How does one find the weakest link of the Miami Dolphins?
You would think it would be easy after a 37-3 beatdown at the hands of the Tennessee Titans in Week 10. Just say the whole team is weak and call it a day.
But that is but one game, the worst game the Dolphins have played all season. After taking a step back from the emotions stirred up by such a stunning defeat, one must look at the season as a whole to really determine where Miami is at its weakest.
This is problematic, though. The Dolphins are the rare NFL team that doesn't particularly do anything poorly per se, but they don't anything too well either.
Through nine games, their 4-5 record shows that they're as middle-of-the-pack as the middle goes. While they might show flashes of brilliance in one aspect or another during a game (great special teams against the Rams and Jets, great at stopping the run throughout the year), they also show some flashes of awfulness in other aspects (defending the pass against Indianapolis, turning the ball over against Houston, and against Tennessee, heck, doing anything against the Titans).
So what are Miami's weakest links? Today, we're breaking them down.
Thus far, the Dolphins receiving corps hasn't been as bad as anticipated. In fact, they've been a pleasant surprise to this season.
But on Sunday against Tennessee, something happened. The Titans didn't blitz, and each receiver was well-covered.
If you're wondering why the lack of blitzing against Miami is bad, here's why: Ryan Tannehill does very well against the blitz.
Now, did you see his performance? That was the opposite of very well.
You could attribute it to him hitting a rookie wall (which is part of it), but a lot of that had to do with the fact that Tennessee's linebackers and corners were able to focus on the Dolphins receivers and tight ends while their defensive line simply stayed keyed-in on Tannehill.
The only thing to mitigate that would be a game-breaking receiver that could get away from coverage and pull in a catch.
As good as Davone Bess and Brian Hartline have been, they're better off as second and third options. Both receivers have to be open in order to pull in the catch, and rarely do either of them have the ability to pull down a catch when a defensive back is draped all over them.
This leads to a team knowing that, against the Miami Dolphins, they're better off not blitzing their linebackers or defensive backs (the other reason for this will be covered later on), meaning Tannehill has all the time in the world but nobody to throw it to.
With a true No. 1 receiver, this changes.
A true No. 1 could free up Bess or Hartline (or Fasano or Clay), thus allowing Tannehill to find either one of them open. Such a receiver would also allow Tannehill to have the confidence that he could throw it up to him when there are no other options, and he will get the catch (and no, Chad Ochocinco would not have been that type of receiver).
This would also force teams to blitz Tannehill more, and like I mentioned earlier, Tannehill is excellent against the blitz. This would free up even more open options for Tannehill to throw to.
It would also keep teams honest with their defense, opening up a run game for Miami that started off well but has slid since Week 3.
Talk about a unit that tends to break down at the worst possible time. Ladies and gentlemen, the Miami Dolphins offensive line.
Here's another unit that has had its ups and downs throughout the season. They don't get Ryan Tannehill sacked too often, but they've missed crucial blocks. One block caused him to fumble the ball at midfield against the Arizona Cardinals. The result? Arizona was able to drive down the field to send the game into overtime.
One block got Tannehill injured. Why? Either it was bad schemes that forced Jonathan Martin to take the inside man that John Jerry was supposed to take, forcing a rusher from the outside to sack Tannehill, or it was that Martin had to take the inside man because Jerry missed his block.
Either way, it was no good.
A lot of sacks have also come courtesy of former No. 1 pick Jake Long, who's in the midst of his worst season. Unfortunately, Miami could wind up overpaying for a player who could be on the decline despite the fact that he was drafted four years ago to be the team's cornerstone for the next 10 years after that.
Richie Incognito's anger issues have given Miami some bad penalties as well.
The only member of the offensive line who has been consistent is center Mike Pouncey. With no fumbled snaps and no missed blocks, his lone mistakes have been minor, but even those have come at the worst time (anyone remember a couple of his false-start penalties against the Indianapolis Colts?).
Now, the good news is that, as weak as this offensive line has looked, there is talent and room for improvement.
John Jerry has gone from terrible to, at times, adequate, and he has now settled on just plain mediocre. Jonathan Martin struggled in training camp while learning a new position, but he now looks fairly good. Good enough for me to welcome a decision to let Long walk for more money and move Martin back to left tackle while drafting a new right tackle.
Incognito's only problems are his anger issues, and those have only popped up once. For the most part, he plays hard and does have enough discipline to avoid holding penalties and false starts. Jake Long was one of the best left tackles in the game at one point, and he could still turn it around this season.
