The Miami Dolphins went into their preseason home opener with the intention of treating the game like a dress rehearsal for the 2013 NFL season. As such, the fanbase may be concerned that the Week 3 preseason game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers got away from the Dolphins during the fourth quarter.
Many of my more specific observations and reactions can be found during the Live Blog I authored during the game itself. Now that I have reviewed the game more thoroughly and allowed it to sink in, I wanted to share some more pointed observations.
Ryan Tannehill is the first and most important point of observation to come out of this game. He was remarkable in his time under center.
The first thing about his performance that jumped out was how quick and decisive he was with the football. I like to time how long it took the quarterback to get the football out of his possession from snap to throw.
I pointed out in one of my previous articles that Tannehill's timing and delivery of the football against the Houston Texans in Week 3 was significantly quicker than in the first two preseason games versus the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.
During the Houston game, he got the football out of his hands in 2.5 seconds or less on 14 of his 19 dropbacks (counting those snaps nullified by penalty). The average time it took him to either throw the ball, pull it down for a scramble or to get hit in the backfield was approximately 2.4 seconds.
Though hard to imagine, Tannehill sped up his decision-making even more during the Tampa Bay game. I clocked him getting the football out of his hands in 2.5 seconds or less on 23 of 29 snaps (once again counting snaps nullified by penalty). The average time it took him to throw the football, pull it down for a scramble or to get hit in the backfield was approximately 2.2 seconds.
I noted plays where Ryan was able to rhythmically progress through his reads and come finally to his outlet receiver for a check down—all in under 2.5 seconds. Even when Tannehill was sacked, first contact was made with him in the backfield in just over three seconds.
Why is this important? As I noted before, passes that come out in under 2.5 seconds tend to be a lot more efficient than passes that do not. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the median passer rating amongst quarterbacks in 2012 who took at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps on passes that took 2.5 seconds or less to throw was around 94. Additionally, quarterbacks were sacked in under 2.5 seconds or less approximately once out of every 84 pass attempts.
Any time your quarterback can get the football out of his hand quickly, he tends to be more efficient passer.
I found two more aspects of Tannehill's performance interesting. The first was his ability to aggressively and confidently fit the ball into tight windows. I tallied four incomplete passes where the football was placed on the hands of the receiver, and I believe we all saw Brandon Gibson drop a pass in the end zone that would have given Tannehill two touchdowns by the half.
The next impressive aspect of the performance was the fact that, despite his getting the football out so quickly, he dealt with pressure regularly during the game and did so admirably. Tannehill's jersey was not clean by the end of the half. I had him getting hit by defenders at least four times, in addition to the sack he took.
He still got the football out and found his targets.
The receivers constitute the second of five positive observations from the evening. Brian Hartline was the same receiver he has been for years. He gets open from his position on the outside as easily as breathing.
It is easy to forget that a year ago Hartline's star had fallen in the eyes of the Miami faithful. After suffering severe complication from a appendectomy surgery, and later battling through a calf strain that lasted all through training camp and preseason, many fans believed he should be no higher than fourth on the depth chart. Some fans even believed he should have been cut.
At the time, using the help of YouTube videos of his work from the 2011 season, I attempted to show the fans that Hartline was probably the team's most valuable receiver and that he exemplified all of the ideals for the position that head coach Joe Philbin espoused. A year later, he is still the same player, but he has seen his opportunities increased dramatically.
Does he have weaknesses? Absolutely. His lack of touchdowns is not coincidental. Though his hands are good, he will not ever be a guy that pulls down physically contested catches. His run-after-catch ability is also poor, as he lacks strength and balance. Together these weaknesses ensure that when it comes to punching the ball into the end zone, Hartline is not going to be consistent until he has a quarterback who can pick him out in the right situations with perfectly placed passes.
What he does so well that makes him a favorite of Philbin and Tannehill is crisply run the staple routes of this offense, create separation and finish with the catch. He consistently demonstrates such receiving fundamentals on out routes, slants, dig routes, comebacks and back-shoulder fades. He again showed off these abilities against the Buccaneers.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Mike Wallace showed that his speed can make him tough for defensive backs to cover on routes other than on deep throws. He successfully ran routes that challenge a two-deep defense. He came back for the ball. He found spots within the zones. He ran a nice corner route from the slot, though he didn't finish the play with a catch.
