The Miami Dolphins aren't mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet, but it's difficult to envision this team winning more than another handful of games after its string of lackluster performances.
So, the playoffs are essentially a pipe-dream at this point.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where and why things went wrong for the 'Phins, but these three issues are definitely at the root of their downfall. Moving forward, Joe Philbin and his staff must acknowledge and address them; otherwise, the end of this season will get ugly.
Few fanbases are more impatient than Miami's, and a poor showing down the stretch will catapult Jeff Ireland back into the hot seat. Furthermore, it'll cut Philbin's "honeymoon period" short.
1. Don't Let Defenses Catch Up to Ryan Tannehill
Defenses have figured Ryan Tannehill out.
This sort of thing happens to every quarterback at one point or another. Cam Newton is a great example. His speed made him virtually unstoppable last season, but he's struggling now that defenses are forcing him to rely on his arm.
Similarly, defenses are now taking away Ryan Tannehill's biggest strength: throwing under pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill is the NFL's second most efficient quarterback under pressure. Consequently, teams have essentially stopped blitzing him. Theoretically, a quarterback could slice up any defense if he had so much time to pass; however, Miami's offensive line has been shoddy, and its wide receivers have been mostly mediocre.
In Tannehill's record-setting Week 4 performance, the Arizona Cardinals blitzed often and blitzed heavily. After all, you expect rookie quarterbacks to fold—or at least struggle—under pressure. However, the league hadn't caught onto Tannehill's uncanny composure with defenders in his face.
Things have changed now that opposing teams have caught onto Tannehill's tendencies. Last Thursday, the Bills rarely brought more than four pass-rushers. Not only did they still manage to generate pressure, but they also blanketed the Dolphins' wide receivers.
Tannehill's ability to overcome these challenges will not only dictate how he plays down the stretch, but also into the future. He can't do this by himself, though. He needs more consistent protection up front, and Mike Sherman has to do a better job of designing schemes that exploit defenses' reluctance to blitz.
2. Curb Turnovers
In the last two weeks alone, the Dolphins have accrued a turnover differential of minus-seven. Joe Philbin took responsibility after Thursday's loss to the Bills and even admitted: "I'm embarrassed."
He should be.
Miami now has 20 turnovers on the season, which is the fifth-highest total in the NFL. Fair or not, this reflects very poorly upon Philbin and the discipline he's instilling into his team (though the Dolphins are one of the least penalized teams in the league). It doesn't help that the Dolphins have committed turnovers at the most inopportune times in these last two weeks.
Reggie Bush's fumble in the first quarter of Miami's Week 10 loss to the Titans completely changed the landscape of the entire game. Tennessee capitalized on that turnover by picking up its first touchdown of the game, and Bush was benched until the fourth quarter. The Dolphins offense visibly struggled without Bush and the momentum swing didn't help, either.
Last week, Ryan Tannehill tossed two interceptions within the last three minutes of the game, both of which thwarted potential game-winning drives.
3. Third-Down Conversions
Take a look at how poorly the Dolphins have fared on third downs in the last three weeks:
|Game||Opp. 3rd Down Efficiency||Dolphins 3rd Down Efficiency|
|MIA v. BUF||2-12||3-10|
|MIA v. TEN||8-17||2-13|
|MIA v. IND||13-19||4-11|
This contrasts starkly from the first eight weeks of the season, when Miami boasted the league's best third-down defense. To its credit, the Dolphins defense did rebound by limiting the Bills to just 2-of-12 third-down conversions after allowing the Titans and Colts to convert 20-of-36. Moreover, it has only allowed teams to convert 33.1 percent of their third-down conversion tries, good enough for third-best in the NFL.
So, were those two weeks anomalies?
But, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless. The defense's success against a Seahawks team that has converted only 33.3 percent of its third-down attempts this season will help dictate whether this is a legitimate problem or just a brief hiccup.
Things don't look much better on the other side of the ball, though.
The Dolphins converted only 35.8 percent of their third-down attempts this season, which ranks 20th in the NFL. On Sunday, they'll face a Seahawks defense that has yielded conversions on 40.6 percent of its third-down attempts.
If there was ever a week to shore up this issue, then this is it.