The Miami Dolphins had trouble converting first downs in short yardage situations against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 9. The team's problems became especially apparent in the overtime period, as two drives during the sudden-death portion of the game ended in failed 3rd-and-1 conversion attempts.
Here we will take a look at some of the underlying causes of the failures.
The first short yardage failure happened about midway through the first quarter. After two successful runs on first and second down, the Dolphins faced a 3rd-and-1 from their own 28-yard line.
The first thing to note about the play is that offensive tackle Will Yeatman, who is technically playing a tight end position on the play, failed to prevent defensive end Michael Johnson from surging into the backfield on the play. Yeatman was able to ensure that Johnson was not in a position to make a tackle; however, he was able to disrupt the flow of the play in the backfield.
Ultimately, tailback Daniel Thomas failed to show good vision on the play.
In a 3rd-and-1 situation, tailbacks can rarely expect a clean backfield. They have to be able to use their vision to read the blocking and detect trouble while they flow to the mesh point with the quarterback.
This is why it is important to show still shots of the block development while the runner is at the mesh point. By then he should already have a sense for where trouble is coming from and how he is going to get out of it.
In this case, to Thomas’ right side the line has effectively created a shield wall behind which Thomas could have run for the short one yard necessary to convert the down.
Right guard John Jerry released out to the middle linebacker, and if Thomas cut back to this side, he would have gained the first down, as his only threat was a defensive back that was not in the position to stop Thomas short of the sticks.
Maintaining his track to the left side put Thomas in a one-on-one situation with an unblocked Bengals linebacker, Vincent Rey. Had Thomas been quicker and more decisive in his avoidance of Johnson in the backfield, he might have had a chance to convert.
Even so, as a 235-pound power back, the team expected Thomas to gain that extra yard after contact with Rey; however, this has been a weakness of Thomas’ going back to his days at Kansas State.
Most of the plays in which Thomas gained extra yards after contact victimized much smaller defensive backs. When faced with linebackers, he was often stopped dead in his tracks.
We will now skip ahead into the overtime period. On their final offensive drive of the evening, the Dolphins managed to get to the fringe of field goal position on the Cincinnati 39-yard line, thanks to a keen set of passes from quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This left Miami with a 2nd-and-1.
Strictly speaking, some may not consider this play a short yardage situation; however, given the fact the Dolphins were in sudden death and on the very edge of field-goal range, their priority on 2nd-and-1 was to get a new set of downs. Because of the moment in the game and the field position, the down turned into a very typical short yardage situation.
Again we caught a glimpse of the blocking Thomas saw in the backfield as he ran up to the mesh point with Tannehill. Thomas had a number of choices on the play and was supposed to find the first gap in which the defender had not been able to get his hips.
In the end, Thomas chose the correct gap. He followed the blocking pattern.
The problem was his timing.
Especially in a short yardage situation, the back needs to be able to make very quick reads and decisions about where he is going.
Thomas took a number of steps well beyond the mesh point before he eventually tried to make a hard, slow cut back to the correct hole. Aside from being late, the cut itself lacked in quickness, explosiveness and definition. This forced Miami into a 3rd-and-1 situation, rather than giving the offense a new set of downs.
Here we saw the very next play on 3rd-and-1.
The play was set to flow to Thomas’ left, as the Dolphins had the best numbers and spacing advantage to that side.
Fullback Michael Egnew allowed the edge blitzer to eat up a little bit too much ground before picking him up. Other players to that side were clearly losing control of their blocks.
Although the blocking was poor, once again, Daniel Thomas’ daylight instincts came into question on the play.
At the mesh point, Thomas should have been able to see to his left side three Bengals with free shoulders and the ability to take him down in the backfield. The blocking to his right side held up very well. Quick recognition and decision-making would have enabled Thomas to cut back to daylight and convert the down.
With the Dolphins demonstrating week after week an inability to convert short yardage situations with the run game, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was put in a tough position. He felt the need to call pass plays on short yardage situations during the game.
