Generally speaking, isolating the factors that won or lost a close game is difficult, because any given play could have swung the score in either direction. Yet, in this particular game, one particular play ended up being a very large factor in the loss.
With approximately 2:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins opted to pass the ball on 2nd-and-8 from the 50-yard line. The result was an unmitigated disaster in more ways than most fans realize.
Here we will explore and analyze the various elements of the play in an attempt to isolate some of the variables that went wrong for Miami. We will focus on how the protection, offensive predictability and choice of play call contributed to a game-losing play.
The obvious result of the play was a sack-fumble created by Bills star defensive end Mario Williams, who beat Miami's controversial right tackle Tyson Clabo in order to hit quarterback Ryan Tannehill as he was attempting to release the football.
Though most focus on Clabo's poor blocking, there are a few more factors that remain largely unaccounted for in the public perception of the play.
One such factor was the protection on the other side of the line. Clabo is rightly criticized for being abused by Mario Williams on the play. This did not give Tannehill enough time to execute what was an attempt at a timing-based throw to receiver Brian Hartline. Williams was able to strip the football as Tannehill attempted to deliver it.
However, the other side of the protection did not hold up either.
As you can see, Bills pass-rusher Jerry Hughes was allowed to run across the line of scrimmage unchallenged as tight end Charles Clay released on his route and fellow tight end Dion Sims blocked down in order to pick up a stunt. This left tailback Daniel Thomas the unpleasant task of picking up the linebacker in the backfield.
Thomas did a less than admirable job in protection. He set up for his block too close to Tannehill and failed to use his own momentum in order to attack Hughes head-on. This left him flat-footed, whereas Hughes had a full head of steam. The result was Hughes being able to forklift Thomas and fling him directly into Tannehill.
Even if Tyson Clabo had been able to stave off Mario Williams for an extra half a second, Tannehill was going to be hit as he attempted to throw the football to Hartline. The result could have been anything from an incomplete pass to an interception or even a sack-fumble. In other words, this play was doomed by the protection, regardless of Clabo's poor blocking.
Unfortunately, protection was not the only issue on the play. In the wake of the defeat, Miami's coaches and players put out several quotes that piqued concern about the potential that offensive predictability may have factored into the play, even had Tannehill been able to release the ball cleanly.
According to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, head coach Joe Philbin had the following to say about the play:
"It was one of our pass concepts," coach Joe Philbin said. "It was something we'd done a bunch of. It was a base concept, a play we felt we knew and a play we felt we could execute."
In the same article, Tannehill points out that the Bills had given the Dolphins the same coverage versus that particular offensive formation all game.
Together, these quotes produce concern that the Dolphins had run this concept out of this offensive formation a few times previously during the game. If the Bills were not changing the scheme used to cover the play, then it was up to the Bills players to recognize the offensive tendencies and adapt to them. Were they able to do so?
The answer is clearly yes. Yet another unrecognized, sad aspect of this 2nd-and-8 play is the simple fact that the Buffalo corners knew what the Miami receivers were going to do on the play, and neither receiver Mike Wallace nor Brian Hartline were open on as a result.
As you can see on the play, corners Aaron Williams and Leodis McKelvin allow Hartline and Wallace outside releases. Though McKelvin keeps his leverage over top of Wallace as a safety measure due to Wallace's speed, he aggressively keys on the curl and is right there with Wallace when he makes his break.
On the other side, Williams clearly does not respect Hartline's speed as he intentionally stays in third gear to stalk Hartline on the route from a trailing position. He is far more concerned about the underneath-breaking route than a fly pattern. He keys on Hartline's body language the entire time and waits for Hartline to make his break. As soon as Hartline does, Williams is right there with him.
If either route is planned to be a comeback, which would involve the receiver breaking to the outside instead of to the inside, allowing an outside release would be problematic for the corners. The corners were not only expecting the receivers to come back to the football, they expected the inside-breaking curl instead of the outside-breaking comeback. They got what they were expecting.
This leaves us wondering how the Bills knew what to expect on the play. There is no doubt the Bills had seen some of Miami's tendencies on film. However, the Dolphins had shown this concept to the Bills corners several times during the game itself, which contributed to their aggressiveness in defending the routes.
During the third quarter, the Miami Dolphins lined up in the exact same formation as the 2nd-and-8 play that lost the team the game. The Bills showed the same coverage on the play. Both Hartline and Wallace ran inside-breaking curls on the play.
The primary difference on this play was that corner Aaron Williams allowed Hartline a clean inside release, which set up the effectiveness of the curl route. This play gained 15 yards for the Dolphins as a result. The Dolphins executed similar concepts, though not necessarily always out of the same offensive formation, on three other plays during the game when the Bills showed this defensive alignment.
By showing the Dolphins the same defensive look against this particular offensive formation, the Bills baited Miami into thinking it could run the play and enjoy the same result. They know Miami has that tendency from film study. So instead of making a major adjustment in the defensive look against the formation, the Bills players made minor adjustments in their technique that made all the difference in Miami's ability to execute the play.
The Play Call
According to the above-quoted article from Omar Kelly, Ryan Tannehill checked the Dolphins into a pass play at the line of scrimmage based on the Bills' defensive formation.
This decision has been criticized by many, considering the situation. With less than three minutes remaining in the game, two more run plays would have brought the game clock down to the two-minute warning, barring a timeout by the Bills. The Bills showed on first down that they were not inclined to burn their three timeouts prior to the two-minute warning.
Though most fans tend to criticize conservative principles, there are some situations in which those principles bear wisdom. This may have been one such situation.
The Dolphins possess one of the best punters in the league in Brandon Fields. On the very drive prior to the disastrous 2nd-and-8 play, Fields had punted the ball from the 50-yard line and pinned Buffalo at its own 7-yard line.
Even had the Dolphins not gained the first down by running the football, there was a very good chance Fields could have repeated his feat, forcing the Bills to put together a clock-constrained 60-yard drive in order to give place kicker Dan Carpenter a legitimate chance to win the game.
Furthermore, Miami's explanation that the Bills having eight defensive players in the box dictated it pass the football does not necessarily fully explain the decision.
The above play is a snapshot of the Bills defense on the play that happened immediately before the 2nd-and-8 disaster. The Bills are plainly in the same aggressively stacked box as the following play. The Dolphins ran tailback Daniel Thomas up the B-gap for a 2-yard gain.
Tannehill did not check into a pass play on first down, so the question remains why did he do so on second down?
The above is a testament to the beauty of professional football. Any given play can make or break any given game. On each play, there are a myriad of factors that can be explored in-depth that can contribute to the play's failure or success.
In the case of the fourth quarter, 2nd-and-8 play that stands out in most peoples' minds as having lost the game for the Miami Dolphins against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, we have a great example of a play doomed to failure by multiple factors.
While the poor pass protection of right tackle Tyson Clabo is the most obvious and well-recognized factor to contribute to the play's failure, poor protection from tailback Daniel Thomas, offensive predictability by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and an ill-fated check at the line of scrimmage by quarterback Ryan Tannehill all contributed to a play that was doomed to failure in a number of ways.