Brandon Gibson's night was a little more uneven, as you might expect, given his skill set and role in the offense. The Dolphins acquired Gibson in free agency and gave him a job not many teams would have seen fit to give him. They made him a slot receiver.
Similar to Hartline, Gibson developed into a technician on the outside in St. Louis. He became proficient at running out routes, comebacks and back-shoulder fades. He brings that same technical mindset to the slot position, along with a big frame that provides a good-sized target to throw to in the middle of the field. He showed how dangerous he could be by catching five passes for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers.
At times his weaknesses became apparent. With his big frame and ability to pull down challenged catches, he will challenge the seam from the slot position more than a Davone Bess. However, on shorter passes you will generally see a smaller, quicker (i.e., more traditional) slot receiver like Bess create more space for himself, as well as gain more yardage after the catch.
Seam routes that vertically challenge a defense might also be an issue for Gibson, as it was when he dropped a pass in the end zone on one such route. Gibson also struggled significantly with his ability to create yards after the catch on shorter routes.
The offensive coaching staff also showed some positives during the game. Much has been made of Coach Philbin's supposed preference versatility in his receivers. Supposedly, he wants outside players who can play inside and inside players who can play outside.
Prior to the Buccaneers game, this preseason has not given much evidence to such an approach. Once again using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we find that Wallace has not lined up in the slot a single time, and Hartline had only done so twice. Meanwhile, 24 of Gibson's 29 pass snaps came from the slot. Most of those five remaining snaps likely came during the Cowboys game, when neither Wallace nor Hartline played and Gibson was forced to take one of their positions on the outside.
The Buccaneers game gave us the first glimpse of some of the plays that Philbin might have in mind, if he truly intends to exploit the versatility of his wide receivers. One such play came when the Dolphins moved tight end Charles Clay and erstwhile slot receiver Gibson to the perimeter, while Wallace and Hartline moved into the slot on each side of the field. The Dolphins ran a "smash" concept to the side of the field with Clay and Wallace. Wallace ran a corner route from the slot while Clay ran a short hitch. Tannehill quickly delivered the football on the money to Wallace, who had gotten open on the play but could not finish the catch.
Another coaching adjustment involved giving Tannehill more snaps from the shotgun, especially on quick passes.
Prior to the Buccaneers game, I had Tannehill getting the football out of his hands in 1.6 seconds or less on eight occasions. However, he completed only two of these passes. These "bang-bang" passes can be very difficult for a quarterback to place properly when having to drop back from under center. The ball is on the receiver so quickly that he has almost no chance to adjust to the football.
These plays most often come about when the quarterback notices a blitz coming or a weakness in the defense and decides to exploit it quickly. He may audible the route at the line with a signal, or the play design may already contain a route that can exploit the weakness. These quick strikes are essentially long handoffs.
Handoffs generally take a little over one second to execute. These quick slants or quick outs take about a second-and-a-half or less. If the quarterback begins under center, rushed footwork can compromise the accuracy of the throw. From the gun, the quarterback has a better base and vantage point from which to observe the play and deliver the football.
During the Buccaneers game, I recorded seven such throws where Tannehill got the football out of his hand in under 1.6 seconds. He completed five of the throws, with a sixth one dropped by Wallace. This constitutes significant improvement in chemistry on these quick throws between the quarterback and his receivers, and I believe it may have something to do with play design changes by the coaching staff.
Offensive line play continued to be shaky throughout the game against Tampa Bay
Left tackle Jonathan Martin had a rough outing. In addition to repeatedly lining up far off the line of scrimmage, which drew a penalty flag on one occasion, he also was the primary blocker on three first-half plays in which Tannehill got hit.
Martin also allowed another pressure, and on several more occasions was beat by pass-rushers on plays where Tannehill released the football before the defender could get to him. His run-blocking left something to be desired as well, as he missed a blocks that helped capsize a few running plays.
Martin's issues in pass protection continue to be related to technique. He often stops his feet, then tries to compromise using just his hands. He also fails to connect his punches strongly or effectively. He leaves his chest open, which makes him susceptible to a bull rush.
