The NFL season is so full of ups and downs that sometimes it is difficult to take a step back and see the forest for the trees. Perhaps nowhere else in the NFL is this more true than in Miami, where the Dolphins started the 2013 season with a three-game winning streak and followed it up with a three-game losing streak.
Here we will attempt to strip down the Dolphins and examine the team's roster weaknesses that have contributed most to the team's mediocre record, in an effort to get our arms fully wrapped around what areas of the team must improve going forward for the Dolphins to turn the tide on their season.
The most relevant determinant of the ability to turn around the season will always center on the quality of the roster. Coaching strategies can change, as can the temperament and focus level of an NFL team. But during the NFL season, the roster talent almost never changes for the better. If changes in roster talent occur during the season, they are usually for the worst, because of injuries.
The biggest weakness on offense is along the offensive line.
Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin ranks No. 54 out of 72 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus' signature "pass block efficiency" statistic. Tyson Clabo ranks No. 69 of 72 in the same statistic. Newly acquired tackle Bryant McKinnie ranks No. 51 out of 72, as well. Right guard John Jerry ranks No. 47 out of 73 qualifying guards.
Pro Football Focus does not have an objective, statistics-based metric that measures run-blocking success. However, it does grade each play of every player on a subjective basis and accumulate those grades for individual games and the season. They categorize these grades according to the job they were expected to do on the play (e.g. run-blocking, pass-blocking, screen-blocking, etc.).
According to those grades, the run-blocking of the players in question is even worse than the objective, statistics-based pass-blocking efficiency indicated. Out of 75 qualifying offensive tackles, Bryant McKinnie's run-blocking grade ranks No. 74. Tyson Clabo ranks No. 66 and Jonathan Martin ranks No. 58. Out of 74 qualifying guards, John Jerry’s run-blocking grade ranks No. 60 while Richie Incognito’s is not much better at No. 50 overall.
Even among the 35 qualifying centers, Mike Pouncey’s run-blocking grade ranks No. 24 overall. I would argue that this grade is misleading, as the failed run-blocking of several players around him has not allowed him to make the second-level blocks that would really drive up his total grade. Pouncey is a unique talent for the position, but the position itself does not allow for an individual player to make very many impact plays without the cooperation of teammates.
The Dolphins also have a lot of weakness at tight end. Charles Clay has been a very up-and-down player thus far in 2013. Not only is he capable of having great games followed by bad games, he often balances out great performances during individual games with blown opportunities within that same game.
Using another signature statistic of Pro Football Focus, which measures yardage produced per pass route, we catch a glimpse of Clay’s strength as a player. He ranks No. 12 out of 38 qualifying tight ends. He has also caught three touchdown passes.
Using Pro Football Focus to examine the performance of tight ends from the slot, we see that Clay is actually more productive attached to the line as a true tight end than split out into the slot. He has produced 134 yards on 93 routes from the slot (a 1.44 yard average) and 170 yards on 83 routes (a 2.05 yard average) when attached to the formation.
These statistics constitute the good news. The bad news for Clay is that he ranks second among 37 qualifying tight ends in drop rate. Clay’s subjectively based run-blocking grade ranks No. 43 out of 56 qualifying tight ends. Analyzing the data available from the same source, we also see that Clay ranks No. 44 out of the same 56 qualifying tight ends in number of penalties per snap.
The other tight ends in Miami are practically non-existent. Going back to the yards per pass route signature statistic linked above, Michael Egnew ranks No. 85 out of all 109 tight ends who have taken any snaps in 2013. Dion Sims ranks No. 87 on the same measure. While Egnew has positive subjective pass-block and run-block, grades, Sims has significant negative grades given the amount of playing time.
The running backs in Miami are also a significant weakness. The Miami coaching staff continues to show discomfort with tailback Lamar Miller, despite his average yardage gained per carry ranking No. 17 among the 57 tailbacks with 30 or more carries on the season. Fellow tailback Daniel Thomas ranks No. 41 out of 57 in the same measure.
Part of the discomfort likely stems from Miller’s pass protection. The question is whether Miller’s weaker pass-protecting skills are more perception than reality. Among 56 qualifying tailbacks, Miller’s pass-block efficiency statistic ranks No. 25. On the same measure, Daniel Thomas’ pass-block efficiency ranks only No. 46 out of 56.
The defensive side of the football carries fewer obvious weaknesses.
The defensive counterpart to Pro Football Focus’ pass-block efficiency statistic would be the pass-rush productivity signature statistic, wherein the sacks, hits and hurries accumulated by defensive players are expressed in relation to the number of times they rushed the passer.
In this measure, defensive end Olivier Vernon ranks No. 28 out of 51 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends. Though the above measure is merely mediocre, Vernon’s work against the run is worse. Pro Football Focus also measures the number of defensive run stops a player was responsible for, expressed in relationship to the number of run plays for which he was on the field. Using this measure, Vernon ranks No. 40 out of 44 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends. He is also among the top eight players from the group in number of missed tackles.
