Breaking Down the Miami Dolphins Troubled Running Game and How They Fix It

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer ISeptember 14, 2013

Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas (33, middle) leaped into the end zone once, but for the most part, the Dolphins running game did not get off the ground.
Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas (33, middle) leaped into the end zone once, but for the most part, the Dolphins running game did not get off the ground.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

So dreadful was the Miami Dolphins' running game in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns that nothing like it had been seen for seven years.

The Dolphins averaged 0.9 yards per carry against the Browns, only the second time in team history they've run for less than one yard per carry in a game. After one week, they rank 32nd in the league in yards-per-rush attempt.

So, there's nowhere to go from here but up, but assuming improvement will come on its own is the surest way to remain stagnant. The Dolphins have the tools to improve, and with better blocking and more decisive running from their stable of backs, that improvement could be on the way.

There was some debate all offseason as to who should be the starting running back, but it didn't matter much who was carrying the ball against the Browns.

What went wrong?

Let's take a look at what happened on the Dolphins' running plays and how things could be improved.

Play Calls

Running effectively isn't just about executing blocks and hitting holes decisively.

Sometimes, a running play is doomed before the ball is even snapped.

The Dolphins line up in the shotgun with five players split out wide in the 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). Tight end Charles Clay (circled in red) is on the left side of the formation—keep that in mind for later—as is running back Lamar Miller (circled in yellow).

The play gives the illusion of a pass, and the Browns respond with six defenders in the box, all close to the line of scrimmage, giving the appearance of a blitz.

Miller motions from left to right across the formation and into the backfield before the snap, and center Mike Pouncey and left tackle Jonathan Martin pull from left to right at the start of the play, attempting to lead the way.

However, Browns linebacker Paul Kruger comes unblocked and quickly is in position to make the tackle. Had Clay been lined up on the right side of the formation, he could have at least gotten a chip on Kruger. 

Perhaps Miller was supposed to make Kruger miss in the backfield, while his blockers sprung him for a big gain downfield. Perhaps right tackle Tyson Clabo missed his assignment and thought someone else would account for Kruger. 

Either way, the situation could have been helped by Clay simply lining up on the other side of the formation. He is not a standout blocking tight end, so there's no guarantee the edge would have been open for Miller anyway, but Clay's presence on the right side would have at least created some disruption in front of Kruger.

Ryan Tannehill's Pre-Snap Reads and Adjustments

Not every quarterback has the freedom to make whatever adjustments they want at the line of scrimmage. Who knows how much control quarterback Ryan Tannehill is given over the Miami offense in that sense.

If he had the ability to make an adjustment on this play, though, changing to a successful play would have been quite simple.

Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard (circled in red) lines up over Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline (circled in blue) in the slot. With eight defenders in the box, all twitching like caged dogs waiting to pounce on the runner, Tannehill could have easily exploited the defense for big yards had he audibled to a quick pass.

At some point, though, you have to be able to run against eight-man fronts.

The Dolphins do not do a great job of executing their play-side blocks, and Incognito loses leverage almost immediately to Cleveland defensive tackle Desmond Bryant. With the gaps up the middle all closed off, safety T.J. Ward chases down the play from the opposite side of the formation and is in the backfield before Miller can even reach the line of scrimmage.

There will be times, such as this play, in which the Dolphins may just want to opt out of a running play if the defense is as well prepared to stop it as the Browns were here.

Closed Lanes

There were times, as in the play above, when the lanes simply were not there for the Dolphins running backs. That being said, there were also times when the backs needed to make quicker decisions and put the foot on the gas as soon as they made that decision.

Miller is once again stuffed for a loss on this play, which was designed to go off the right side.

The Dolphins had enough blockers (six) to match the number of Browns defenders in front of them, and if everyone had executed their blocks, the back-side rush of Sheard would not have arrived in time to stop Miller's run.

However, Clabo didn't get a good block on defensive tackle Billy Winn (circled in red), and the disruption in the B-gap caused the running back to hesitate in the backfield, allowing Sheard to chase the play down from the back side as Ward did earlier in the contest.

The Dolphins have a lot of talent on the offensive line, but they need those players to come together as a unit. 

How They Fix It

It takes awhile to explain what's wrong with the running game, but not long to explain how to fix it: Better blocks. Better play design. Better execution.

Better everything.

They need tougher blocking from their interior linemen. Their backs need to be more willing and able to get to the perimeter. The plays could be better designed, as well.

Because the blame can be spread to so many groups, the Dolphins clearly have a lot of work to do, but just a little improvement in all areas could make a big difference.

Hope on the Horizon?

There were plenty of areas where the Dolphins could have been better, but the good news is, it can get better.

The Browns front seven is loaded with talent, and while they are built to stop the pass, it's a physical front with a lot of size. 

The next three games on the Dolphins schedule are against the Indianapolis Colts, the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. Those teams occupied three of the bottom four spots in defensive yards-per-rush attempt last season: the Falcons 29th, the Colts 31st and the Saints 32nd.

If the Dolphins can clean up their mistakes in the running game, their next few opponents could be vulnerable. 


Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.


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