By beating Atlanta, Miami became the latest in a trend of AFC dominance over the NFC established over the first three weeks of the NFL season. The AFC collectively has an 11-3 record against the NFC, thus far, in 2013.Here, we will run through the full position grades for Miami during their encouraging victory.
For much of the football game, quarterback Ryan Tannehill struggled to establish a rhythm on offense.
He was not receiving much in the way of help from the players around him. The ground game's total production numbers were deceptive, and the pass protection often hung Tannehill out to dry.
However, there were also times when Ryan Tannehill needed to recognize the blitz and get rid of the ball sooner. Of the five sacks he took, not every one of them was the fault of his protection.
The mediocre showing changed very suddenly and drastically with about five minutes remaining in the game, as Tannehill directed a game-winning 75-yard touchdown drive that left the Falcons only 38 seconds and a four-point deficit.
Tannehill completed 9 of 12 pass attempts on the drive for 69 yards, including the final touchdown pass on a beautiful bucket throw to rookie tight end Dion Sims off play action.
Tannehill's total passer rating for the game came out to 94.5, with four sacks for minus-41 yards and two runs for seven yards gained.
The total production at the tailback position for Miami looks impressive as Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined for 83 rushing yards on only 13 carries, including a touchdown. Most teams would take a 6.4 yards-per-carry average any Sunday.
However, 49 of the yards came on one play. Left guard Richie Incognito and center Mike Pouncey sealed open the football equivalent of an eight-lane highway for Lamar Miller to blast through, and Miller's speed did the rest.
That run play was great, and Miller deserves credit for it, as the play went a long way in creating the opportunity for the offense to score a touchdown. However, Miller was not forced to do anything special in order to create such a big run as the blocking combined with the defense's lack of gap control played the biggest role in it.
Outside of that run, the ground game was generally not a resource for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in his effort to win the game, as it only averaged 2.8 yards per carry on the remaining 12 carries.
Even so, the running backs would have earned better marks if this grade were to apply only to the unit's ball carrying.
Daniel Thomas' 4.2 yards-per-carry average during the game represents a season high for him in a year where he is averaging only 3.1 yards per carry.
While most have continuously pointed to his blocking as a reason for him to be on Miami's roster, his prowess in that regard has never truly been better than mediocre on an absolute basis. That showed in the game, as he struggled protecting Ryan Tannehill during blitzes. At least one sack could be directly laid at his feet in this regard.
Meanwhile, Miller continues to disappoint in the passing game. With his pure speed, he should have immense potential running wheel routes out of the backfield. During the Dolphins' final, critical drive at the end of the fourth quarter, Tannehill threw a ball to him on a wheel route that could have won the game, but Miller could not haul it in.
Tannehill was able to recover and put the ball in the end zone anyway, but failed opportunities in those kinds of critical situations can often cost you the game.
The passing game was the Dolphins' primary strength both on offense and for the team in general.
This was led by a wide receivers unit that collectively caught 16 of 23 passes for 169 yards, with a touchdown.
Brian Hartline was, arguably, the team's most effective receiver for the second time this season, as he caught four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown.
After making him a focal point in the team's passing game a week ago in Indianapolis, Mike Wallace came quietly back down to earth with only two catches for 22 yards.
Unlike in Week 1 when a similar stat line produced frustration and finger-pointing from Wallace, despite the two-touchdown margin of victory, Wallace was not seen complaining about his production during this game.
Slot receiver Brandon Gibson returned to prominence after being largely absent from the victory over the Indianapolis Colts. He created a few critical first downs during key moments in the game.
The same could be said of Rishard Matthews, who was impressive with his pure strength during the run-after-catch phase of his game. He caught four balls for 42 yards.
The offensive line had some key positive moments during the game.
On 1st-and-10, during the Dolphins' second offensive drive, left guard Richie Incognito and center Mike Pouncey sealed open a large hole through which tailback Lamar Miller could scamper for a 49-yard gain.
On the goal line, left tackle Jonathan Martin and rookie tight end Dion Sims sealed a similar hole through which Daniel Thomas could execute a five-yard run off a tackle for a touchdown.
During the final drive of the game, the offensive line knuckled down in pass protection and allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill the time in the pocket to find his targets and direct a heroic game-winning touchdown drive.
However, outside of those key moments, the offensive line, once again, struggled to protect Tannehill.
