The Miami Dolphins put together their worst performance of the season in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football as they traveled to New Orleans and were beaten by the Saints 38-17.
Here we will grade every position on the team for its performance against the Saints, focusing on details of individual performances.
Thematically, there will be a lot of references to the eight critical plays that cost the Dolphins the game. While most fans and observers will focus on the four turnovers by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in reality only two of those turnovers really mattered. Additionally, there were six plays given up by the Dolphins defense that were just as costly as a turnover.
Only two of the turnovers matter because within approximately the first 36.5 minutes of the game the Dolphins had essentially already lost the contest. At that point, the Saints were up 35-10 with about a quarter-and-a-half of football remaining, and it would have required a miracle comeback for Miami to win the game.
While what happened in the final 23.5 minutes of the game matters from an self-evaluation standpoint, the Dolphins will want to pay more attention to what happened during the first 36.5 minutes of the game.
The eight critical plays that lost Miami the game were thus:
- A 48-yard catch off a wheel route by Saints tailback Darren Sproles in the first quarter.
- A failure by the offense to convert a first down off 3rd-and-inches in the first quarter.
- A fumble lost by quarterback Ryan Tannehill at midfield in the second quarter.
- A loss of containment by the Dolphins defense resulting in the Saints converting on 3rd-and-20.
- A 27-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham in the second quarter.
- An interception thrown by Ryan Tannehill during the final two minutes of the second quarter.
- A 13-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Darren Sproles off 3rd-and-11 in the second quarter.
- A 43-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham in the third quarter.
The two turnovers, while critical, were just two of the eight plays that resulted in an insurmountable Saints lead midway through the third quarter.
These eight miscues were big plays, many of which were down-and-distance situations that favored the Dolphins. All of them resulted in a swing in points in favor of the Saints.
These plays will be referred to often during the grading because they were important to the game's outcome.
The New Orleans game was easily quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s worst game of the season. The second-year quarterback turned the football over four times, including three interceptions.
Tannehill accounted for two costly turnovers during the critical span of the game when the Dolphins fell behind 35-10. He fumbled the football as he scrambled up the middle of the field, and threw an interception to a corner who anticipated and jumped Brian Hartline’s slant route.
These two plays constituted two of the eight costly plays noted in the opening slide. That Tannehill was personally responsible for both of these turnovers means that he must garner a poor grade for the game.
Tannehill has now fumbled the football six times over the first four games of 2013, losing three of them. According to statistics on NFL.com, he also fumbled the football nine total times in 2012 and lost four. According to college football statistics site Team Rankings, Tannehill fumbled nine times in college, including eight fumbles over his junior and senior seasons.
The fumbles may not be coincidental. When Tannehill came out of Texas A&M one of the major criticisms media evaluators had about him was his hand size. At about nine inches, his hands are below-average size for NFL quarterback prospects. Hand size is commonly considered critical for quarterbacks being able to hold onto the football through sacks and other tackles.
Tannehill has played significant minutes in only 19 games thus far in his young pro career, but it was the fourth game that featured three or more turnovers. So his performance against the Saints reflects another disturbing trend Tannehill established back at Texas A&M, where he had four games of three or more interceptions, despite playing significant snaps in only about 20 games.
For some reason, Tannehill has a “when it rains, it pours” tendency when it comes to turnovers.
Final Position Stats: 22 of 35 for 249 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT, 4 runs for 48 yards, 0 TD, 1 FUM Lost
Position Grade: D
Tailback Lamar Miller ran the football 11 times for 62 yards, including a five-yard touchdown run during the second quarter against the Saints. He did not fumble the ball, and in the passing game he contributed a six-yard catch on 3rd-and-7.
Backup tailback Daniel Thomas struggled for the most part. He carried the football four times for just five yards, including a two-yard loss on 3rd-and-inches run during the Dolphins’ first drive of the game.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the two tailbacks sat back in pass protection eight times and did not allow a pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins did get a significant contribution at the RB position from return specialist Marcus Thigpen, who played only three snaps during the game. But one of those plays was a huge 50-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-9 in the second quarter.
The Dolphins may want to consider giving Thigpen some of Daniel Thomas’ snaps on offense, considering how disappointing Thomas’ play has been. Thomas continues to be the primary back on passing downs, as the coaches feel his blocking ability is valuable to the passing offense.
But Thomas has had a number of breakdowns in pass-blocking, which have resulted in pressure and sacks of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Further, Thigpen’s elusiveness and pass-catching abilities could pose problems for opposing defenses.
If the Dolphins are having trouble figuring out whether to sacrifice protection and go only with a pass-catching back on obvious passing downs, they need look no further than the team that destroyed them on Monday Night Football.
According to Pro Football Focus, Saints tailback Darren Sproles has been on the field for 132 total snaps, including 104 passes. He has stayed in the backfield to protect quarterback Drew Brees on only seven of those snaps.
Final Position Stats: 15 runs for 67 yards, 1 rush TD, 3 catches for 57 yards, 0 receiving TD, 0 FUMs
Position Grade: B+
Mike Wallace had another disappointing game as he caught three passes for a total of 24 yards.
