It would be no exaggeration to say the Miami Dolphins are playing for the life of their season in front of a national television audience on Thursday Night Football in Week 9. The team will face a Cincinnati Bengals opponent that is familiar. The two teams met in 2012, with the Dolphins coming away victorious in a hard-fought 17-13 battle.
Since then, the Bengals have added significant offensive weapons that play into offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s tendencies toward utilizing mismatches and disguise to score points. The Dolphins, on the other hand, moved away from some of the key personnel that earned them the victory in 2012 as defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle wished to mold the defense to his desires.
Essentially, that makes the Week 9 matchup between these two teams brand new. Here, we will take a look at some offensive and defensive game plans that could help the Dolphins keep their season alive.
When the Bengals have the ball
The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of offensive weapons they can rely upon to move the football down the field and score. Wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the very best players in the NFL at any position. Drafting tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round has given the Bengals an interesting weapon they are able to use in a number of ways. Tailback Giovani Bernard has given them yet another multiple weapon that can be used in several ways. Recently, wide receiver Marvin Jones has been hot.
If Cincinnati’s offense is on-schedule (1st-and-10, 2nd-and-5, 3rd-and-Short), they are very difficult to stop. The topmost priority for getting stops against the Bengals is to get them off-schedule. To do this, Miami should focus on three keys to the game, with an emphasis on the manner in which you attack the Bengals on first and second downs:
1. Vary the makeup of the defense’s personnel packages according to the situation.
2. Bring defenders to the line of scrimmage to play tight man coverage.
3. Key on the backfield, blitz and clog the middle when the Bengals are under-staffed.
The Cincinnati Bengals have a mismatch-oriented cast of offensive weapons to throw at defenses on first and second down. This leads them to be creative with their approaches based on situation and personnel. In short, they’re able to pass the football out of typical run packages and run the football out of typical pass packages.
Two big drivers of this approach are rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and rookie tailback Giovani Bernard. Bernard is a shifty runner who seems to do better with open spaces. This leads the Bengals to run him out of typical pass looks against the defense’s nickel personnel package. Eifert is an athletic tight end with wide receiver-like skills and versatility. They like to get him matched up against linebackers, particularly out of the backfield as an up-back.
In order to combat this approach, Miami has to use the versatility of defenders like Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan, Koa Misi, Jared Odrick and Reshad Jones in order to get run stoppers on the field when the Bengals get into a running situation and to get pass-rushers on the field when the Bengals get into typical passing situation, regardless of the personnel or formation look that Cincinnati shows on the play.
The Dolphins should remember that they beat this team a year ago, holding the Bengals offense to only 13 points on the day. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dalton had a 63.5 passer rating against Miami, and his passer rating was only 41.9 against Miami’s blitz packages.
One reason Miami was able to do this was not only the versatility of the above defenders (e.g. Jared Odrick playing defensive end), but because corner Sean Smith excelled with tight man coverage from a press position. The Dolphins embraced that skill set, and as a result, Pro Football Focus felt Smith had his second-strongest day in coverage of the entire season. He had that kind of strong day in coverage despite wide receiver A.J. Green being targeted eight times on Smith’s direct coverage.
The Dolphins do not have Sean Smith anymore. They replaced him with Brent Grimes, who has played better in Miami’s system. Despite this, the Dolphins need to embrace the idea of putting man coverage tight to the line of scrimmage in order to disrupt quarterback Andy Dalton’s timing with his receivers. Dalton is prone to sacks, inaccuracy and poor decision-making when knocked off rhythm.
In order to further accomplish the goal of knocking quarterback Andy Dalton off rhythm, the Dolphins must design a smart, creative blitz plan.
The Dolphins cannot afford to blitz indiscriminately. According to Pro Football Focus, in the last two games when facing the blitz, Dalton completed 13 of 20 passes for 247 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while being sacked only once. On the other hand, for the season as a whole, according to the same source, Dalton’s passer rating against the blitz is lower than his passer rating on other plays, and his sack rate is twice as high.
Therefore, blitzing Andy Dalton is a smart idea, but the Dolphins need to do a good job of identifying and keying on Dalton’s blitz-beaters.
One of the keys the Dolphins will need to read in making blitz calls is the offensive backfield. When tight end Tyler Eifert is in the backfield as an up-back, he is one of Andy Dalton’s methods for defeating the blitz. He is able to run quickly into zones vacated by linebackers and is a physical mismatch if the linebacker responsible for coverage starts the play at a disadvantage due to pre-snap alignment.
