With five games on the books and a bye week upcoming, the Miami Dolphins find themselves in need of solutions for getting the team's defunct ground game back on track.
The problem looks daunting based on the combined 56.4 rushing yards per game accumulated by the team's tailbacks through the first five games of the season. Yet the solution may be easier than one would think, and it may be as simple as the offensive play-callers showing more commitment to the run.
Boasting a 3-2 record and second-place position in the AFC East division, the Dolphins have outperformed many preseason expectations.
Heading into the season, most recognized that the front end of the schedule looked exceedingly difficult on paper. Even the heartiest of fans believed the team would be lucky to enter the bye week with a 3-2 record.
Like most teams at this point in the season, the Dolphins have established problems on both sides of the ball. Some problems are the unfortunate result of poor decision-making by the team's personnel department during the offseason. On the other hand, some problems are seemingly self-inflicted by the team's coaching staff.
As one of the problems that must be addressed during the team's upcoming bye week, the offense's lack of running game is a little bit of both.
Tailback Lamar Miller carried the football only 50 times over the first five games of the season, totaling 211 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Tailback Daniel Thomas carried the football 27 times, totaling only 71 yards with an additional two touchdowns.
The combined total of 77 runs for 282 yards and four touchdowns puts the team's tailbacks on pace for 246 carries for 902 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.
That is not an acceptable basis for an NFL ground game.
So what exactly is the problem?
One theory would suggest that the ground game is just too ineffective. Therefore, so the theory goes, the ground game will not improve until the players play better.
While it is certainly true that the players need to play better, the data does not necessarily support the theory that the problem is completely performance-based.
Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we find that during the 64 total games prior to Sunday's Week 5 games, the entire league's tailbacks averaged 22.2 carries per game with 88.7 total rushing yards per game. Therefore, the tailbacks averaged 4.00 yards per carry over the sample.
Miller and Thomas combine for an average of approximately 3.66 yards per carry, thanks in large part to Miller's efficient running. Had the Dolphins run their tailbacks as often as the rest of the NFL, they could have achieved 81.2 yards per game even with the current levels of efficiency.
This suggests that the primary problem is the Dolphins' lack of commitment to the ground game. Miller and Thomas combine for 15.4 attempts per game whereas prior to Sunday's Week 5 games, teams averaged 22.2 attempts per game with their tailbacks.
That lack of commitment might be explainable if the team faced a lot of situations where they were significantly behind on the scoreboard.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that is the case. The Dolphins spent only 39 minutes and 45 seconds trailing their opponent by more than a touchdown during the 300 total minutes of game play in the first five games of the season.
Astoundingly, the Dolphins had nearly the exact same tendency to call a run play with Thomas or Miller during the periods they spent down by more than a touchdown as they did during the rest of the games.
During the 39 minutes and 45 seconds down by more than one score, the team ran the football with Miller or Thomas approximately once every three minutes and 59 seconds. During the remaining 260 minutes and 15 seconds, the team ran the football with Miller or Thomas approximately once every three minutes and 53 seconds.
This fits the quarter-by-quarter data, as well. The pair combined for 21 runs in the first quarter, 20 runs in the second quarter, 18 runs in the third quarter and 18 runs in the fourth quarter.
The issue does not seem to consistently revolve around the team's abandoning the run at some point in the game. Rather, the team consistently abandons the run at all points in the game, during all situations.
Given the nature of the problem, the solution would seem to be relatively simple. The Dolphins need to recommit themselves to a significant ground attack.
The team does not simply need to stick with the ground game that it establishes in the first half of games. It needs to establish that ground game first, and then stick with it.
During the first half of Sunday's game between the Ravens and Dolphins, Baltimore's tailbacks averaged a paltry 2.2 yards per carry. Yet, the team ran the football 15 times during that half and stayed committed to the ground attack in the third quarter.
The strategy paid off in the second half. During the period starting at halftime down 13-6 all the way to the point the Ravens took a 23-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice combined for 63 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. On Baltimore's final drive, Rice and Pierce led the way to a game-winning touchdown with five carries for 20 yards.
If teams run the football early and stay committed to it throughout the second half, they often find that those two- and three-yard gains during the first half turn into four- and five-yard gains in the second half.
The Dolphins probably need to do more than simply call more run plays.
Roster shortcomings have forced the coaches to deal with an unsavory problem in that Miller may be the team's only effective ball-carrier.
His efficiency has been far higher than that of backup Thomas during both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. At this point, the gulf between the two has been far too consistent to be considered coincidental.
While Miller has nearly twice the carries of his backup tailback Thomas in 2013, the mix could be shifted even more favorably toward him.
In essence, the Dolphins do not just need to run the ball more during the first and second halves, they need to specifically run Miller more during those halves.
Additionally, the Dolphins may have another avenue by which they can increase their ground output.
Ryan Tannehill's number has been called on true run plays only twice this season. Yet those two runs accounted for 32 yards of rushing. Tannehill scampered for 26 yards on an option play against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, and this Sunday, he ran for another six yards on a keeper against the Ravens.
If the coaches are worried about the ground game's efficiency, they may be able to increase that efficiency by calling more of these plays.
Examining the Dolphins' issues establishing the ground game in 2013, both the problem and the solution become clear: The Dolphins simply need more.
They need more commitment in both the first and second halves of games. They need more carries for Miller. They need more option plays that utilize quarterback Tannehill's athleticism.
If the Dolphins are able to fix these issues of commitment and strategy during the bye week, the team should be able to resume its winning ways.