Wallace was targeted seven times during the game. It was the third poor performance by Wallace, whose production through four games is not befitting that of the five-year, $60 million contract he signed during the offseason. He is now on pace for 60 catches for 704 yards and four touchdowns for the 2013 season.
Wallace and Tannehill were not on the same page for much of the game. The best example of this came on two deep slants thrown during the second half.
On the first, Tannehill attempted to throttle Wallace down rather than leading him to the inside of the defender. Wallace was late getting his head around to look for the football, which made the pass look more inaccurate than it really was. Not seeing the ball until it almost upon him ensured that Wallace had zero chance to adjust and make the catch.
On the second deep slant, both players still remained on different pages and the result of this miscommunication was a tipped ball that was intercepted.
Brian Hartline also had a disappointing football game, catching three balls for 34 yards. He also was partially responsible for an interception during the second quarter.
On the play, corner Jabari Greer sat down in his coverage, anticipated and jumped Hartline's slant route. Regardless of Greer’s aggressive move, it is Hartline’s job as a receiver to cross his face and fight for the football. If Hartline was unable to catch the football, it was his job to make sure that Greer didn't either. Hartline failed to do that, and Greer came away with an easy, unchallenged interception.
The only receiver that seemed to show up in a significant way against New Orleans was slot receiver Brandon Gibson, who had six receptions for 71 yards, 39 of which came after the catch. However, when your top two receivers do not show up, and the most production you get from the position is 70 yards from your No. 3 receiver, your offense is going to struggle.
Final Position Stats: 13 catches on 21 targets, 150 yards, 0 TD
Position Grade: D
Tight end Charles Clay had a decent outing as he totaled six catches for 42 yards, including a three-yard touchdown in the third quarter off a beautiful teardrop pass thrown by Ryan Tannehill.
Clay’s blocking had mixed results at best, and his pass-catching efforts generally came during the “too little, too late” portion of the game.
According to Pro Football Focus, tight ends Dion Sims and Michael Egnew accounted for 13 snaps during the game. They were not asked to do much. Their blocking was sound, for the most part. However, Sims dropped the only pass that went in either tight end's direction during the game.
Final Position Stats: 6 catches on 7 targets, 42 yards, 1 TD
Position Grade: B-
Against the Saints, center Mike Pouncey continued to perform at the highest level. His run-blocking was one of the reasons the Dolphins were able to pound the ball so well with tailback Lamar Miller.
However, if there is one significant weakness in Pouncey’s game, it is his inability to get enough push in short-yardage situations. This issue is what may have compelled head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman to call a zone-based run on 3rd-and-inches in the first quarter, as opposed to a quarterback sneak or dive play.
Guard Richie Incognito on the other hand, does not lack for power in short situations. He had a very good day run-blocking, though according to Pro Football Focus notes that he allowed two hits on quarterback Ryan Tannehill in pass protection.
The rest of the offensive line had very poor outings: Left tackle Jonathan Martin allowed two sacks on quarterback Ryan Tannehill; Tyson Clabo allowed one sack, but also gave up several other pressures; guard John Jerry had a lot of trouble keeping Saints players from collapsing the middle of the pocket. None of the three stood out in run-blocking, despite Lamar Miller’s success on the ground.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) has a statistic based on the sacks, hits and hurries allowed by offensive tackles relative to their total snaps in pass protection. On the season, Jonathan Martin now ranks No. 47 out of 70 tackles that have taken at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps. Tyson Clabo ranks No. 60 out of 70. John Jerry now ranks No. 45 out of 71 qualifying guards.
Though PFF does not have a statistic for run-blocking, its analysts do grade run-blocking based on careful examination of every snap. Both Miami tackles, Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo, are currently tied at No. 66.
Right guard John Jerry ranks No. 57 out of 71 qualifying guards.
Position Grade: D+
The Dolphins defensive line had a decent overall outing against the New Orleans Saints offensive line. They sacked quarterback Drew Brees twice during the game. They led an effort that held Saints tailbacks to only 3.3 yards per carry on the ground.
The defensive line did this without star defensive end Cameron Wake, who missed the game with a knee injury. Defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai stood out for their effectiveness in both phases, as did defensive end Olivier Vernon and newly signed reserve defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
The problem is that the game plan against the Saints called for little blitzing while putting the onus of generating a pass rush on the defensive line. The line did not necessarily answer the bell. According to Pro Football Focus, Miami's defensive linemen pressured Drew Brees on a total of six of his 42 dropbacks, though they did register two sacks.
Rookie first-round pick defensive end Dion Jordan did not rush the passer as well he did in his previous outings. Derrick Shelby started in place of the injured Cameron Wake and put very little pressure on Brees. Defensive tackle Randy Starks had arguably his worst performance of the season, both against the run and the pass.
Final Position Stats: 2.0 sacks, 17 combined tackles
Position Grade: B-
The Miami Dolphins linebackers struggled against the New Orleans Saints.
One reason the linebackers deserve better than a true failing grade is they were able to hold tailbacks Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Khiry Robinson to a 3.3 yards-per-carry average, which is the best performance of the year for the Miami Dolphins run defense.
