If Adam Gase wants to lead the Dolphins in the right direction, he’ll need his offense to pound the football and his defense to stuff the run.
Traditionally, there are two things a team must do in order to be successful in the NFL: run the ball and defend the run. However, with the evolution of the passing game in recent years, NFL teams have developed new ways to be successful. Around the league, both offensive and defensively, teams have put more emphasis on the passing game.
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Ultimately, for offenses to be successful in the passing game, their team must have a top-tier quarterback. And for a team to be good at defending the pass, their defense must possess either shutdown cornerbacks, a great pass rush, or both.
Of course, the jury is still out on Ryan Tannehill. What he has in talent (arm strength, athleticism, and dedication) he lacks in other areas (accuracy, pocket presence, and reading defenses). Despite progressing into his fifth season and having several qualities a quarterback must possess in order to captain a successful, pass-oriented offense, Tannehill, at this point, isn’t quite there yet.
Further, the Dolphins’ defense seems unable to contest the high-octane passing attacks within the NFL. The Dolphins biggest defensive weakness is its secondary. Aside from Byron Maxwell, who struggled against the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Dolphins don’t have a lot of depth or experience at the cornerback position. In fact, the front-runner for the spot opposite of Maxwell is a rookie (Xavien Howard), followed by two second-year players (Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain).
The Dolphins do, however, have a good defensive line that should put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But without a solid secondary, the Dolphins’ pass rush will run out of gas, and essentially go unnoticed.
So, where does this leave the current Miami Dolphins? How can they be successful this season? Well, in the “traditional” sense, the Dolphins must rely on running the ball and defending the run if they want a chance at sniffing the playoffs this year. So, what does this team need in order to achieve these goals? Two things: stellar play from their offensive line and linebackers.
As of right now, it appears that this Dolphins offense—if they want to free themselves from the mediocrity that has held them captive for over a decade—must get better on the offensive line. Sure, on paper, the Dolphins offensive line is the most attractive it’s been in years—they’re composed of four first-round picks (Mike Pouncey, Ja’Wuan James, Branden Albert, and Laremy Tunsil), three Pro-Bowlers (Mike Pouncey, Branden Albert, and Jermon Bushrod), and have almost 30 years of NFL experience.
Despite this, however, we haven’t seen this unit perform at a consistent level throughout training camp. It’s been well documented that the Dolphins’ first-team defense has manhandled their starting offensive line. To make matters worse, the Dolphins’ offensive line hasn’t been able to create running lanes, handcuffing their fellow ball carriers.
The Dolphins’ offense desperately needs their running game to be productive. In order to take some pressure off of Ryan Tannehill, they must be committed and able to run the football. Although Adam Gase isn’t set-in-stone on a starting running back, if this unit doesn’t secure into a solid offensive line, it won’t matter who’s carrying the ball for the Dolphins.
Last year, we witnessed what a Tannehill-led offense that relied heavily on the passing game produced: one ranked 27th in the league in points per game (19.4), 30th at converting third downs (31 percent), and 26th in total offense (331.7 yards per game). It’s obvious that the Dolphins can’t copy this blueprint if they want to be efficient and help Tannehill out this season.
Defensively, it all comes down to the linebackers. If the Dolphins’ linebackers remain poor at tackling—as we’ve witnessed during the past two preseason games—the Dolphins are in for a long season. Dolphins’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph likes to run the “wide-nine” scheme. The scheme, which aligns the defensive ends out wide and creates more space between them and the defensive tackles, puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers to make plays.
Thus far, newly acquired linebacker Kiko Alonso hasn’t played up to snuff. His poor tackling was on full display in the Dolphins’ preseason game against the Cowboys. Despite his talent, throughout his career, Alonso has battled a slew of injuries—most notably a torn ACL he suffered in 2014 in the offseason.
To take some pressure off of a defensive line that, more often than not, will do its job, Miami must get explosive plays out of Alonso and starting linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins. They may also need a little luck: Alonso, Misi, and Jenkins have missed a combined 33 games the last two seasons.
In truth, it doesn’t seem plausible that this year’s defense can be any worse than the one we saw a season ago. Last year, mainly due to the play at linebacker, the Dolphins finished 25th in total defense (376.2 yards per game). More disturbingly, the Dolphins capped off the year ranking 28th in rush defense (surrendering 126.2 yards per game).
Building a team takes time. As the saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” But if the Dolphins don’t address their offensive line and linebackers, Gase’s project may take far longer than expected.