Reserve defensive end Derrick Shelby displays a different profile but is overall not any better than Vernon. Shelby ranks only No. 43 out of 51 qualifying defensive ends in the pass-rush productivity measure mentioned above. He ranks No. 24 out of 44 in the aforementioned run-stop percentage statistic.
Outside linebacker Philip Wheeler has had a very up-and-down start to his career in Miami. Wheeler has been every bit the pass rusher Miami envisioned, as evidenced by his No. 6 ranking out of 28 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers in pass-rush productivity. Furthermore, he has been very aggressive against the run where he ranks No. 3 out of 35 qualifying outside linebackers in run-stop percentage.
However, Wheeler has missed some tackles. Pro Football Focus measures missed tackles accumulated and expresses them in relation to the number of total tackles a player attempted. Wheeler’s tackling efficiency ranks only No. 19 out of 33 qualifying outside linebackers. Additionally, in coverage, Wheeler ranks only No. 16 out of 23 qualifying outside linebackers in average yardage allowed per coverage snap.
The bottom line with Wheeler is that he has been exactly the player he was thought to be when acquired by Miami, based on his tape at previous stops. He is an excellent blitzer and an aggressive run-stopper, with some weaknesses in coverage when asked to do too much. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle asks a lot of Wheeler in coverage due to Miami’s style of defense wherein Wheeler is often placed in difficult positions relative to his coverage assignment prior to the snap.
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been a considerably worse acquisition thus far, especially in relation to his more expensive contract. His run-stop percentage ranks No. 48 out of 51 qualifying inside linebackers. Though he was acquired in large part for his supposed blitzing skills, his pass-rush productivity merely ranks No. 30 out of 45 qualifying inside linebackers.
Ellerbe has not made up for these weaknesses with strong tackling skills, as evidenced by the six total missed tackles recorded by Pro Football Focus. His tackling efficiency ranks only No. 39 out of 51 qualifying inside linebackers.
It should be noted that Ellerbe’s yards given up per snap in coverage is low. He ranks No. 11 out of 48 qualifying inside linebackers in this measure. However, much of that result is based on coverage responsibilities.
While Wheeler has been asked to do more of the heavy lifting in coverage on the outside against tight ends and at times slot receivers such as Marques Colston, Ellerbe has mostly been used in short zones where he is asked to cover players dragging over the middle or to use his range to pursue the football as it is thrown out to the flat. These coverage assignments tend to be straight forward, taking advantage of Ellerbe’s speed and physicality, while masking his lack of pure cover skills.
Many would have predicted the Dolphins to have significant weaknesses in the corners unit, considering the amount of time missed by starting corner Dimitri Patterson. This has not necessarily turned out to be the case.
Most are aware that free-agent acquisition Brent Grimes has been a tremendous performer during the first part of the season. However, corner Nolan Carroll deserves his due. Carroll has been a solid performer for Miami, and the team would be wise to keep him elevated to starter status even as Patterson comes back from injury. Carroll’s yardage given up per coverage snap ranks No. 30 out of 106 qualifying corners. Additionally, his run-stop percentage ranks No. 6 out of 93 qualifying corners.
The biggest weakness at corner has been Jimmy Wilson. As a slot corner, Wilson ranks No. 25 out of 37 qualifying slot corners in yardage allowed per coverage snap.
Among the safeties, Reshad Jones has been the biggest culprit in coverage. Jones ranks No. 74 out of 85 qualifying safeties in yardage given up per coverage snap. Not all of that is completely Jones’ fault, as some scheme adjustments made by Kevin Coyle have put him at times in bad positions relative to his coverage assignment before the snap. Even so, the Dolphins paid Jones a lot of money on a contract extension during the offseason and had to be hoping for better performance than this.
Free safety Chris Clemons has not been challenged in coverage. Using the same data above we see that he ranks among the top five in coverage snaps per target. This can be both good and bad. If Clemons’ man coverage assignments are plentiful, the fact that he remains unchallenged is a testament to his ability. If they are not, the lack of targets in his direct coverage can be evidence of his lack of instincts.
The unfavorable results during somewhat rare instances of Clemons being asked to directly cover tight ends such as Coby Fleener and Jimmy Graham point to his lack of targets being more a function of role than skill. One thing we do know is that his tackling efficiency needs to improve, as Pro Football Focus ranks him No. 55 out of 86 qualifying safeties in this measure.
The weaknesses covered above do not by any means encompass the entire team. The above is meant to be a one-sided analysis that illustrates the areas of the Miami Dolphins that must improve in order for them to turn the tide on their season.
Most teams in the NFL have positions of significant strength as well as positions of relative weakness. The Miami Dolphins do not own any exclusive rights to weak-performing players. One need look no further than the wide receiver, defensive line and safety positions of the team’s upcoming Week 8 opponent to see examples of weak players on good teams.
However, the Dolphins find themselves in the unenviable position of attempting to turn around a three-game losing streak. This week, they attempt to do so against the AFC East division leader. If they would like to get things turned around, then many of the players listed above will need to become the players the team envisioned when they put them on the roster.