That said, the linebackers’ coverage of tight ends Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson, tailback Darren Sproles and slot receiver Marques Colston was atrocious.
Dannell Ellerbe had an OK game in run defense but struggled a bit in coverage. He made an very poor effort on a 3rd-and-20 play that resulted in a 21-yard catch by Sproles, which was one of the plays that ended up costing Miami the game. Ellerbe was slow to react and get over to tackle Sproles, who scampered for the necessary yardage.
Due to injury, Koa Misi played a very limited snaps. However, he failed to contained Sproles on the same 3rd-and-20 conversion.
Backup linebacker Jelani Jenkins came into the game for a few plays and was immediately victimized by Drew Brees on a four-yard touchdown pass to the backup tight end Watson.
The worst offender in coverage, though, was linebacker Philip Wheeler, who had seven passes completed against him or 87 yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has not done Wheeler any favors in coverage, schematically speaking. Wheeler is routinely given the most difficult coverage assignments.
At times during the game, the Saints would motion Jimmy Graham away from the formation, leaving wide receiver Marques Colston lined up in the slot. The Dolphins’ zone defense called for corner Brent Grimes to stay on the perimeter and take Graham, which left Wheeler covering Colston one-on-one. This mismatch heavily favored the Saints, and it is an example of Coyle setting his players up to fail.
Under normal circumstances, Wheeler's ability to blitz would compensate for his deficiencies in coverage. However, this was not the case in the Saints game.
Because of Drew Brees’ unusual skill at dissecting blitzes, Coyle uncharacteristically pulled his players back into coverage rather than blitzing. According to Pro Football Focus the Dolphins sent on average only 4.11 pass-rushers per pass play against the Saints, versus the team’s average of 4.49 over the previous three games.
The Dolphins took an approach against Brees that was similar to how they defensed Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons offense, which meant blitzing on about three out of ten plays rather than four or five out of ten plays.
Final Position Stats: 0.0 sacks, 15 combined tackles
Position Grade: D+
Strong safety Reshad Jones continued his disappointing season by struggling to cover Saints tailbacks Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas out of the backfield.
Jones tough evening started on the Saints first drive as Darren Sproles ran a wheel route with Jones taking an awful angle in coverage, resulting in a 48-yard gain for the New Orleans scatback. This was one of the eight most critical plays that contributed to the Dolphins’ loss.
Free safety Chris Clemons did not do any better. He allowed a 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham.
Neither safety was able to confuse Saints quarterback Drew Brees. They were unable to force him into bad throws, nor did they diagnose or anticipate plays well enough to generate any turnovers.
The turnover margin in favor of New Orleans played a big role in this game. Most teams should expect their offense to have one or two turnovers in every game. It is up to the defense to contribute takeaways of their own to counter any field-position disadvantages that result from its own offense turning the football over.
Final Position Stats: 14 combined tackles, 0 interceptions
Position Grade: F
Brent Grimes continued his high level of performance against the Saints. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed only two catches for a total of 24 yards.
Neither of the catches he allowed turned out to be critical plays in the game.
Corner Nolan Carroll factored in on a critical play in the first half. On a 3rd-and-11, the Saints completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to tailback Darren Sproles, who ran to the sideline underneath Carroll’s zone coverage.
The Saints did a good job forcing Carroll into a tough decision. New Orleans flooded his zone with two receiving options, and Carroll was initially forced to move inside with wide receiver Marques Colston before passing him off to the next zone. He then had to swing back out to Sproles but was a heartbeat late in undercutting the route. Rather than going for the interception, Carroll should have focused on tackling Sproles and preventing a first down.
Other than that play, Carroll did surprisingly well on the night. He did allow an 18-yard completion to wide receiver Nick Toon on 3rd-and-12, but the Saints ultimately had to punt. Carroll was on the sideline for a number of plays with an injury, but he came back into the game and broke up two passes prior to allowing the crucial touchdown to Sproles.
Corners Jimmy Wilson and Jamar Taylor had much more challenging days, and their individual performances which brings down further the overall position grade. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson allowed four catches for a total of 41 yards on four attempts.
Jamar Taylor was entrusted with single coverage on tight end Jimmy Graham on a second-quarter play that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown. Taylor also allowed 19-yard and 14-yard catches to wide receiver Marques Colston during the Saints’ final drive of the third quarter.
Final Position Stats: 10 combined tackles, 0 interceptions, 2 passes defensed
Position Grade: C-
This was perhaps the special teams’ worst outing of the season. The fact that the effort still garners a mediocre grade really says something about how well they have been performing this year.
Place kicker Caleb Sturgis continued to be the bright point of the unit, as he successfully kicked a 34-yard field goal. He also produced touchbacks on two of his four kickoffs.
Punter Brandon Fields had less success. He averaged 52.0 yards on his four punts, however his one attempt to punt the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line ended went into the end zone. Additionally, Darren Sproles was able to return the other three punts for a total of 44 yards, the highest return average the Dolphins have allowed this season.
The results of the Dolphins’ return units were less than stellar. Miami return man Marcus Thigpen contributed only a five-yard punt return. He did have 68 yards on three kick returns.
Position Grade: C