With three games in the books, the Miami Dolphins are slowly developing an identity.
The Dolphins are a physical, powerful and punishing team, that can run the ball and stop the run, but they aren't particularly effective in the passing game or against it. Furthermore, the Dolphins have been undermined by questionable coaching decisions and poor execution, but propelled by strong play in the trenches and special teams.
This isn't exactly what we expected when Joe Philbin arrived and installed an uptempo, pass-first offense. However, he's making the most of the personnel he inherited.
The Dolphins aren't going to contend in 2012—this much was evident in the preseason and remains so through the first three weeks of the regular season—but if they shore up some of the following weaknesses and continue thriving in areas of strength, then they can win six or seven games in 2012.
The Dolphins aren't particularly good at exceeding expectations, but the front seven has done just that.
Through the first three games of the regular season, opposing teams have combined for just 194 rushing yards against the 'Phins. And these weren't substandard rushing attacks. Last season, the Texans' rushing attacked ranked second in the NFL and the Raiders' ranked seventh.
Given how dominant Miami's front seven has looked thus far, it's easy to envision no running back or team rushing for more than 100 yards against it.
Amongst 4-3 outside linebackers, Pro Football Focus ranks Koa Misi fourth and Kevin Burnett 15th against the run. Meanwhile, Karlos Dansby ranks second against the run amongst inside linebackers.
The defensive linemen have played just as impressively—all ranking within the top 30 against the run in their respective positions.
If you weren't convinced the Dolphins had the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL prior to the regular season, then you should be by now.
Only three Dolphins wide receivers—Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, Anthony Armstrong—have caught a pass, and they have combined for just 29 total receptions. On Sunday, Hartline and Armstrong caught three passes on 15 targets.
Drops have also become a major concern for this stable of wideouts:
Ryan Tannehill's drops as a percentage of thrown passes is second only to Blaine Gabbert at 11%. Not good.
— Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot) September 25, 2012
Unless the Dolphins trade for a wide receiver, things can only improve marginally. Brian Hartline may have made big strides, but he's clearly no match for topflight cornerbacks—as Sunday's matchup with Darrelle Revis exposed.
Davone Bess is the only wide receiver Ryan Tannehill can trust on a week-to-week and play-to-play basis, and that simply won't suffice.
Reggie Bush, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas are doing their best to compensate for the passing game's shortcomings.
The Dolphins currently boast the league's fourth best rushing attack thanks to the extraordinary contributions of Bush, who is on pace for a 1,600 yard, 10 touchdown season. He currently has the fifth most rushing yards of any back in the NFL and he's also averaging six yards per carry.
While Bush has shined, Lamar Miller has emerged as the unsung hero of the Dolphins' offense. In two games, he has accrued 113 rushing yards on 19 carries and one touchdown. Miller helped bury the Raiders in Week 2, and he also helped fill the void created by Bush's injury last week.
Neither Bush nor Miller would be enjoying such success were it not for Jorvorskie "J-Train" Lane. He is currently rated as the sixth best fullback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Moreover, the offensive line—specifically Mike Pouncey—has done a tremendous job of paving rushing lanes against some stout front sevens (Houston, New York).
The passing game's ceiling is extremely limited this season, but as long as the running game thrives, then the Dolphins can put points on the board and play competitively.
Given the caliber of passing attacks the Dolphins have faced through the first three weeks of the season, there's no excuse for the secondary's struggles.
Miami currently ranks 29th against the pass after yielding 927 passing yards to Matt Schaub, Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez.
Palmer and Sanchez afflicted the most damage on the 'Phins, combining for 679 yards. Even without Vontae Davis, it's hard to defend a unit that surrenders more than 300 passing yards to either QB—especially considering neither has thrown for more than 300 yards in another game (For more perspective: In 2011, Sanchez averaged 236 passing yards per game, and Palmer averaged 293.)
Individually, the Dolphins' cornerbacks are struggling. In Pro Football Focus' cornerback coverage rankings, Sean Smith ranks 83rd, Nolan Carroll 130th and Richard Marshall 23rd (I don't agree with Marshall's ranking. He has made some big plays—which bump his rating—but he has also been penalized and on the wrong end of big plays way too often).