When the Bengals have a single back in the backfield and the Dolphins have reason not to be scared of a potential run play, they can use their favorite double A-gap pressure looks to clog up the middle, forcing the Bengals to slide protect and potentially freeing outside pass-rushers like Dion Jordan, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon to be blocked by a back in the backfield. The Dolphins should win that matchup and successfully pressure Dalton every time, as Dalton continues to be a quarterback that shows panic when the middle of his vision is clogged up by a pile of bodies.
When the Dolphins have the ball
Miami made a lot of progress in recent weeks finding ways to run the football despite poor line blocking. The main issue over the last two games has been the Dolphins' willingness to step away from the run-oriented game plans during the second half.
In the first halves of the last two games, tailbacks Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas accounted for 169 yards on 32 carries. In the second halves of the two games, the pair combined for only 70 yards on 16 carries. Another game where the Dolphins establish the run in the first half and abandon it in the second half will likely not do the job against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 9.
The Dolphins showed innovation against the New England Patriots in their effort to get the football into the hands of their tailbacks. They stretched the field horizontally and utilized misdirection. They also ran the football with Marcus Thigpen out of a pistol formation.
If the Dolphins would like to beat the Cincinnati Bengals, they need to expand on these efforts which will take advantage of the absence of linebacker Rey Maualuga from the Bengals defensive lineup.
For our purposes, we are going to focus on two plays the Dolphins used against the Patriots. The first happened on the very first drive of the game.
The play above actually ended up losing a yard. However, this is a good example of a structurally sound idea that the Dolphins might work on more. The benefit of the pistol in this situation is being able to present a more balanced run-pass threat to a nickel defense. The defense does not get as good a read on your run-pass tendencies as it would if you were operating out of the shotgun or from under center.
The pistol also gives Ryan Tannehill the ability to execute read-option plays which can leverage his speed and danger as a run threat to get the defense moving in the wrong direction.
The play ultimately failed because tailback Marcus Thigpen, who had never taken a handoff from the Miami Dolphins from behind center until that play, failed to use his blockers properly, as he ran behind left guard Richie Incognito and center Mike Pouncey. However, the Dolphins would do well to explore the pistol formation more deeply, including expansion into more read-option and passing possibilities.
The Dolphins do not like the pass protection they are currently getting from their backs in the backfield. The blocking gaffes of Miller and Thomas this season will only encourage an aggressive blitzing defense such as the Bengals’ to blitz even more steadily.
The Dolphins used an interesting horizontal stretch concept to counter the blitz against the New England Patriots.
The advantage of using a concept like this is that instead of keeping a blocker stationary in the backfield and hoping he is able to keep a blitzer off the quarterback long enough for him to complete a pass, the fact that the back gets up to speed in his pre-snap motion makes him a much bigger threat to hit zones vacated by the blitzing defense.
The defense’s adjustment to the tactic could also create more interesting quick passing possibilities as defenders are forced to play in a less aggressive zone in order to defend the flats.
In general, the Dolphins do not make near enough use of offensive motion in their passing offense. This is something that Mike Sherman recently admitted during a press conference. The Dolphins need to use it more.
According to statistics from CNNSI.com, Ryan Tannehill has completed 37 of 55 passes for 386 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions when utilizing offensive motion. His passer rating is 117.7 on those plays. Furthermore, he has only taken four total sacks on the 59 plays, which is one sack for nearly every 15 snaps. On plays without offensive motion, Tannehill has a 69.3 passer rating. He has taken a sack approximately every eight snaps without utilizing offensive motion.
Teams traveling on a short week are notorious for coming out flat on Thursday Night Football. However, the Dolphins are facing an extreme amount of turmoil behind the scenes and face the Bengals at a time when their offense is red-hot.
The Dolphins’ offensive coaches have shown some willingness to experiment with creative concepts in order to create angles and hesitation in the opposing defense. However, it seems that when the team gets into the most important moments of the game, the offense reverts into comfortable-but-predictable patterns.
One year ago, the Miami Dolphins beat the Cincinnati Bengals 17-13 in Cincinnati. Since then, the Bengals have added versatile weapons in rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. The Dolphins, on the other hand, have moved away from the defensive personnel that earned them the victory a year ago. This suggests that Miami will have a difficult time preventing a bad outcome on Thursday Night Football.