The team dropped to 5-6 and will now be hard-pressed to compete for the sixth and final playoff position. If the team is not able to defeat the New York Jets in Week 13, the season could, for all intents and purposes, be over.
Here we will take a look at the Dolphins on a position-by-position basis, grading each position according to a detailed account of how the individual players played during the game.
All told, quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a slightly above-average game this Sunday.
Tannehill continually takes fire for missed deep connections with receiver Mike Wallace. However, the details of the game matter.
He threw four deep shots toward Wallace during the game and connected on two of them for 110 yards with a touchdown. This is far above-average work for the NFL on balls traveling 41-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So to some extent, the fact that Tannehill's deep accuracy is even a conversation after this game is ridiculous.
The coaching staff continues to set Tannehill and Wallace up for failure by not coaching the timing of these deep shots. You can find here a detailed breakdown of how play design impacted a failed deep shot against the San Diego Chargers in Week 11.
The same thing happened on a 57-yard completion by Tannehill to Mike Wallace. The backfield action involved dropping from under center into an off-center play-fake to the tailback, which necessitated that Tannehill execute a half-roll to come around after the fake and set up for the throw. This meant the football could not come out of Tannehill’s hands until nearly four seconds had passed since the snap.
In the piece linked above, I mention that a 60-yard throw is extremely rare on an actual football field in actual game conditions. Tannehill showed off his arm strength by throwing the football 60-plus yards on this play, yet Wallace still had to slow down considerably for the ball and was barely able to make the catch as the defender caught up. Running after the catch for a 79-yard touchdown was out of the question.
This was a failure by the coaches to adjust their play design according to the abilities and tendencies of their players. Wallace ran an out-and-up route. Because of his speed, the route came off a lot more “up” than "out," and he was too far up the field by the time Tannehill could release the football off the fake.
Tannehill showed rare arm strength during the game with some of deepest passes you will ever see on a functioning football field, yet the ball still fell short. This is a design issue. The coaches need to do a lot better job so that they are not asking the players to overcome their shortcomings as coaches.
Tannehill’s biggest problem continues to be inconsistent focus and decision-making. The first interception he threw on the day was his fault. He failed to clear the ball over the linebacker knifing into the passing lane, and the ensuing tip drill resulted in a pick.
Later in the game, Tannehill scrambled and had a clear path in front of him to run for positive yardage. He may have even gained the first down by running on the play. Instead, he made an atrocious decision to beam a low-trajectory pass at Wallace deep. The pass was converged on by two Panthers defenders, and it should have been picked off.
On the other hand, Tannehill was remarkable on his deep throws during the day and was asked to account for literally 95 percent of his team’s offense (316 of 332 net yards). He threw a ball into the end zone that should have been caught by receiver Rishard Matthews.
He dealt with four drops on the day, a leaky offensive line, bad play design, bad play calls and poor timeout management, yet if Wallace had adjusted properly to the final deep ball Tannehill threw in the game, then the Dolphins would have emerged from the game with an incredible victory directed by their star quarterback.
Position Grade: B-
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie had his first really bad game of the season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he allowed a sack, two hits on Tannehill and two more hurries. The same source says that Tyson Clabo had nearly the same outing, minus the sack.
The unit, which featured former practice-squad rookie Sam Brenner at left guard, was very poor in run blocking during the game. Dolphins running backs combined for only 16 yards on 13 carries, leaving Ryan Tannehill to account for 95 percent of the offense.
The game could have been worse from a pass-protection standpoint. However, it was still a far below-average game for an NFL offensive line.
Position Grade: D-
Lamar Miller ran 10 times for only eight yards during the game. He took a drive-killing nine-yard loss in the third quarter after Tannehill had directed the offense out of the shadow of its own end zone. He did not break many tackles during the game, nor did he run for significant yards after first contact.
On the other hand, Miller caught a very nice 18-yard pass out of the backfield on a fantastic throw by Tannehill. The ball dropped over Miller’s shoulder, and he caught it in stride.
The catch is a source of hope, because Miller is a very fast back and can be a dangerous weapon on wheel routes out of the backfield. He failed to catch a perfectly thrown wheel route earlier in the regular season, and he did the same during the preseason. This is something that needs to be ironed out with more repetitions because it has the potential to be such a dangerous weapon.