One such pass play, the Dolphins converted by rolling Tannehill out of the pocket. He was able to find Thomas for a four-yard gain, converting the 3rd-and-1 into a first down.
There was one more 3rd-and-1 situation during the game, which the Dolphins converted via pass play; however, that did not qualify as a true short yardage situation because it came during the final minute of regulation, when the offense had no timeouts and the defense knew a run would be highly unlikely.
During overtime, the Dolphins were faced with a 3rd-and-1 from their own 29-yard line. The team called a timeout prior to the play in order to make sure they had a good play call. They came out controversially in a shotgun formation looking to pass the football, a decision that was criticized later.
The route concept was fairly simple.
With the Bengals giving a man coverage look, Brian Hartline cut inside for a quick slant pass; however, in order for that to work, the Dolphins had to clear the passing window into which Tannehill wanted to throw the football. To do that, the Dolphins had Charles Clay run into the left flat, drawing Bengals safety George Iloka with him in man coverage.
The play design worked well in theory, but it did not work in practice because Clay did not show a proper understanding of his role on the play.
Instead of focusing on getting out to the flat as quickly as possible in order to clear Iloka out of the quick slant lane, Clay charged up the field, hesitated, gave a shoulder fake and then broke to his left into the flat.
The slow development allowed Iloka to continue to sit right in the middle of the passing window while reading Clay and the quarterback.
Tannehill cocked his arm back to throw the slant and found that Iloka was still right there and had not even been forced to turn his shoulders or hips yet in order to follow Clay.
Some will say Tannehill should have thrown the football anyway, anticipating the window opening; however, a turnover on this play lost the Dolphins the football game.
Considering Iloka’s hips and shoulders had not even turned yet as he drew the football back, Tannehill could not take the chance that Iloka was reading him and was poised to break on the football; therefore, Tannehill was forced to pump the ball.
After pumping the football, Iloka moved off his spot, following Clay into the flat.
Tannehill re-cocked his arm and released the ball to Hartline on the slant; however, the delay allowed Bengals corner Adam Jones to recover lost ground and defend the pass.
Now we will rewind a bit and examine one of the Dolphins’ successful short yardage conversions during the game.
The Dolphins unveiled a neat wrinkle on the goal line against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, as they lined tight end Charles Clay up in the backfield as an up-back and gave the football to him on a dive play.
The Dolphins went back to this concept against the Bengals on 3rd-and-1 in the second quarter, and Clay converted the down.
The advantage of giving the football to the up-back on a dive play like this was the timing. The defense did not have time to defeat blocks and get in the way of a short 1-yard conversion.
There are disadvantages as well.
Usually, a fullback is not a natural ball carrier and cannot be relied upon to show great vision or patience in the backfield. To make matters worse, the up-back was lined up so close to the mesh point at the start of the play that he had very little time to read the blocks before he was in the briar patch.
On this play, Clay was able to overcome the challenges easily. Though he had very little time to run up to the mesh point, his instincts for cutting to daylight were very sound. He made a clean, decisive and natural cut into an open area of the gap defense in which he knew he would just have to win a one-on-one tackle attempt by a defender.
What happened from there was just icing on the cake.
Clay’s decisiveness, vision and cutting ability had already ensured the first down, but he added to it by lowering his shoulder and causing the defender to fall off his tackle attempt. Clay was able to scamper for a 13-yard gain.
The Dolphins were able to convert only two out of six true short yardage situations during the Bengals game.
The team has struggled in these situations all year, as tailbacks Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller proved unfit to the task of earning a hard yard. This has led to more pass calls in short yardage situations, which carry a higher risk of failure.
The two plays in which the team was able to convert, however, yield hope that the team can fix the problems going forward.
Clay is a unique talent that has the ability to instinctively carry the football as an up-back in short yardage situations. He needs to be given more opportunities.
When the Dolphins do make the decision to pass in such situations, they should focus on roll-out plays that can leverage Tannehill’s run-pass ability to earn that hard yard.