The Miami Dolphins will soon return to the football field after a week off. While the players no doubt used the week off to recuperate from various injuries and ailments, the coaching staff used the extra time to contemplate schematic and personnel adjustments.
In this piece, we will take a close look at five projected adjustments that the Miami Dolphins coaching staff should execute as they return to action in Week 7.
The team should focus on increasing its use of play action on first down, increasing its run calls on second down, utilizing more read-option plays as part of the run game, making a change at the running back position and getting rookie defensive end Dion Jordan more involved.
The Miami Dolphins have a problem on first down, and more play-action passes could be part of the solution.
According to statistics compiled by Pro Football Reference, the team ranks No. 30 in the league in average yards gained on first down. The offense averages only 4.51 yards.
Running back Lamar Miller gained an average of 5.1 yards per carry on his 30 first-down runs during the first five games, according to ESPN’s statistical splits. Therefore, Miller’s running is not the reason the team’s average is far down in league rankings.
Also according to ESPN’s statistical splits, running back Daniel Thomas only gained 3.2 yards per carry on first downs during the first five games of the season. While Thomas is definitely more part of the problem than part of the solution, his impact on the overall statistic has to be low as he only took 16 total first-down carries.
The real reason the Dolphins rank low on first down is because the passing game on first down is not aggressive enough. Referring back to the data from Pro Football Reference, among the 30 quarterbacks with at least 40 throw attempts on first down, Tannehill’s average yards per completion ranks second to last.
Play-action passes tend to be more aggressive in nature. For example, using data gathered by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we see that quarterback average yards per completion on play-action passes in 2013 is approximately 13.4 yards versus the average on non play-action passes of approximately 11.4 yards.
Tannehill is particularly effective on play-action passes. In 2012, he had the second-highest passer rating on play-action passes among qualified quarterbacks. Though his ranking has fallen to 10th in the league in 2013, he still has a 108.8 passer rating on play-action passes.
The Miami Dolphins are not a balanced football team. Given some of the discomfort the team has shown with its running backs, there may be little hope that the coaches will suddenly commit to balanced offense. However, that does not mean they cannot make modest adjustments that could pay dividends.
One such adjustment would involve running the football more on second down.
While the Dolphins are not balanced on first down, they are not quite at the fringe of the NFL. According to data from Pro Football Reference, the league has run the football as a whole approximately 49 percent of the time on first down.
The Dolphins have run the football approximately 43 percent of first downs. Though the figure means a No. 28 ranking in terms of commitment to running the football on first down, the percentage is not far out of line.
On the other hand, the Dolphins have only run the football approximately 31 percent of second downs. The league has averaged approximately 42 percent running on second down, which means the Dolphins rank No. 31 in commitment to running the ball on second down.
Miami tends to show more aggressive tendencies on second down. Using that same data from Pro Football Reference, we see that Tannehill ranks No. 3 among quarterbacks with 40 or more pass attempts on second down in terms of average yards per completion.
On the other hand, this takes a toll on Tannehill’s completion rate, which ranks No. 21 out of the 28 qualifying quarterbacks. Additionally, the downfield focus results in more sacks.
Sacks on first and second down have the potential to kill drives, whereas a sack on third down (except in some notable situations) will tend to be little more costly than an incomplete pass.
If Miami is going to show aggressiveness in the passing game, they may be better off doing so on first down as opposed to second down. A negative result on first down would give the team a chance on second down to make up some yardage in order to try and get back on schedule for third down.
Aggressive play calls on second down leading to incomplete passes and sacks feed directly into long down-and-distance situations on third down.
There is nothing to say the Dolphins must tone down the aggressiveness of their pass calls on second down. However, it might be wise to balance out the aggressiveness with more run plays on second down.
The Miami Dolphins talked a little bit during the offseason about running more read-option plays on offense. However, the talk did not translate onto the field during the first five games.
The most perplexing aspect of the lack of read-option play-calls for the Dolphins offense is the wild success enjoyed on the occasions when the team did make use of the run technique.
