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Miami Dolphins: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 8

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 Miami Dolphins: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 8
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The stakes have risen considerably for the Miami Dolphins, as they head out on the road again to play the New England Patriots in Foxboro during Week 8. The team lost its first division game of the season against the Buffalo Bills, dropping to a 3-3 record and third place within the division.

A win against the Bills would have given the Dolphins some margin for error, as they travel to play a very good football team in their own stadium this week. The team lost that margin for error in the closing minutes of the game when Bills defensive end Mario Williams sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill, stripping the football from his hands. Williams' teammate Kyle Williams fell on the ball deep in Dolphins territory, which allowed the  team to kick a game-winning field goal with only 33 seconds remaining on the clock.

Here, we'll break down everything you need to know heading into Week 8. We will take you through division standings and an updated injury report, and we will highlight the areas in which Miami must improve if it wants to get back on track.

 

Division Standings

Division Standings
Team Record PF PA Next Game
New England 5-2 152 127 Miami
New York Jets 4-3 134 162 at Cincinnati
Miami 3-3 135 140 at New England
Buffalo 3-4 159 178 at New Orleans

NFL.com

All four teams in the AFC East played one another during Week 7, and the results have shaken up the pecking order in the division significantly.

The New England Patriots lost a heart-breaker of their own on the road against the New York Jets. The Patriots lost the game in overtime in large part due to the officials calling an obscure, newly minted special teams personal foul for pushing another player into the offensive formation during the Jets' long field goal attempt.

Having the game stolen out from under you in such fashion by the officials based on a new rule that has been inconsistently applied thus far in 2013 has to leave the Patriots with a sour taste in their mouths. The Jets missed the long field goal attempt on which the personal foul was called. The extra 15 yards gave the Jets a much easier kick to make in order to win the game in overtime.

The win propels the Jets into second place in the division with a 4-3 record, including a 2-1 record within the division. If the Dolphins match the Jets' record, the latter could come into play late in the season as a tiebreak. The Dolphins are currently 0-1 within the division.

Though the Bills had been stuck at the bottom of the division with a 2-4 record, the team had lost close contests against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals. Having also beaten the Panthers and Ravens, the team had proved that it should not be penciled in as an "easy" win for any team. Despite this, Las Vegas odds-makers initially favored the Miami Dolphins in Week 7 by more than a touchdown.

Buffalo proved them wrong by stealing a victory in the closing minutes against the Dolphins after a costly sack-fumble by quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The win pulls the Bills to within half a game of the Dolphins for third place in the division.

 

Injury Update

Miami Dolphins Injury Report
Name Position Injury Week 7
Dannell Ellerbe LB Shoulder Out
Cameron Wake DE Knee Active
Dimitri Patterson CB Groin Active

NFL.com

The good news for Miami is the team escaped the loss against the Bills in Week 7 largely without any fresh injuries.

Dolphins star defensive end Cameron Wake returned to the field after the bye week, but he continued to show ill effects from the knee injury taken against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wake only played a total of 22 out of a possible 68 snaps this Sunday. He did not record a sack during the game and only pressured the quarterback once. While his availability for the game against the Patriots in Week 8 is not necessarily in doubt, his effectiveness during the game is certainly a question mark.

Defensive tackle Paul Soliai continued to play after suffering a similar knee injury early in the season. He missed the Week 3 contest against the Falcons but has played well in all three games since returning to the starting lineup, and for all intents and purposes, he no longer deserves mention on the injury report.

Cornerback Dimitri Patterson returned to the lineup Sunday after having missed four of the team's initial five games. The Dolphins eased Patterson back into action by having him play the role of nickel corner rather than starting in place of Nolan Carroll, who played well during Patterson's extended absence. Patterson did not appear to suffer any setbacks during the game.

Though Patterson let up a big 30-yard catch to T.J. Graham during his limited action, the nickel slot corner role is where he has excelled most during his NFL career. The Dolphins should continue to explore the idea of using him as a nickel slot corner while Nolan Carroll starts on the perimeter and plays in base personnel packages with only two corners on the field.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe missed the game against the Bills in Week 7 despite numerous assertions that he would play. Ellerbe did not participate in practice all week and was listed as doubtful for the game. His availability for the game against the Patriots will likely depend on his practice participation rather than any boisterous claims made by the player himself.

 

What Must Improve

Despite the outcome of the game, the Dolphins made a lot of headway improving some key areas against the Buffalo Bills this Sunday. The game was lost due to a few new problems emerging during the first half of the football game, as well as some old problems resurfacing during the latter part of the game.