Falcons right end Osi Umenyiora punched left tackle Jonathan Martin in pass rush, sending Martin reeling backward, as Umenyiora redirected and hit Tannehill from his blind side, forcing a fumble.
On a 2nd-and-5 in the third quarter, the Dolphins called a play-action pass which required left guard Richie Incognito to pull from left to right. He got too much depth as he pulled and knocked Tannehill off balance by running into him in the backfield.
This contributed to Tannehill's inability to get the football out in time, as corner Robert McClain blitzed from the edge of the formation.
On Ryan Tannehill's lone interception during the game, right guard John Jerry was bull-rushed directly back into Tannehill, making contact with the quarterback as he released a ball that sailed slightly high as a result.
The pass was on tight end Charles Clay's back shoulder, as it should have been, but with the ball coming in a little too high for the 6'3" player, the result was a tipped-up interception.
The Falcons took advantage of more lack of chemistry in the Dolphins' offensive line in the fourth quarter by blitzing two linebackers, while stunting the two defensive tackles.
The Dolphins had two protectors in the backfield which afforded them seven blockers to protect Tannehill against six pass-rushers; however, it did not prove enough as Tannehill was sacked for an eight-yard loss.
Left tackle Jonathan Martin showed a lack of awareness in zone protection on the play as he kicked outside to double-team Umenyiora with tight end Charles Clay, who lined up in the backfield pre-snap.
Umenyiora did not rush the passer on the play, but rather executed a contain rush, spilling to the outside to prevent the ball from getting outside of him. Rather than finding work by redirecting to the linebacker that blitzed directly through Martin's zone, Martin continued to stay unengaged.
This forced a touch decision for left guard Richie Incognito, who made initial contact with a defensive tackle off the snap and was able to pass the defensive tackle off to center Mike Pouncey.
He saw the linebacker blitzing through the B-gap and came out to meet him, but as he did so, the left defensive tackle Peria Jerry stunted over to Incognito's side. If Incognito had picked up the defensive tackle, the linebacker would have gone untouched straight into the backfield to sack Tannehill.
Incognito chose to block linebacker Joplo Bartu, and as a result, the defensive tackle came up the middle, forcing Tannehill backward where he was ultimately sacked by three players, including Bartu, Peria Jerry and the blitzing linebacker, Akeem Dent, who was inadequately picked up by tailback Daniel Thomas in the backfield.
Considering rookie tight end Dion Sims caught the game-winning touchdown from Tannehill with only 38 seconds remaining in the ballgame, one might expect this grade to come out much higher.
However, miscues from this position nearly cost the Miami Dolphins the game. The tight end position was partially responsible for both of Miami's turnovers during the game.
Tannehill threw an interception trying to hit tight end Charles Clay up the seam on 3rd-and-10 during the third quarter. Lamar Miller was knocked backward by a blitzing linebacker who forced Miller into Tannehill as he threw the football. This caused the ball to sail on Tannehill, but only by a few inches.
Yet, much of the blame for this play falls on Clay's inadequacy as a tight end. At only 6'3" in height, Clay does not present the kind of big target one usually desires in a true seam threat. This puts far more pressure on the quarterback to be pinpoint accurate with his throws up the seam.
Though Tannehill released the football with correct timing, Clay broke off his route early and was forced to awkwardly jump for the ball as he backpedaled. In the end, the football went directly through Clay's outstretched hands. Clay tipped the ball up, and it was intercepted.
Earlier in the second quarter, Sims was forced to block Umenyiora one-on-one. It did not go well. Sims barely made contact with Umenyiora who screamed into the backfield and stripped Tannehill of the football yet again. This time, the Dolphins did not recover the fumble, and the result of the turnover put seven more points on the board for the Atlanta Falcons.
These miscues which nearly cost the Dolphins the game were not necessarily outweighed by the position's collective six catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, even if the touchdown came at a critical moment in the game. Either one of those turnovers could have also been considered critical moments in the game, had the Dolphins ended up losing.
This grade might be a little higher than one would suspect, considering the Dolphins failed to sack Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a single time during the game and generally lacked the ability to contain run plays.
However, the Dolphins defensive ends were missing their star player Cameron Wake for much of the game, yet were still able to pressure Ryan during key moments.
Rookie defensive end Dion Jordan received his heaviest workload of the season and repaid the Dolphins with a hit on Ryan's arm that produced a game-sealing interception. He also helped make at least one critical stop on the Falcons running game, which held the Falcons to a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby were not very active during the game, totaling four tackles between them with no hits on the quarterback. The Falcons game broke what had been a two-game streak for Shelby during which he was able to strip-sack the quarterback.
