Breaking Down the Miami Dolphins' Protection Issues on Offense
The Miami Dolphins demonstrated significant issues protecting franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill through the first three weeks of the 2013 NFL season. Tannehill took 14 total sacks in only three games, which—according to statistics on the NFL's official website—leads the entire league by a significant margin.
After allowing Tannehill to be sacked nine times during the first two games of the season, the Dolphins understandably put an emphasis on keeping pressure off their franchise quarterback. Yet, Tannehill still took five sacks during the game. Here we will explore the extent of the problem, as well as to what extent the quarterback, coaches and blockers can be blamed as the Dolphins continued to struggle protecting Tannehill during the game.
First we should outline the full extent of the problem against the Atlanta Falcons. This is important because the Dolphins can, and have, stated their case: Their overall protection of Tannehill improved against the Atlanta Falcons.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had the following to say to a group of reporters, including Matt Kelley of the Miami Herald, “I don’t think our quarterback is getting hit a lot, but we’re giving up a lot of sacks.”
He is correct, at least as far as the game against the Atlanta Falcons is concerned. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill was pressured on 40 out of his 123 dropbacks during the first games. That ranks No.11 in the league for lowest pressures per dropback.
Therefore, the problem is not necessarily that Tannehill took too much pressure during the games, but rather that too much of the pressure resulted in sacks.
Many, including Tim Ryan, who called the Falcons-Dolphins game for FOX Sports this past Sunday, take that as a sign that most of the fault belongs to Ryan Tannehill himself.
The logic is sound. Other quarterbacks deal with pressure. In fact, most quarterbacks are dealing with more. Yet, not all other quarterbacks are getting sacked as often as Tannehill.
A closer examination shows this not to be the case.
According to data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the amount of time that passed on average before Ryan Tannehill's 14 sacks was seventh-lowest in the league.
Sometimes, such as when you have a relatively small number of sacks, this can be a sign that your quarterback demonstrated significant ability to get rid of the football quickly in the face of pressure. Therefore, the only sacks the quarterback does end up taking are ones that happen so quickly they could not be avoided.
Peyton Manning, for example, took only four sacks in the first three weeks, yet those sacks happened in the fourth-lowest amount of time in the pocket. From this, we can infer that Peyton generally gets rid of the football before he can take a sack, yet occasionally takes a sack when the protection breaks down to such a degree that the sack happens too quickly for Peyton to do anything about.
The figure implies the same about Ryan Tannehill. Also, using Pro Football Focus' data we see that Ryan Tannehill's average time until his throw attempt is third-lowest in the entire NFL at approximately 2.3 seconds. Only Matt Stafford, of the Detroit Lions, and Andy Dalton, of the Cincinnati Bengals, get the football out of their hands more quickly, on average. The median average time to a throw attempt is a little higher than 2.5 seconds.
Yet the fact remains that Tannehill has taken a staggering 14 sacks, leading the league.
This paints the picture of very poor pass protection.
Ryan Tannehill is not holding the football too long. He is getting the football out of his hands more quickly than 90 percent of the other quarterbacks in the league. His sacks are not the result of the occasional brain fart wherein he holds the football much longer than usual, as evidenced by his time-to-sack average being seventh-lowest in the NFL.
In fact, below you will find a perfect example of the timer sounding off in Tannehill's head, letting him know that he needs to get out of the pocket.
Within only 2.9 seconds, Tannehill has already pulled the football down and begun scrambling for positive yards. In this case, he gained 8 yards on the play.
During the same press appearance referred to earlier, Mike Sherman fell on his own sword by taking the blame for at least two of the sacks.
Below you will see an example of a poor play call leading to a sack.
The play involved a significant play-action fake that entailed left guard Richie Incognito pulling to his right as if blocking a run play. Because of the necessary line action to seal up the hole vacated by a pulling Incognito, this call was extremely weak to a corner blitz off the blind side.
Tailback Daniel Thomas' role on the play is curious. Among all pass protectors, he is the only one that can make a choice whether to block threats to the right or left. The fact the play-action fake took him to the right of Tannehill does not necessarily mean he must stay on that side, as we see plenty of instances of backs switching to keep their quarterback's jersey clean. Thomas stays on the right side as a superfluous extra protector while his quarterback gets nailed from his blind side.
Below is another play that I blame partially on scheme, in addition to poor line protection.
The first thing to note about this play is it involved two blitzing linebackers. The Dolphins kept two extra protectors in the backfield to account for the linebackers.
Yet, one wonders where Ryan Tannehill's quick option was on the play should the pressure come early, as it did. At the last possible moment, Tannehill had to throw the football or be sacked—none of the three receiving options are open.
Two of the receivers, Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace, were still a number of steps away from even making their breaks. Throwing the football with anticipation would not have availed Tannehill because the pressure came too early relative to the route calls.
Though the rest of these plays will focus on protection miscues by the Dolphins players, examining them gives us an appreciation for some of the skill and planning that went into the Atlanta Falcons' execution of their pass rush.
The Falcons do not necessarily have the pure talent to pressure the passer consistently. They found ways to do it creatively, such as with the following play.
As you can see on the play, both defensive end Osi Umenyiora and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux took their offensive linemen deep into the pass set, at which point Babineaux intentionally made contact with left tackle Jonathan Martin. His goal was to keep Martin in place while Umenyiora used his quickness to brake and redirect back over to the quarterback.
Martin simply does not have the athletic ability to keep up with Umenyiora.
Another interesting example of the Falcons' clever design that put the Dolphins blockers in position to fail happened later in the game.
The Falcons had been favoring defensive tackle twists for most of the game. They ran another one on this play. Left guard Richie Incognito is well aware of the tactic by now and moves to his right in anticipation of engagement with the stunting defensive tackle.
This left a very wide alley for backfield protector Daniel Thomas to guard against blitzing linebacker Akeem Dent. Ultimately, it is Thomas' job to execute in this scenario. He clearly did not, and Tannehill was sacked in only 1.9 seconds as a result.
However, the Falcons scheme was designed to put pressure on Thomas in this scenario, as they did not think he could handle it. They were correct.
The final protection miscue we will explore produced a sack and a fumble, which the Falcons recovered.
Though Mike Sherman seemed to imply that he may consider himself at fault on this play, as it put too much pressure on rookie tight end Dion Sims, the fact of the matter is Dion Sims was drafted in large part due to his blocking prowess. He needs to step up and do a better job. Tight ends are asked to pass protect against defensive ends all the time in the NFL.
Sims loses the hand fight with Umenyiora immediately, and barely functioned as a speed bump as Osi made contact on Tannehill a mere 2.4 seconds into the play.
This has become a serious problem. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was limited in practice all week heading into the Atlanta Falcons game, though he ended up listed as Probable on the official NFL injury report. He cannot continue taking this level of punishment.
Over-zealous television announcers should not continue to blame Tannehill for the better part of these sacks, as we have demonstrated that the bulk of them come far too quickly for him to be blamed.
While the quarterback ultimately decides whether any given play will be a sack or not, Ryan Tannehill's standards of practice dictate that he should be one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the NFL at this moment. Instead, he is the most sacked quarterback.
This leads us to conclude that a combination of coaching mistakes and protection miscues by the Dolphins blockers are primarily responsible for the excessive sack totals.
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