Tailback Daniel Thomas ran three times for eight yards and was mostly useless on the day as well. He caught a shovel pass up the middle near the goal line but could not create yards after contact to bring the offense close enough to punch the ball in.
The Dolphins continue to show that they have a serious weakness in this unit when they go into shotgun pass attempts on 3rd-and-1. That should be a run down the overwhelming majority of the time, and the team should convert the down running the football at least two out of three times.
Due to the limitations of both Miller and Thomas, they are unable to do so. The weakness is a little more understandable in Miller, who is a fast back who might be a little small for that role. However, Thomas is supposed to be a power back. His being untrustworthy in short-yardage situations is inexcusable.
Position Grade: D
Miami’s tight ends did not show up to the game this Sunday. The game highlighted the continuing inconsistency of the unit, which is led by Charles Clay, who had a fantastic Week 11 showing against the San Diego Chargers.
In total, the unit featuring Charles Clay, Dion Sims and Michael Egnew was targeted eight times, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), tallying six catches for 38 yards. Only nine of the 38 total yards came after the six catches.
Pro Football Focus recorded Dion Sims as having let up a sack, during the game. Charles Clay also let up a hit on Ryan Tannehill. The three players combined for a total minus-1.7 summed blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, according to the link above.
The unit did not block well and did not make up for it with an impact on the passing game.
Position Grade: D
Brian Hartline took advantage of an advantageous matchup with undrafted rookie Melvin White, a lengthy corner who can be beaten by route technicians due to his stiff hips. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hartline caught all five passes sent his direction for a total of 78 yards. Several of Miami’s more successful drives started off with a big play by Hartline.
Mike Wallace made a fantastic play on the football to start out the game, scoring a 53-yard touchdown. The play was a slight underthrow, which was to be expected given that Tannehill was asked to execute a roll-out while Wallace streaked up the field. Tannehill pushed the football to the upper limits of just about any quarterback throwing the ball at a dead run, but the ball ended up slightly underthrown.
Wallace did exactly as a premier wide receiver should do in the NFL. He located the football in the air early and adjusted his position according to where the football was heading. Then he finished the play by catching the ball, staying on his feet and running into the end zone. It was a superb play.
Wallace made a second superb play during the game which resulted in a 57-yard completion. The shortcomings of the coaching staff put both Wallace and Tannehill behind the eight-ball on the play because of the bad play design.
The play required both players to make great plays to overcome the coaches’ mistakes. They did so. Wallace once again found and adjusted seamlessly to the football in the air and made a challenged catch as the defensive back caught up with him.
Wallace failed to come down with the final deep ball of the game, even though the pass hit his hands. He did not do as well in locating and adjusting to the football in the air on the play, and as a result, he looked over his wrong shoulder for the football once he popped out of his vertical off the scramble drill. He was forced to twirl back to the other shoulder to try and catch the football.
Even had he caught it, given the impossible situation the team was in, Wallace’s likelihood of going down at the 1-yard line would have ended the game, as the team lacked timeouts due to poor coaching decisions earlier in the quarter.
Rishard Matthew had a much poorer game. He was thrown the football seven times and only produced a total of two yards on the throws. He failed to catch a perfect throw in the end zone that could have changed the outcome of the game.
Position Grade: B+
Defensive end Olivier Vernon has come alive in the pass rush over the last four weeks. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has produced 18 hurries, two hits and two sacks on the quarterback over the period on a total of 132 pass-rush opportunities. The game against the Panthers was no exception, as he gave chase to quarterback Cam Newton several times, and produced one of the team’s two sacks on the day.
The Dolphins used rookie defensive end Dion Jordan a little more creatively during the game, as he dropped back into coverage 10 total times according to Pro Football Focus. He rushed the passer 15 total times and produced a sack on Cam Newton, who clearly underestimated the athletic ability of Miami’s pass-rushers as he leisurely rolled to his right after escaping pressure in the pocket.
One of the interesting wrinkles the Dolphins threw in during the game was to feature a pass-rushing defensive line of Cameron Wake, Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Olivier Vernon, with Dion Jordan lined up as a pass-rushing linebacker.
Cameron Wake started the game with a bang, as he laid a vicious hit on quarterback Cam Newton as he threw the football. Newton was spotted spitting up blood during the break as a result of the hit. The most interesting thing about the play was that Wake lined up at right defensive end, which is something he very rarely does. According to Pro Football Focus, he produced nine total pressures on 37 pass-rush opportunities. That is fantastic efficiency.