On one play against Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte Davis, Martin left himself so open that even the undersized David was able to punch Martin backwards before redirecting himself inside to get a clean shot at the quarterback. On another occasion, Martin picked up a defensive tackle stunting to the outside, only to have that tackle flatten Martin with a blow to his chest.
Meanwhile, John Jerry's return to action saw some strong blocks, but it saw many more weak ones. He had issues in both run-blocking and pass protection. Miami guard Richie Incognito joined the party by allowing a defensive tackle to get around his outside shoulder and sack Ryan Tannehill.
And, though first string tailback Lamar Miller was able to produce solid results, it should be noted that 20 of his 35 yards came on one play, and the other tailbacks produced only 26 yards on 21 carries, for an average of 1.5 yards per carry.
This and That
Backup tailback Jonas Gray may have fumbled away his chance at making the final roster, literally. However, I believe the coaching staff should consider keeping him.
The fact of the matter is, aside from Lamar Miller, Gray has the best yards-per-carry average of the backup tailbacks. And he scored two touchdowns on two attempts from near the goal line, showing himself to be the most proficient short-yardage back on the team. He catches the football well out of the backfield and shows potential in blocking. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Gray had produced seven broken tackles (including one on a pass reception) prior to the Buccaneers game, which led all Dolphins tailbacks.
Mike Gillislee has largely been a disappointment in the preseason. I had a draftable grade on Gillislee coming out of University of Florida, and so I was excited when the Dolphins took him in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft. His vision in picking out holes and creases has been inconsistent at best, and he has not demonstrated a physical edge on the field.
In the past I have complained about backup tailback Daniel Thomas' vision and instincts as a tailback. One more instance came in the second quarter when Thomas ran to the outside and had the opportunity to cut up the field and deliver a nice, positive run. Instead he chose to bounce blindly to the outside and into his own teammate's rear end.
The Dolphins depth at offensive tackle continued to be an issue against the Buccaneers. Backup left tackle Jeff Adams shows the same weaknesses as fellow backup Will Yeatman. The Dolphins tried Andrew McDonald at the position and got similar results, as McDonald allowed a sack. Meanwhile on the right side, rookie third-round tackle Dallas Thomas continues to struggle.
I would look for the team to actively check the waiver wire for an offensive tackle in the not-too-distant future. The Philadelphia Eagles in particular have an interesting glut of talent at the position. This includes undrafted free-agent rookies Matt Tobin and Michael Bamiro. Both players have played well for the Eagles this preseason, but either or both could find themselves caught in the numbers game.
Joe Philbin's ties with Iowa run deep, and if the former Hawkeye, Tobin, is released he would be a home-run waiver claim, as he has turned in one of the best performances of all backup tackles I've seen this preseason. Meanwhile, according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, the Dolphins showed significant interest in Michael Bamiro before he agreed to terms with the Eagles.
Turning to special teams. Speaking about return specialist Marcus Thigpen in a statement quoted by Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald, Miami Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi expressed his preference on how he would like to handle the Miami Dolphins' punt return situation in 2013: "Punt return-wise I think we'll do like we did last year, a little bit of a committee but if we played a game today he'd have a majority of them."
What I found interesting is that the man Rizzi had sharing Thigpen's punt return duties in 2012 is no longer with the team. The team has four players with enough punt return experience to justify them sharing time with Thigpen in the role during the 2013 NFL season. Those players are receivers Hartline, Rishard Matthews and Chad Bumphis, as well as corner De'Andre Presley. Of them, only Bumphis and Presley have handled punts during the preseason.
Presley handled punts during the Hall of Fame Game, and Bumphis has either had sole ownership of the job or shared it with Thigpen in each of the proceeding games. While Thigpen handled most of the punt returns against Tampa Bay, the Dolphins threw Bumphis back for another return, repeating a trend the Dolphins have established with their return game.
It is doubtful that the Dolphins would have Hartline or Matthews handle punts in Week 1 if neither player got any work in the role during the preseason. Therefore, when you combine Rizzi's remarks with Bumphis continuing to field punts against the Buccaneers and Thigpen struggling to securely field punts, you may have a recipe for Bumphis to make the team, despite how little true offensive work he has gotten in the last three games.