During the first quarter of the Dolphins game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, the Dolphins called a read-option run on 2nd-and-5. Ryan Tannehill read the defensive end to the play side, kept the football and ran around left end for a 26-yard gain.
One week later, the Dolphins ran a similar read-option play to the right side against the Baltimore Ravens. The play earned the offense six yards on 1st-and-10. One would have thought the coaches would be encouraged by the results. However, that run constituted Tannehill’s lone read-option run in the game.
The Dolphins need to focus on creating more spacing and better angles in the running game so that they can recommit to offensive balance without damaging the unit’s potency. One way to do that is by calling more of these read-option run plays.
The Miami Dolphins need to finally close the book on running back Daniel Thomas in order to make room for more involvement by return specialist Marcus Thigpen.
The team originally drafted Thomas in the second round of the 2011 draft. He repaid the team by averaging 3.5 yards per carry in 2011, 3.6 yards per carry in 2012 and currently 2.6 yards per carry in 2013.
The running excuse for his continued presence on the field despite poor performance has always been his ability to block for the quarterback in the backfield. Yet according to Pro Football Focus, this season Thomas is personally responsible for allowing two sacks on quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Thomas catches the football fairly well. However, his overall lack of speed makes him unfit to run some of the more aggressive routes run by running backs such as the wheel route.
Though Thomas is a large back, he has never established any consistent success in short-yardage situations.
Both his uses and his excuses are dwindling fast, and it is time the team gives his snaps to a player with more promise.
The primary beneficiary of snaps taken away from running back Daniel Thomas should be return man Marcus Thigpen.
On a 2nd-and-7 during the first quarter of the game against the New Orleans Saints, the Dolphins lined up with four receivers unattached to the offensive line with Marcus Thigpen in the backfield.
Thigpen ran a screen pattern as offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin released out front of him. Tannehill was forced to float the football overhead hoping Thigpen could track it and run under it for the catch, as Saints defender Junior Galette had noticed the screen setup and had got between the quarterback and his intended target.
Unfortunately, this pass fell incomplete. Yet, the play showed tremendous potential as Thigpen may not have stopped running on it until he had gained 62 yards and a touchdown had he and the quarterback made the connection.
Luckily, the Dolphins followed up during the Saints game by having Thigpen run a quick release from the backfield as the Saints blitzed on 3rd-and-9. This time, Tannehill and Thigpen were able to connect for a 50-yard gain which led to an eventual touchdown.
The Dolphins need to think outside the box with Marcus Thigpen. The coaching staff seems stuck on the idea that the player they rotate with Lamar Miller must be an accomplished blocker.
The 50-yard gain on third down shows exactly why this is not the case. Instead of having the back stay in to block the extra pass-rusher, the Dolphins sent him out for a quick pass that challenged the defense.
The Saints have been using Darren Sproles in this manner for years. They do not obsess with his prowess as a blocker. They utilize his pass-catching prowess as a means of keeping quarterback Drew Brees’ jersey clean.
It is now time for the Miami Dolphins to take rookie defensive end Dion Jordan out of his plastic wrap and allow him to get dirty.
The team drafted Jordan No. 3 overall in the 2013 NFL draft. However, according to Pro Football Focus he has only played 101 snaps.
Pro Football Focus tracks the pass-rush success of defensive ends by means of a statistic they dub “Pass- Rushing Productivity." The statistic is merely a function of the sacks, hits and hurries produced by a pass-rusher divided by the number of times he rushed the passer on pass plays.
According to the site’s data, among 4-3 defensive ends that have participated in at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, Jordan ranks No. 8 in Pass-Rush Productivity.
Though Jordan has a reputation for not being stout against the run, his tape at Oregon showed otherwise. The good run defense on tape has thus far translated well into the NFL, albeit on limited opportunities. Jordan has shown power, the ability to control his gap and the mobility to chase plays to the perimeter.
The Dolphins must find a way to make his rotation into the starting lineup much more active, especially with star defensive end Cameron Wake still hindered by a nagging knee injury.