Burning Questions for the Dolphins' 2013-14 Season
Now that we are done with meaningless games populated by players who have never graced a regular season roster, it is time we start tackling the serious questions that will dictate how the team will perform in the regular season.
Some questions have arisen because of offseason personnel changes. Others have arisen because of preseason developments. However, none are trivial. The next five questions will dictate how well or poorly the 2013 NFL season goes for the Miami Dolphins.
Can the Offensive Line Pass Protect for Ryan Tannehill?
The top question on my mind for the Dolphins in 2013 is whether the offensive line can have consistent pass protection for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Left tackle Jonathan Martin stands front and center as the biggest factor answering this question. A year ago, he was not just a subpar player, he was one of the very worst offensive tackles in football. His performance at right tackle was statistically similar to that of the 2011 team’s Marc Colombo, who is known as one of the more infamously bad free agent signings in recent memory.
Yet, when Martin moved to left tackle, his pass protection got even worse. He was thoroughly embarrassed by the likes of Chandler Jones and Aldon Smith, and never did better than mediocre against Jason Babin, Trevor Scott, Kyle Moore, Rob Ninkovich and Justin Francis.
Many people believe Martin has undergone a significant transformation this offseason. His performance in the preseason supports the possibility. He thoroughly outperformed the pass-rushers the Jacksonville Jaguars threw against him and held his own (with the exception of one lazy play) against the Houston Texans. His performances against the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a little more uneven.
I personally try and stick to the details of his game when it comes to predicting how he will perform against top pass-rushers. In reviewing his work, I am consistently concerned about the lack of fluidity in the way he incorporates his punch and his hand use.
His punches often do not connect, come out soft or are mistimed, and in other instances he stops his feet during and after his punch. He shows a tendency to stop during plays and has trouble sustaining beyond 2.5 seconds.
However, Jonathan Martin is not the only problem on the offensive line. The Dolphins appear set to give right guard John Jerry his starting job back. Jerry was poor in both phases against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his first preseason game back from injury. He also struggled during the final preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
Meanwhile, Richie Incognito reminded us with a sack given up against the Buccaneers that he has never truly been more than a decent pass protector.
Tyson Clabo’s age continually shows up in pass protection when Tannehill attempts to extend the play in the backfield, requiring his linemen to reset their feet and sustain their blocks.
During the final two preseason games, Ryan Tannehill took the passing game largely out of the hands of his pass protectors. I had him releasing the football in 2.5 seconds or less on 37 of 48 plays. That ratio would be obscene if it held during the regular season, which means that in all likelihood it will not.
Tannehill will be forced to ask more of his offensive linemen when defenses begin game-planning against him.
The Dolphins will face no shortage of accomplished inside and outside pass-rushers this season. They will face names like Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Desmond Bryant, Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Cameron Jordan, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Every single one of the above is an accomplished pass-rusher with a resume from either the inside or outside.
Will a Tight End Step Up and Be a Chain-Mover?
When free agent signing Dustin Keller got hurt in the preseason, Ryan Tannehill lost a security blanket that he had quickly grown accustomed to.
Tannehill started out the Jacksonville Jaguars preseason game shakily, and it was Dustin Keller who he found in the end zone for a big-time trust throw in man coverage.
The injury forced three inexperienced players into the spotlight. Thus far, only rookie fourth-round pick Dion Sims appears to be thriving under the pressure. In the last two preseason games he has shown urgency with the way he gets into soft spots in the underneath coverage, and he has caught the ball with soft hands.
Tannehill attempted to gel with now-starter Charles Clay, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with very little success.
While Michael Egnew continually surprises with the improvements he has made to his blocking game, it is now his ability to consistently present a threat in the passing game that falls into question.
Whatever big-play ability Dustin Keller brought to the position is now likely gone. I doubt there will be any recovering it with the players remaining at the position. However, the Dolphins need to answer the question of whether one of the three remaining players can step up and help Tannehill move the chains.
That does not necessarily mean catches on third down—a tight end can help move the chains just as easily by getting eight yards on an underneath catch on first down.
Can the Offense Run the Football?
Primary and secondary tailbacks Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined for a paltry 131 yards on 36 carries this preseason. That gives the pair a 3.6 yards per carry average. That will not be good enough come the regular season.
Daniel Thomas has become something of a whipping-boy for the Miami fanbase, and not without cause. He continually underperforms, whether it be his 3.5 yards per carry average as a rookie, his 3.6 yards per carry average in his second year, or his 2.7 yards per carry average in the 2013 preseason.
