:
1. LB Rey Maualuga
Maualuga’s contributions are not thought of as a bonus; they’re essential. It’s hurt Miami to have him miss the first three games, and he’s back in time for just the kind of opponent that suits him. The Titans have two quality running backs, one of which is 247-pounder Derrick Henry, and Maualuga has made his living as a run stopper. He needs to produce immediately.
2. CB Cordrea Tankersley
He’s got the starting job for now, but the only way Tankersley keeps it is by proving himself every week. Byron Maxwell and Alterraun Verner are still eager to claim that spot. He held up well against Drew Brees and the Saints last week, and faces a slightly lesser challenge against the Titans. Tankersley has to show he can handle that without any issues.
3. G Anthony Steen
The key to the Dolphins straightening out their offense starts with the offensive line. It’s a really big week for the running game after Miami managed just 88 yards on the ground over the last two games combined. The Titans’ run defense ranks in the bottom third of the NFL, and Jay Ajayi is overdue for a big game. Steen can make a big impact on that, as well as getting Jay Cutler more time, by being sturdy in the interior.
4. DE Andre Branch
Branch got big money in the offseason—$24 million over three years—and the Dolphins are counting on him to step it up from last year’s 5.5 sacks. So far, he has one in three games. He’s playing close to 70 percent of the defensive snaps. It’s not just Branch, but the highest-paid defensive line in the NFL can’t possibly be sitting here with the fewest sacks in the league.
5. Adam Gase
Coaches don’t usually make this list, but Gase landed here because of the offense’s struggles throughout the season. Even the Week 2 win at the Chargers wasn’t a sparkling performance. He’s taken some blame for the play calling, and that’s the first thing he needs to figure out. He also needs to reevaluate the personnel, much of which has been assembled with his input. A week ago he said he had no answers for why the offense was so bad, but he’d better have some now.
How do the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans match up for Sunday’s NFL Week 5 tilt at Hard Rock Stadium?
When the Dolphins have the ball…
Miami passing offense (28th in NFL) vs. Tennessee pass defense (28th in NFL)
Miami’s offense has been ugly — borderline unwatchable, even — for two straight weeks, largely thanks to the passing performances of Jay Cutler. Cutler has struggled out of the gates in 2017, but he can’t bear the sole brunt of the blame. The offense play-calling was conservative under coach Adam Gase last season, and it appears it’s become even more so this year. Cutler, who is known as a turnover-prone gunslinger, has thrown for only 4.7 net yards per attempt this year, suggesting that many of his throws are at or behind the line of scrimmage. While short-yardage gains and time-consuming drives were effective for Miami in 2016, the even more conservative approach has yet to be fruitful for Miami in 2017. Without a change in game plan, the passing game will likely continue to struggle. Edge: Titans
Miami rushing offense (30th) vs. Tennessee rush defense (21st)
A lack of any real threat through the air has led to two straight mediocre games from Jay Ajayi. The talented running back continues to struggle behind an offensive line that isn’t getting enough push and a quarterback who isn’t helping set him up with effective running downs and distances. In short, Miami’s ground game has been far less productive than it should be. Even against a below-average Titans run defense, Miami’s offense can’t be trusted to get itself out of the mud, meaning Ajayi may be in for another rough week. Edge: Titans
When the Titans have the ball…
Tennessee passing offense (22nd) vs Miami pass defense (27th)
Miami’s pass defense hasn’t been good this year, but they might catch a break this week and miss injured Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Dolphins may instead see 35-year-old Matt Cassel, who threw two interceptions in 10 pass attempts last week, or Brandon Weeden, who hasn’t played since 2015. If Mariota doesn’t play and the Dolphins defense can’t stop the pass, then they have a serious issue moving forward. Edge: Dolphins
Tennessee rushing offense (6th) vs Miami rush defense (4th)
What Tennessee may lack in passing offense on Sunday, they will look to make up for with the impressive running-back tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. The backs already have combined for 393 yards and two touchdowns this season. If Mariota misses the game, the Titans not only lose some of the balance that has helped their running game, but they also lose Mariota’s ability as a runner, as the quarterback has also accounted for 116 yards on the ground. With their starter out, Tennessee’s running game may see a slight fall-off against a Miami defense that has been respectable against the run, but after giving up 103 and 86 rushing yards to the Jets and Saints, respectively, the tandem of Murray and Henry will likely be too much for Miami’s defense to handle. Edge: Titans
One half of the Dolphins special-teams unit hopes he gets paid by the kick, while the other would prefer that not be the case. Rookie punter Matt Haack has been a busy man, racking up 16 punts through three games, and kicking for a respectable 45.4-yard average. The same can’t be said for Cody Parkey, who has missed the only attempt he’s had in the last two games, a meaningless extra-point attempt late against the Jets. Meanwhile, Ryan Succop has converted 10 of 11 field goals and 10 of 10 extra points this year, and Tennessee punter Brett Kern is averaging 50 yards per punt. Edge: Titans
DAVIE—One of the most interesting things to watch with the Dolphins in Sunday’s home game against Tennessee will be the unleashing of Rey Maualuga.