Meanwhile, Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons rank 32nd and 50th amongst safeties in pass coverage respectively.
While most preseason concerns have leaked into the regular season, one has not: pass protection.
After a disastrous preseason, Jonathan Martin has played passably. He has surrendered only one sack and one quarterback hit, though his eight quarterback hurries are seventh most amongst offensive tackles.
John Jerry has also elevated his game and played decently. He hasn't surrendered a sack, but, like Martin, has struggled with quarterback hurries. His six are third most amongst offensive guards.
In total, the Dolphins have allowed only four sacks, which is fourth fewest in the NFL. Both Ryan Tannehill and Miami's quick-pass offensive scheme deserve credit for this as well, but the offensive line warrants some respect for rebounding from a such a terrible preseason.
The Dolphins entered the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Jets with a seven point lead.
Then, Mike Sherman and Joe Philbin inexplicably abandoned their game plan. Rather than chew the clock and continue pounding the ball, the Dolphins ran 18 passing plays and only six running plays for the remainder of the game.
This is one of the bigger play-calling blunders you'll see—not only because the Dolphins entered the fourth quarter with the lead, but also because the running game is vastly superior to the passing game.
And, it's not like the Dolphins were playing from behind for much of the fourth.
The Jets took the lead with 2:52 remaining.
To make matters more disturbing and puzzling, this isn't the first time Philbin and Sherman have abruptly abandoned their game plan.
In Week 1, Miami ran the ball nine times in the first quarter and entered the second quarter up by three points. The Dolphins proceeded to run the ball only five times in the remainder of the half and fell behind by 21 points.
In Week 2, the Dolphins ran the ball 12 times in the first quarter and entered the second quarter tied with the Raiders. Then, in the second quarter, the Dolphins ran the ball only four times and fell behind by three points.
In the words of Vince Lombardi: What the hell is going on out here?
Take away Dan Carpenter's collapse against the Jets on Sunday, and the Dolphins' special teams have actually enjoyed a fantastic season.
For starters, Marcus Thigpen is averaging 25.4 yards per kickoff return, which ranks him 10th amongst players who have returned more than five kickoffs. He's also averaging 17.7 yards per punt return, which ranks him first amongst players who have returned more than five punt returns.
Brandon Fields, meanwhile, is averaging 52.8 yards per punt, which ranks him third amongst NFL punters. He has also dropped six punts inside of opponents' 20 yard-lines—fourth most in the league.
The only consistent hole in the Dolphins' special teams units is punt coverage. So far, it has given up 134 punt return yards on just nine returns, a 14.9 average. It's possible that Fields' power prevents his gunners from getting downfield in time to clog lanes for the return-man.
Whatever the case may be, it's only one blemish in an otherwise solid string of performances.
The Dolphins have made nine trips to the red zone this season.
They have scored on only five of those trips.
This is not good.
Red zone issues severely undermined the Dolphins in years past—and sparked the Tony Sparano Fist-Pump Phenomenon—and they have evidently survived the coaching transition. The 'Phins went 0-for-3 in the red zone in Week 1 and failed to convert on one trip last week, which could have catapulted them past the Jets.
Miami won't win many games with a 55 percent red-zone conversion rate. Joe Philbin needs to find ways to get Anthony Fasano, Charles Clay and Daniel Thomas—three big, physical skill players—open in the short field.
Even though the Dolphins have only sacked opposing quarterbacks four times this season, its pass rush is consistently generating pressure.
It's just not bringing down the quarterback.
Opposing teams have run 138 passing plays against the Dolphins so far, according to Pro Football Focus. Miami has registered quarterback hurries on 40 of those plays, quarterback hits 21 times, and, of course, sacks four times.
So, the Dolphins' defense is at least hurrying the quarterback 29 percent of the time he drops back to pass.
For whatever reason, Miami's pass rushers are struggling to finish the job and drag quarterbacks down for sacks, but at least they're getting pressure.