The defensive tackles unit missed its strongest run defender, Paul Soliai, who sat out the game inactive.
The Falcons, missing star tailback acquisition Steven Jackson, were able to gash the Dolphins run defense continuously as tailbacks Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 139 yards on 29 carries—a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
Much of this could be blamed on the over-pursuit of the Dolphins linebacker; however, the defensive tackles played their part as well.
There were moments where Randy Starks and Jared Odrick stood up to the ground game, drawing high marks, as they tossed offensive linemen to the side and tackled the tailback in the backfield, but those moments were too few and far between.
Yet, the unit draws a slightly above-average grade for the game because of their ability to collapse the pocket from the inside, especially in the second half of the game. When the Dolphins began to stop the Falcons offense in the second half, it was in large part due to pressure coming from the interior of the defensive line.
The entire front seven contributed to the Falcons' unusual and consistent success running the football during the game, but no unit more so than the linebackers.
Part of the problem came when linebacker Koa Misi got hurt and missed the remainder of the game.
Yet, in the end, there are few excuses for the day the linebackers had defending the run as the Dolphins paid a small fortune to acquire linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe during the offseason.
The pair combined for 14 total tackles, including only one tackle-for-loss and a pair of pressures on quarterback Matt Ryan. On a day when you consistently allow the other team to gash you on the ground for nearly five yards per carry, that is not nearly high enough impact.
The Dolphins corners knew it was going to be a long day facing Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who has legitimately become one of the top five receivers in the game today.
Jones did not disappoint as he caught nine passes for 115 yards.
Yet, the day was an overall success for the Dolphins' corners unit. This is because the unit held the combination of Harry Douglas and Roddy White to a mere three catches for 25 yards on 10 total targets.
Arguably, with Ryan's accuracy, combined with Jones' talent and usage, it would have been exceedingly difficult to prevent him from catching for over 100 yards during the game. The Dolphins, instead, managed to contain Jones and prevent him from getting into the end zone, while shutting down the rest of the Falcons wide receivers.
The end result was a Falcons wide receivers unit totaling 12 catches for 140 yards and zero touchdowns on 22 targets. At under 55 percent completion and 6.4 yards per attempt, that is a win for the Dolphins corners unit.
The reason this gets modified down to a "B-" is because corner Nolan Carroll drew a critical defensive pass-interference call while covering Roddy White in the end zone on 3rd-and-2. The flag created a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line, which is a virtual touchdown.
Strong safety Reshad Jones shared responsibility in allowing the Falcons to establish a consistently effective ground game. The Dolphins commonly ask Jones to get near the line of scrimmage and become involved in the run-support effort.
On the other hand, Jones was able to blitz Ryan several times, producing pressure that helped the Dolphins interrupt the Falcons' rhythm. The safeties also get to take some partial credit for holding the Falcons wide receivers to a mere 6.4 yards per attempt on passes in their direction.
Additionally, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was held to only four catches for 24 yards during the game. This represents a significant step forward for the Dolphins safeties unit.
Yet, the Dolphins also surrendered yet another touchdown to a tight end. Backup tight end Levine Toilolo caught a touchdown pass while being covered by hybrid corner/safety Jimmy Wilson, who was playing as a safety on the play.
The overall effort could have been a lot better, but it also could have been a lot worse.
The Dolphins special teams unit has been a bright spot the entire season.
It gets the highest marks possible for this game, as its members made a crucial play at a critical moment, which helped the team beat an opponent that the offense and defense alone could not have beaten.
Rookie place-kicker Caleb Sturgis connected on both field-goal attempts which included a 50-yard kick. He also placed all five of his kickoffs so deep in the end zone that the Falcons were forced to kneel on the ball for a touchback.
Punter Brandon Fields averaged an incredible net of 51.7 yards on his three punts, including one placed inside the opposing 20-yard line.
Falcons punt returner Harry Douglas was held to only four yards on three punt returns.
Yet, the highest impact play by special teams came late in the third quarter when backup safety Don Jones laid a bone-jarring hit on Falcons return man Harry Douglas, knocking the football loose. The ball was recovered by Miami's long snapper.
The turnover gave the Dolphins the ball inside the Falcons' red zone, and Miami was able to score a game-tying touchdown.