It took four weeks for the dam to finally break. Against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football, the Miami Dolphins defense allowed opponent tight ends to account for five catches, 104 yards and three touchdowns on only six targets.
In the wake of this embarrassment, we are forced to give a true and honest reassessment of the Miami Dolphins defense's ability to cover athletic tight ends.
The cracks in the dam had been apparent for weeks. Inability to cover opponent tight ends accounted as key takeaways from the victory against the Cleveland Browns as well as the victory against the Indianapolis Colts.
Prior to Week 4, the Dolphins had officially given up 20 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns to opponent tight ends. While these official statistics certainly put the Dolphins among the least effective defenses against opponent tight ends according to ESPN Fantasy Football, the damage on the surface still looked manageable.
However, the reason the damage looked manageable was due to a series of fortunate breaks for the Miami Dolphins defense.
Dolphins strong safety Reshad Jones allowed a touchdown late in the Cleveland game to backup tight end Gary Barnidge. That touchdown was called back due to an unrelated holding penalty on right guard Oniel Cousins.
Upon video review, Dolphins free safety Chris Clemons was clearly guilty of pass interference while covering Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener in the end zone. Had the officials made the correct call, the penalty would have virtually handed the Colts a touchdown by giving them a 1st-and-goal from the Dolphins 1-yard line.
Later in that same game, Clemons allowed a touchdown catch to Fleener. The catch would have been Fleener's second touchdown of the game. However, the touchdown was called back due to an unrelated pre-snap procedural penalty on wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
Also during the game, backup linebacker Jason Trusnik attempted to cover Colts backup tight end Dominique Jones up the seam. Jones was initially ruled to have caught the football for a 20-yard gain, having fallen down at the 1-yard line. The play would have once again virtually handed the Colts a touchdown by giving them 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Replay officials made a judgment call that the football slightly bobbled in Jones' hands as he fell to the ground, nullifying the catch.
While many satisfied themselves that these plays meant little since they did not appear on the official stat sheet, the defensive lapses that underlie the plays show up on film when opponents conduct their advanced scouting. Those lapses can be exploited.
From the perspective of the Miami Dolphins players, coaches and fans, the Dolphins had only given up 20 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns to opponent tight ends. From the perspective of the New Orleans Saints as they scouted Miami on tape, the Dolphins had given up much more. The Dolphins had given up as many as seven virtual touchdowns over a three-game period, including three to the opponent's No. 2 tight end.
Schematically, the Saints did not surprise the Miami Dolphins during the Monday Night Football game. The Saints have a demonstrable history of moving tight end Jimmy Graham all around the field to create matchup problems. There is tape of them using Graham and No. 2 tight end Ben Watson in all the ways they were used in the Week 4 game.
The Dolphins' game plan called for the defense to sit back in zone, allowing their corners the opportunity to cover Graham one-on-one when the Saints' alignment forced such a matchup. The Dolphins also allowed their safeties to cover Graham from the slot.
To put it simply, the players did not execute.
Rookie corner Jamar Taylor found himself matched up with Graham on an out-and-up route into the end zone. The throw was perfect, and Taylor was not able to physically contest the catch. The result of the play was a touchdown.
Graham also ran a slant-and-go route against free safety Chris Clemons, which produced a second long touchdown.
Also during the game, rookie linebacker Jelani Jenkins lost sight of the Saints' No. 2 tight end Watson as he leaked into the flat for an outlet pass. Quarterback Drew Brees initially wanted to hit his receiver in the back of the end zone but checked down to Watson, who utilized the massive amount of space given to him by Jenkins to run after the catch for a touchdown.
Through four games of the 2013 season, the Miami Dolphins have officially given up 25 catches for 329 yards and six touchdowns to opponent tight ends. However, there is not much in the way of defensive skill that separates that result from having virtually given up 10 touchdowns while trying to cover opponent tight ends.
The result is unacceptable. As we are forced to reassess the Miami Dolphins' ability to keep their leaky tight end defense from breaking open to the extent that the team loses games, so too are the Dolphins forced to completely reassess their philosophies and strategies for defending opponent tight ends. They must make real adjustments that reflect a change in priorities.