Yet, heading into last week’s Buccaneers preseason game, there was talk (including from the coaches themselves) that Lamar Miller’s work this preseason was so disappointing Daniel Thomas may be winning the competition for the starting position.
Was the talk merely a means of motivating Lamar Miller, who has averaged a respectable 4.6 yards per carry on his own this preseason? That remains a possibility. However, something about his game clearly makes the coaches uneasy to where they equate him to his poor-performing backup.
Running the football obviously is not wholly dependent on the talent of the tailback. The changes made to the Dolphins blocking units led to questions about how well the unit can block the run in 2013 as opposed to 2012.
Left tackle Jake Long may have had a poor game or three in 2012, but for the bulk of his time that year he was a very positive force in run blocking. The Dolphins have replaced him with Tyson Clabo, whom my own film studies lead me to believe is a below-average run blocker.
The Dolphins also appear to have failed to upgrade the right guard position this offseason, where a year ago John Jerry was a very pedestrian run blocker. The team also allowed one of the best blockers among starting tight ends in the league to walk as a free agent, replacing him with rookie Dion Sims who has thus far been an inconsistent blocker.
Can the Linebackers Cover Opposing Tight Ends?
The Dolphins starting linebackers have done very well for themselves in coverage this preseason. According to stats gathered by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), linebackers Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Phil Wheeler have spent a total of 63 snaps out in coverage between them. They have been targeted eight times, having allowed five catches for 34 yards and zero touchdowns.
On regular season tape, Phil Wheeler and Koa Misi have occasional miscues in coverage that prove costly. On tape, Dannell Ellerbe cannot be trusted to flip his hips and stay with tight ends in the seam, and gets visibly lost the further detached from the line of scrimmage he becomes. The predecessors of Ellerbe and Wheeler were above-average coverage linebackers, and it remains to be seen whether the Dolphins have downgraded in this area.
A downgrade could prove costly. The Dolphins in all likelihood a healthy Rob Gronkowski twice in 2013. They will also face the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Greg Olsen, Jermaine Gresham and Heath Miller.
They will also face youthful, though less-proven, athletes such as Jordan Cameron, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and Tyler Eifert.
Can the Secondary Prevent Big Plays?
The Dolphins have re-made their corner unit in 2013. While most fans will have the instinct to assume the team’s secondary coverage will maintain the same character as the previous season, with improvement being the only potential change, that is not realistic in a year where you have completely made over your corners unit.
We know what kind of player corner Brent Grimes was in Atlanta prior to his Achilles injury. Do we know what kind of player Brent Grimes is now, post-Achilles injury? Most people had not thought twice about it once training camp began and the glowing reports of Brent Grimes from onlookers washed over the fanbase.
His superlative interception against the Houston Texans seemed to punctuate those reviews. However, his outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inserted a morsel of doubt. The Buccaneers standout receivers were able to create separation against Grimes in that game, though quarterback Josh Freeman’s accuracy was spotty at best.
Vincent Jackson caught a ball for 13 yards against Grimes and had another opportunity for a catch that Freeman missed with an errant ball.
Further, on a third ball intended for Vincent Jackson on Brent Grimes’ coverage in the first quarter, Grimes was called for pass interference near the end zone. That call gave the Bucs a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line.
This was the first game of the preseason where Brent Grimes saw any extended action. And if we are being honest with ourselves, it was a poor game.
The Dolphins are placing a lot of responsibility on the reconstructed Achilles heel of Brent Grimes. There is always the possibility that in our hurry to congratulate the team on such a great offseason signing we forgot to wait until he tests that heel in actual games.
The other three players in the corners unit that figure to play in 2013 have demonstrable issues with allowing big plays.
Dimitri Patterson figures to be the starting corner opposite Brent Grimes and as I expounded upon in past articles, Patterson can get into trouble when having to play on the perimeter as opposed to the slot.
Meanwhile, Nolan Carroll figures to man the boundary opposite Grimes when the defense goes into their nickel package. Though his metrics in 2012 were decent, he also racked up four pass interference penalties totaling 69 yards, including two in one game. Coaches took his starting role away from him in Week 12 of the 2012 season, having him rotate with corner R.J. Stanford for the remainder of the year.
The last member of the corners unit that figures to see significant playing time is third-round rookie Will Davis. The big criticism of Davis coming out of Utah State was his ability to consistently defend the deep pass as he was beat deep a number of times in 2012.
Those issues persisted during the week of Senior Bowl practices. In the 2013 preseason he allowed 101 yards on 10 targets in his direct coverage. He was also called for pass interference in the end zone.