The new problems that emerged during the game centered on poor decision-making by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on two costly interceptions during the first half. It is up to Tannehill not to place the football in danger as he did on those plays. However, offensive predictability also played a role in the plays, making the circumstances more difficult for Tannehill.

Tannehill threw an ill-advised ball to wide receiver Brandon Gibson as he broke outside from his slot position. Buffalo nickel corner Nickell Robey seemed to know what was coming and broke underneath Gibson, whose route running on the play left a lot to be desired. Robey intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

This play highlighted the fact that the Bills defense seemed to have a bead on what the Dolphins offense intended, especially in the passing game, for much of the contest.

Later in the first quarter, Tannehill locked onto receiver Brian Hartline as he crossed from right to left in the end zone. The Bills were in zone coverage on the play, and Tannehill should have known that with his receiver on the left side running a drag across the middle, the zone defender to that side, Aaron Williams, would end up dropping back to depth and defending the zone from intrusion from the right side. Additionally, both Charles Clay and Rishard Matthews were open underneath the defensive rotation.

The two plays combined for a 10 to 14 point swing on the scoreboard.

The improvements the team made during the first three quarters of the game mostly revolved around a redoubled commitment to the ground game. The Dolphins started and featured tailback Daniel Thomas during the game, and he repaid the team with 12 runs for 60 yards. Lamar Miller ran 9 times for 48 yards and showed his big play ability by breaking off a 30-yard gain during one of Miami's three touchdown drives.

Despite the success, the commitment to the ground game completely evaporated in the fourth quarter. The run-pass balance went from 22 run plays called in the first three quarters versus 26 pass plays, to 14 pass plays called in the fourth quarter versus only three run plays.

According to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the critical 2nd-and-8 sack-fumble play was checked into a pass at the line of scrimmage because Tannehill saw eight Buffalo defenders stacking the box.

The team seems to be defending a "one size fits all" mentality about the line checks in which there is little room for adaptation according to situation. The Dolphins coaches should communicate to the players thematic changes in rules that fit the situation.

The problem with the lack of run plays in the fourth quarter started well before the infamous 2nd-and-8 sack-fumble play. Despite significant run success established during the first three quarters of the game, the Dolphins opened the fourth quarter with three straight pass calls. On the next drive, the team opened with yet another pass call that ended with a sack that was waived off due to a defensive holding penalty.

The excuse about checking into pass plays against an eight-man box does not explain the Dolphins starting the quarter so pass-heavy. All four plays featured pass-heavy personnel packages. Tannehill lined up in the shotgun initially on all four plays, before he could see what the Bills were showing on defense.

Additionally, the excuse as it pertains to the 2nd-and-8 sack-fumble itself seems dubious in light of the fact that the Dolphins ran the ball with Daniel Thomas on the 1st-and-10 prior to the play, despite the Bills showing the same eight-man box that they showed on 2nd-and-8.

Dolphins coaches seem to view running the football as a necessary evil, even when the run is succeeding. In the above article by Omar Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman defended the pass-heavy fourth quarter by suggesting a team cannot sit on a 1-point lead in the fourth quarter.

This implies that running the football in the fourth quarter does not have any benefits aside from simply checking into whichever plays are most likely to work. If the Dolphins want to win football games this year, with the pass protection issues that are now well established, the team must adapt that philosophy.

Speaking of the pass protection, the Dolphins apparently had enough of an offensive line featuring Jonathan Martin at left tackle and Tyson Clabo at right tackle. According Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Dolphins traded for Baltimore Ravens left tackle Bryan McKinnie.

Though the team has yet to make its intentions with McKinnie clear, the strategy that would make the most sense would involve moving left tackle Jonathan Martin back to right tackle while McKinnie mans the left tackle position. McKinnie is a career left tackle, and a sudden transition to the right side at 34 years old may prove to be a folly.

According to Pro Football Focus' advanced statistics (subscription required), McKinnie ranked only No. 51 out of 72 qualified offensive tackles in pass blocking efficiency, which accounts for the sacks, hits and hurries allowed by offensive linemen and expresses them as a percentage of total snaps in pass protection. By the same measure, left tackle Jonathan Martin ranked No. 54, and right tackle Tyson Clabo ranked No. 69.

While it is unclear whether the Dolphins will truly receive a boost in pass protection by moving from Jonathan Martin to Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, the Dolphins should receive a boost in ability by moving from Tyson Clabo at right tackle to Jonathan Martin.

The team must pin their hopes on McKinnie significantly improving the pass protection. They cannot continue to take on water whenever it decides the best course of action is to pass the ball to win the game.

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