It's a weak point, but not due to lack of talent. If anything, the new offense and new blocking schemes could be a reason for some of their failures. But the line has become a problem for Miami, and it's one that has to be fixed.
The good news is they do have the talent to fix it this season; the question is if they can.
I'm sure you're asking why I'd choose a picture of a UM-FSU game for this slide. Look at No. 35, and you might recognize the name "Vernon," as in Olivier Vernon.
He goes by a different number with the Dolphins (50), and he hasn't been the quarterback-killer that he should be.
Part of this has to do with his slow development in training camp, but from the looks of it, he's woken up. He's been a force for the Dolphins on special teams, and whenever he's in the game as a pass-rusher, he's made his impact known.
He practically won the game for the Dolphins against St. Louis back in Week 6 with his late-game sack on Sam Bradford, which forced the Rams to attempt a 66-yard field goal (which went wide). Earlier in the game, another Vernon sack on Bradford forced the Rams to kick a 52-yard field goal that also missed.
But despite his great play against the Rams and his great special-teams play thereafter (two blocked field goals and returning a blocked punt for a touchdown), Vernon still doesn't seem to get much defensive play.
Instead, that spot on the opposite end of Cameron Wake goes to Jared Odrick, who only seems to be able to get to the quarterback either a second too late or when someone else already has the sack. Because of this, teams are able to double-team Wake, and while he still gets to the quarterback, it's slower than it would normally be.
Odrick also has problems shedding blocks, something that Vernon has shown to do very well. As for speed, it's no contest between the two.
Miami likely beats Indianapolis with a better pass-rush (meaning more than just Cameron Wake fighting through a double-team to get to Luck a split-second after he throws the ball to convert another 3rd-and-long), and unlike some of their other weaknesses, they have the solution on the team already.
Give Olivier Vernon more snaps (whether it's at defensive end or linebacker), and the Dolphins will record more sacks.
Their Week 11 Thursday night game against Buffalo would be a great place to start.
It's safe to say that Miami might want to draft a linebacker or two in next year's draft.
This is somewhat of an addendum to the pass-rushing slide, and in fact, Olivier Vernon could play linebacker (and in fact already has at times this season).
Miami's starting linebackers are getting up their in age. Koa Misi is the youngest of the starting linebackers at age 25. Misi, however, has had a tendency to disappear on plays, especially in pass coverage, thus giving him the nickname "Koa Missing." He has improved this season, though, and at his age, he should still see some improvement down the line.
Kevin Burnett has been good for the Dolphins in both run and pass coverage, but I wouldn't call him great. It is a bit alarming that, at age 29, he was on two previous teams. He will also likely still be a Dolphin in 2013, but you won't see much improvement. His consistency, however, is a good sign.
Then you have Karlos Dansby, who has been a bit hot and cold. Don't expect him in Miami next year, as he is owed $7.9 million next season and, at 31 years old, is showing signs of decline.
Miami's linebackers don't really put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Combined, the linebackers have four of Miami's 24 sacks on the season, a number that will have to increase.
Miami should consider giving more playing time to fifth-round rookie Josh Kaddu and former seventh-round draft pick Austin Spitler. This linebacking corps isn't getting any younger, and the presence of new blood might invigorate them.
I wouldn't consider the Miami Dolphins secondary bad, but they're arguably the worst aspect of the team.
Sean Smith has shown some signs of greatness this season, to the point where seeing him in the Pro Bowl actually looked somewhat feasible. Then came Miami's game against the Colts, and just like that, he reverted to the same old consistent Sean Smith that couldn't catch a cold.
Nolan Carroll was considered the worst at one point, but he has shown improvement in each game. He's not starter material (he's better as a nickelback), but he's at least shown the ability to hold his own, something no Dolphins fan could expect.
Jimmy Wilson also has potential, but he's like Carroll in the sense that you wouldn't want him primarily covering a wide receiver. Wilson works better as a safety, yet he needs another year to work into that role. In fact, against Wilson, opposing quarterback have a 107.3 quarterback rating when throwing to a receiver Wilson is defending. Wilson primarily covers a slot receiver, which means Tom Brady and Wes Welker are licking their chops at the prospect of facing him later this season.
Miami will need to target a cornerback in this season's draft to play alongside Sean Smith (assuming Smith doesn't leave via free agency). Carroll has actually proven himself to be better in the nickel than Wilson, while Wilson makes more sense as a safety.
As a unit, the Dolphins secondary has proven to be a major weakness in the pass-first NFL. What doesn't help their case is that, due to Miami's stout run defense, Miami gets passed on a lot, only further magnifying what has been Miami's weakness so far this season.