There’s been a ton of buildup for this. Maualuga signed in mid-August and has yet to take the field for any game, preseason or regular season, for a variety of reasons. They held him out originally because he was out of shape. The Bengals released him after last season and he spent all year waiting for someone to call, so he wasn’t in any offseason workouts or Organized Team Activities.
His weight is a compelling topic because he’s much heavier than many linebackers in today’s NFL—Kiko Alonso, for example, is 25 pounds lighter—but that’s the weight that works for him. Part of what’s made Maualuga a good player the past eight years is that he can move well at that size and power through offensive linemen.
He was likely over 270 pounds when the Dolphins signed him. Now he’s listed at 258.
Maualuga got in playing condition heading into what would’ve been the Week 1 game against Tampa Bay, but injured his hamstring in practice. That kept him out against the Chargers, Jets and Saints. This week looks it’ll be his debut, and he said he’s been working with the starters in preparation for the Tennessee game.
As he gets ready to finally hit the field for the Dolphins, here’s a conversation with Maualuga about playing heavy and restarting his career with Miami:
You had to lose weight, but you wouldn’t want to lose too much weight. What exactly is the middle ground for you? “I’ve played with this and been this size, whether it’s low 260s or high 260s. I’ve been that size my whole playing career, and I think that’s where I’m more effective coming down. I’m mostly known for stopping the run and taking on big guys. In my nature, you’ve gotta be that big to be effective in the middle.
“They’ve been very cool about it. They haven’t really been on my ass about, ‘Well, this is the weight we want you to be’ every week. As long as you can move, as long as you’re looking good on film, as long as you’re running around and it’s not stopping you from doing the things they’re asking of you, there’s really no point in trying to be a number that people think is good enough to be a middle linebacker.”
What was the big drop? What’s the highest and lowest you’ve been since you got here?
“I stand on there and tell them not to tell me the weight. I don’t want to know. I care how I look. But you feel good, you look good in the mirror and you run good and you feel alright, then they give you a number and you’re like, ‘What the (expletive)? Where is it?’ It (messes) up your whole day. You’re doing all this conditioning and extra (stuff) and cutting back what you eat, and then that number just (messes) you up.”
What’s a food you’ve given up?
“I blame my daughter because she always wants a Happy Meal. That’s all her.”
So you’d be going and getting a nice healthy salad or something, but your five-year-old daughter drags you to McDonald’s against your will?
“Pretty much. I’m always trying to eat something healthy. I had a chef for a little bit in Cincinnati, and she says, ‘No, I don’t want to eat that, Daddy.’ So, you know, McDonald’s is right down the street and I just want to be nice to my daughter. Then when I get there I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna get something,’ but then you look at the menu and you’re like, ‘(Shoot), alright, that fish filet don’t look too bad.’ I don’t know.”
What else did you cut out?
“You know us Polynesians, we love rice. That’s what I had to cut out as well, all that starch. All these processed foods that lazy people get at the grocery store and then throw in microwave. Those things you think are gonna be healthy like Lean Pockets and all that (stuff), it ain’t. All that (stuff) is convenient.”
Have you started eating any new foods?
“Nah. I used to blame my daughter, but now I try to blame genetics. You never see a skinny Samoan or Polynesian guy. Well, other than Troy. Troy Polamalu. He’s the exception. It’s like big bones. I don’t know.”
It says you’re 258 now. Do you feel like yourself at that weight?
“I feel great. They’re not pressuring me to do anything out of the ordinary. I’m worrying about drying myself out, and that can lead to strains and pulls. They just tell me to be me. Be you, do what you’re asked and don’t go crazy on eating. It might be hard to sit here and listen to me say that I don’t, but I don’t.
“You and I could eat something and—You could lose 10 pounds just eating that (stuff) and I’ll (expletive) gain three pounds. It’s weird. My digestive system, I can’t explain it.”
I’m not sure about the science behind what you’re saying.
“You’ve never heard someone say they could eat something but still lose weight?”
How exactly would that work?
“No? I get that (stuff) all the time. We weigh in every Thursday and I’m like, ‘Oh (shoot), I’ve gotta eat light tonight’ the night before, but Mike Hull on the other hand, he’ll be like, ‘Oh (expletive), I can eat whatever the (expletive) I want’ because he’ll wake up the next morning and be down five pounds. I’m not saying you could eat a (expletive) footlong and lose weight; I’m just saying some people break it down quicker.”
Have you ever have to cut weight before?
“I’ve had to.”
Was it difficult changing teams and moving to Miami this late in your career?
“It’s not hard. (Defensive coordinator Matt) Burke was in Cincinnati. The only thing I had to adjust to was heat.”
“I’ve been blessed a couple days practicing outside it’s been either raining or overcast or a nice little breezed, as opposed to what guys are saying about, ‘You haven’t experienced the 100-plus-degree heat during camp.’ Thank God I wasn’t here for that. I’d have had to reevaluate my decision.”
It never really cools down here, though.
“Right. But in Cincinnati, it was all four seasons. But now it’s more like 90-degree weather.”
What was it like the first time you tried to practice in it? How’d it go?
