Exaggeration is an unfortunate reality when it comes to sports writing. That said, it would not be exaggerating at all to say the Miami Dolphins are playing for the entire 2013 season this Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The team’s record has fallen below .500 for the first time this season, thanks to a controversial loss against the New England Patriots in Week 8. The Dolphins ran out to a 17-3 halftime lead, only to see it vaporize in the third quarter under a hail of turnovers and borderline judgment calls by the officials.
If the Dolphins were to fall to a 3-5 record this Thursday night, for all intents and purposes the 2013 season would be over. The record would be irrecoverable. The team would have to win six of their final eight games to have a realistic chance at the playoffs, given the competitive landscape in the AFC.
Here, we'll break down everything you need to know heading into a “do-or-die” Week 9. 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 avoid a premature end.
|New York Jets||4-4||143||211||New Orleans|
After a Week 7 that saw some internal churning within the AFC East division, Week 8 saw the status quo maintained.
The Dolphins’ loss to the Patriots results in New England lengthening their lead on the rest of the division with a 6-2 record. The New York Jets were destroyed by the Bengals, which keeps the Jets second place in the division, a half-game above the Dolphins. The Buffalo Bills also lost to the New Orleans Saints in Week 8, maintaining the team’s 3-5 record and last place within the division.
If the Dolphins are able to beat the Bengals on Halloween night, they will move to a 4-4 record and a temporary tie for second place within the division. The tie would most likely be made semi-permanent once the Jets play the Saints this Sunday.
|Dimitri Patterson||CB||Head||Left - Returned|
|Cameron Wake||DE||Knee||Limited During Game|
|Brandon Gibson||WR||Knee||Left - Did Not Return|
At this point in the season, the Dolphins are relatively healthy. They have two major contributors on injured reserve, yet no player on the team entered the New England game with even a ‘questionable’ injury designation.
The big news coming out of the New England game is that wide receiver Brandon Gibson is having surgery for a torn patellar tendon and will miss the rest of the season, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. Prior to the season, most would not have considered this a big blow for the Dolphins. However, at the time he was hurt in the Patriots game, Gibson was second only to wide receiver Brian Hartline in receptions, and tied with tight end Charles Clay for team leader in touchdown catches.
Defensive end Cameron Wake continues to play like a shell of his former self as he recovers from a knee injury suffered in Week 3 this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) he only played a total of 34 out of a possible 68 defensive snaps against the Patriots.
Starting corner Dimitri Patterson briefly came out of the Patriots game after suffering a nasty hit to the back of the head while defending a screen pass. Patterson gave his body up admirably on the play, and paid for it. He was able to come back into the game, however he was less effective.
Other players with nagging hurts include linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Koa Misi, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and corner Brent Grimes.
What Must Improve
Despite the misfortune of walking away from Week 8 with yet another ‘L’ to add to the team’s record, the Dolphins continued a to make progress in revamping the offense against New England. In order to salvage the season, the Dolphins must find and re-commit to a dominating ground game starring tailback Lamar Miller.
Against the Bills in Week 7, the team featured reserve tailback Daniel Thomas a little more, with 12 runs for 60 yards. Miller ran nine times for 43 yards. This was a step in the right direction, but not quite enough. The team’s commitment to the ground game completely disappeared in the fourth quarter, despite the game being close on the scoreboard.
Against the Patriots in Week 8, we saw closer to the right mix as Miller carried the football 18 times for 89 yards during the game. Thomas chipped in a hearty 9 runs for 47 yards, catching a touchdown off a nice piece of misdirection in the second quarter. Yet, once again the commitment to the ground game waned in the third and fourth quarters even before the Patriots had gone up by two scores.
The NFL has become a passing league, and so the team’s commitment to the passing game is understandable. The problem is the passing game has not been structured well from a personnel standpoint, and execution has become a problem. If the team wants to win now, they must minimize their exposure to the execution problems, and take as much pressure off the passing game as possible.
The sources of failed execution in the passing game are broad-based in nature. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a second year player that is prone mistakes. His offensive line has generally been atrocious when it comes to keeping defensive linemen off his back. Starting tight end Dustin Keller was hurt during the preseason, forcing a talented but mistake-prone Clay into his position. Two of the three starting wide receivers were new to the team and, at times, chemistry has been an issue.
One of the more unpleasant issues facing the Dolphins offense has been the poor play of star free agent acquisition Mike Wallace.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wallace has caught only 30 of 63 passes sent his direction, while dropping seven of those targets. According to the above data, the only wide receivers in the league with more drops are Miami cast-off Davone Bess and New England rookie Aaron Dobson.
Dobson in particular is commonly cited as one of the excuses for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s poor start to the 2013 season. Yet according to the data above, he has one more touchdown than Wallace, a higher average yards per attempt in his direction, as well as higher average yards per route. He has only one more drop than Wallace for the season, while having played one more game.
The comparisons between the two do not stop at purely objective statistical analyses. In Pro Football Focus’ subjective grading system, Wallace ranks No. 103 out of 108 while Dobson ranks No. 106 out of 108.
Yet in Miami, Wallace is most often cited as one fewer excuse for Tannehill’s not having taken a big step forward in production and efficiency in his second year. So goes the logic, after spending so much money on Wallace in the off season, Tannehill has no excuse for failing to step up in 2013.
This logic usually fails to account for the fact that Wallace is being outplayed by former Dolphins wide receiver Ted Ginn, by a comfortable margin.
Given all of the above issues with the Dolphins passing game, Miami would be smart to continue working on the ground game as an answer to their problems. And unlike the previous two games, the team needs to maintain its commitment to that ground game through all four quarters in order to prevent the kinds of mistakes that lose games. If it does not do this, the 2013 season will end by the halfway point.