The defensive tackles unit featuring Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai had a decent game. Overall, the unit dragged down the total defensive line grade. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton combined for 106 yards on 25 carries.
The defensive tackles did not do a great job of filling the run lanes during the game, especially during the fourth quarter. Fourth-quarter run success has been a consistent phenomenon for Dolphins opponents the entire season. Despite an active rotation featuring Odrick, Soliai and Starks, the unit appears to be wearing down toward the end of games.
The biggest problem for the defensive line during the game was missed tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, the defensive linemen accounted for six missed tackles during the game. However, the pressure on Newton was good enough to produce a solid, above-average grade for the unit.
Position Grade: B
Despite taking constant criticism from the fans and media, linebacker Philip Wheeler quietly strung together his second consecutive strong outing.
He produced a hit on Newton as well as a hurry in his five blitzes, knocked down a pass intended for Ted Ginn and allowed only 20 yards receiving on four balls thrown into his direct coverage. He also had six “stops” according to Pro Football Focus, which are plays made by the defensive player that constitute a failure by the offense.
On the other hand, Dannell Ellerbe did not step up to the plate during the game. His run defense was atrocious, and he was a big reason the Panthers were able to rack up 106 yards on 25 carries, plus 30 more yards on four scrambles by Newton.
Linebacker Koa Misi continued to look like a different player compared with a year ago. Given his spotty participation in recent weeks as well as his constant appearances on the injury report, it is safe to say that Misi is battling some injury issues which are affecting his performance. The Dolphins should strongly consider giving some of his snaps to rookie Dion Jordan.
Reserve corner Nolan Carroll put together by far his strongest outing as a Miami Dolphin. According to Pro Football Focus, he was challenged in direct coverage a total of 12 times, allowing only four catches for 53 yards while also breaking up two balls and intercepting a third.
The interception he made was a superb play, as he lined up over the perimeter wide receiver and continued sinking back into a deep zone while reading the quarterback's eyes, eventually undercutting the route of the slot receiver to whom Newton attempted to throw the deep pass.
Brent Grimes had some strong plays during the game. However, he also gave up a critical play on 4th-and-10 during the Panthers’ game-winning touchdown drive. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed seven complete passes for 72 yards on nine attempts in his direct coverage.
Though Grimes and Panthers receiver Steve Smith had played in the same division for years while Grimes was with the Atlanta Falcons, the two players had not often faced one another in direct coverage, as they tended to play opposite sides of the field.
Grimes had generally won the few snaps the two did play against one another. In this game, the Dolphins had Grimes shadow Steve Smith, and Smith got his revenge for those few wins that Grimes had on him back in Atlanta.
Safety Chris Clemons had some strong plays early in the game. However, he played poorly toward the end of the football game. He allowed the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen because he bit too hard on the play-fake. He was also caught pursuing the football poorly on several of the successful Panthers run plays during the fourth quarter.
Reshad Jones did not do any better during the game. He was flagged for a critical personal foul penalty because he put up his hands and pushed quarterback Cam Newton as he stepped out of bounds. While many fans lamented what they deemed a “ticky-tack” penalty, the officials make that call an overwhelming majority of the time and the defensive player has to know better than to lay hands on the quarterback while he is stepping out.
Altogether, the secondary allowed 137 yards on 26 passes in direct coverage on a total of 44 pass snaps. It allowed a touchdown pass, but also claimed an interception. The unit’s run defense was not strong, and one of the players incurred a very costly penalty at a critical moment in the game. Altogether, this makes for a very up-and-down but above-average grade.
Rookie place kicker Caleb Sturgis made three out of four kicks, with his only miss coming on a 52-yard try. Misses are expected at 50-plus yards.
Punter Brandon Fields had a costly punting miscue toward the end of the game which aided the Panthers in executing a game-winning 80-yard touchdown drive. Fields had attempted to land the ball inside the 20-yard line, but his ball landed in the end zone for a touchback instead.
Return specialist Marcus Thigpen had a poor overall day returning the football, as he looked indecisive. He gained 71 yards on 10 punt returns. However he had the opportunity to do so much more given the coverage and the punting.
The Dolphins blocked a field goal during the game. However, instant replay seemed to show that Carolina place-kicker Graham Gano’s kick came off extremely low and hit his own offensive lineman in the back.
Position Grade: C-