“Well the first time I (expletive) came out in that was at the airport. I was standing there sweating.”
But what about your first actual workout, given the conditions and your conditioning not being right?
“It wasn’t too bad. I’ve carried this weight for my career, so I guess some people can carry it better than others. When coaches see a number, they can say, ‘Well, Rey’s this (weight), but I don’t think the other linebackers could be that and perform the way Rey can perform.’”
You’re a little bit of an anomaly in that sense.
“Right. If I dropped down too much in weight, I might not be as effective.”
The weight is part of what’s made you good, probably.
“Right, yeah. So trying to tell me to—But I get what they’re saying. The evolution is that linebackers have changed due to it being a throwing league. Now all the linebackers are much smaller, in the 230s or 220s. The (Luke) Kuechlys and Kiko and (expletive) Timmons is about 240.”
Alonso is about the same size as Reshad Jones.
“Yeah. Would he be able to carry 260? Probably not. Everyone is different. I’ve felt comfortable with how I’ve weighed.”
So your conditioning is good now? You can get through a whole practice with no issues?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything’s fine. But the older you get, the more you’ve gotta take care of your body. I’ve gotta get in the cold tub, the hot tub, massages, (stuff) I’ve never done before. It was usually (expletive) when we’re done with practice, just go home.”
And maybe stop by McDonald’s.
“No, that was the off days. Occasionally (his daughter) would beg me to get out of the house to go do that. I’m not saying every time she wanted to go get a Happy Meal I’d get something, but if I hadn’t eaten at the time, I would get a little.”
What’s you going crazy at McDonald’s?
“I don’t go crazy at McDonald’s. It might sound gross, but a fish filet would be my choice.”
On the scale of McDonald’s food, that’s somewhat reasonable.
“Well, I mean, it’s probably not real fish. It’s probably fake.”
Still better for you than a Big Mac, I think.
“Oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But when I order, I don’t think about the calorie count and all that. I just get it.”
DAVIE—Not only will linebacker Rey Maualuga make his Dolphins debut Sunday against the Titans, he’ll likely start.
Maualuga said today he’s been working with the starters all week, meaning Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons, and believes he’s full-go for the Tennessee game. That would send Mike Hull to the bench.
“My feeling, the way I’ve been practicing all week with the first group, I would hope that I’m ready to go and they’ve got all the trust in me to go in there and line up and get the job done,” he said.
He would be a helpful boost for a linebacker corps that’s been thin this year. Timmons was absent the first two games, second-round pick Raekwon McMillan is out for the season and Maualuga has yet to appear.
It also comes at convenient time for Miami. The Titans are sixth in the league at 138.8 rushing yards per game, running the ball an average of 27.8 times each week.
The duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry is getting 4.9 yards per carry. Henry, at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, is exactly the kind of running back Maualuga (6-2, 258) has been tasked with stopping his entire career.
“I think it’ll be a good first game to come back to,” he said. When asked if the team has him on a snap limit this weekend, he said, “As long as they keep running the ball, I think the more you’ll see me on the field. We’ll see what happens.”
It’s been a long wait for Maualuga since the Dolphins signed him in August. He did not appear in the preseason because of conditioning issues. He was in shape to practice Week 1, but injured his hamstring and has been out since.
He is no longer listed on the injury report and has practiced fully all this week.
“He looks alright to me,” coach Adam Gase said. “We’ll see what we do Sunday.”
There’s some good fortune for the Dolphins as they try to steer out of a rough start to the season. This week’s game against Tennessee, coming off the trip to London, originally looked like it’d be one of the more challenging games on their schedule. Not that it’ll be easy either way, but the Titans look like a favorable opponent for the home opener.
Few things are as likely to cure Miami’s offensive woes–two touchdowns in 82:45 of possession over three games—than facing a Tennessee defense that gave up 57 points and 445 yards to Houston last week. It allowed rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson to rack up 283 yards passing and five total touchdowns, and the Texans’ running game averaged 4.1 yards per carry.
That’s got to sound enticing to Dolphins quarrterback Jay Cutler after how he’s played the past two weeks.
While that’s obviously not the norm, the Titans’ defense wasn’t amazing in the three games prior, either.
Coming off a season in which they barely missed the playoffs and expected to be one of the more promising AFC teams in 2017, the Titans sit at 2-2.
As bad as the Tennessee defense looked last week, its offense is equally shaky. There’s no bigger issue for either team this week than the health of Titans starting quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Mariota injured his hamstring in the loss to Houston, and the team is calling him day-to-day. He put up a 95.6 passer rating last year, and is trying to battle started out decently this season.
When he exited against Houston, the world learned that Matt Cassel is still in the league. Cassell, the Titans’ backup quarterback, began with a pair of three-and-outs and followed with two interceptions on his next three throws. He finished the game 4 of 10 for 21 yards.
MIAMI GARDENS–There are some decent candidates, but this was probably the worst play the Dolphins have had this season.
Early in the third quarter of today’s 30-17 loss to the Titans, the Dolphins were within seven when Jason McCourty picked off Ryan Tannehill. That might not be the most accurate way to phrase it, actually, because this was no ordinary interception.