The Miami Dolphins have developed a habit of not finishing games this season. The result is a 5-6 record and a thin hope of playoffs propped up entirely by the poor performance of the AFC.
One reason the Dolphins are not finishing games is because of missed opportunities on the football field. The sources of these blown opportunities vary. Some come down to failed execution, while others can be attributed to bad coaching or play-calling.
Here we will highlight three such opportunities that Miami failed to capitalize on, which led to a 20-16 home defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.
The Prevent Defense
Dolphins fans and media members have been dogged in their criticism of Miami for the team’s defensive play call on the play that immediately preceded the Panthers kicking a field goal as time expired on the first half.
The Panthers had only eight seconds remaining on the clock with no timeouts and the ball at their own 42-yard line. Miami had a significant opportunity to hold on this one play and head into halftime with a 16-3 lead.
Here we can take a look at exactly why the criticism of Miami’s play call has been so sharp.
As you can see above, with eight seconds remaining in the game the Dolphins went into a prevent secondary with a six-man pass-rush. This left a wide-open space underneath the deep umbrella.
The idea was not completely without merit, as the extra pass-rushers are supposed to simultaneously clog the quick-outlet passing lanes as they put extra pressure on the quarterback. Cam Newton would normally be a threat to scramble out of the pressure in such situations, but with so little time left on the clock, if he did so the play would end up the final play of the half.
Even so, the design of the defense was not fundamentally sound. The pass-rush was evenly spaced, which gave the Panthers the opportunity to get a body on a body. With four players running routes on the play, the Panthers were left with six blockers to pick up six evenly spaced pass-rushers.
Some of those blocks would end up mismatches, but the blocks would hold just long enough for the tall Newton to sneak the football to an outlet behind the pass-rush. The rushers could not clog the passing lanes, because Newton is so tall he could sneak the football over the rush into the hands of his hot read. That hot read had clear sailing in front of him due to the secondary being in prevent.
The Deep Ball
In that piece, we explored specifically how the timing built into the play design can affect the likelihood of the quarterback and wide receiver being able to synchronize with one another, resulting in the receiver catching the football perfectly in stride.
The conclusion from the study was that throwing that particular deep ball longer would have made receiver Mike Wallace’s catch easier, but it would not necessarily have enabled him to catch the football in stride. The timing of the play meant that Wallace was likely to be forced to slow down and allow the defender back into the play no matter what.
Miami ran into a similar problem against the Carolina Panthers. They ran a play-fake in the backfield, which cost Tannehill a tremendous amount of time as Wallace streaked vertically up the field. Unlike against the Chargers, Tannehill heaved the football to the very limits of his control and achieved a rare 60-yard pass depth.
Still, Wallace was forced to slow down. This allowed the defender to catch up and physically challenge the catch. Unlike in the Chargers game, Wallace finished this catch, and the Dolphins achieved a 57-yard gain.
While a 57-yard gain is nice, a 79-yard touchdown would have been better. A 79-yard touchdown became relatively implausible on the play purely as a result of bad play design.
Above you can see the action in the backfield on the play. The play-fake executed by Tannehill was not of the quick variety. He faked a zone outside run, which meant he had to sprint out to an exchange point with the tailback about three yards to his left. As a result, he was forced to execute a half-roll off the fake to get back into the pocket where he can locate the safety, step up and release the ball.
There are a variety of different play-fakes that all require different amounts of time. Some play-fakes, such as the shotgun play-fake highlighted in the San Diego article, only take a little over half a second of extra time.
Play-fakes executed during a drop-back from under center will generally take more time. Play-fakes with an off-center mesh point will generally take the most time to execute before the quarterback can be in position to throw the football. This particular play involved the latter. As a result, the ball didn’t come out of Tannehill’s hands until just over 3.8 seconds had passed after the snap.
By the time the football had come out of Tannehill’s hands, Wallace had already executed his fake to the outside and was running vertically at full speed about 22 or 23 yards up the field. Wallace can cover a lot of ground at full speed, and any deep pass is destined to hang in the air for about three seconds.
Given the time it took for the ball to arrive, Wallace had the ability to be at about the opposing 25-yard line by the time the ball arrived at its destination. This meant that Wallace had to slow down an entire five yards.
Tannehill heaved the football 60 yards down the field at a relatively fast pace for such a deep throw. This was a rare throw for a quarterback at any level, excluding Hail Mary pass attempts, which are uncontrolled throws. Despite an incredible throw, Wallace had to slow down five yards for an underthrow. The reason is the delay in the backfield resulting from the extended play-fake.
Above, we see a similar play in Washington’s game against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football. Robert Griffin executes an off-center play-fake, which costs him extra time in the pocket. He gets the football out of his hands in just under four seconds. Griffin throws this football to the speedy Aldrick Robinson at an impressive depth of 59 yards, measured in a straight line.
The reason we are looking at a similar play executed by another team is to show that this is not a quarterback issue. The quarterbacks are executing the plays as designed. They are throwing the football to the absolute best of their significant abilities. Yet in both cases, the defender was able to catch up and challenge the underthrow. In Griffin’s case, the poor design resulted in an incomplete pass.
The Dolphins need to remove or modify their play-fakes on plays designed to hit Wallace deep. If they are unwilling to do so for whatever reason, they need to coach Ryan Tannehill on methods of shortening his drops and taking shortcuts in the backfield execution so that he can get his bearings more quickly and get the football out of his hands.
Miami will continue failing to capitalize on deep opportunities down the field to Mike Wallace until the team wises up to the issues in their timing of the throws.
Late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers, the Dolphins had an opportunity to make a play that could have contributed to the team’s holding onto a 16-13 lead.
On the play in question, the right safety came down into the box prior to the snap. This created a single-high look with the left safety moving to the middle of the field and playing deep center field. One corner showed man coverage before the snap, while the other showed an off-man or potentially zone look.
Wallace was set to run a deep slant over the middle into the hole between the linebackers and the deep center fielder. The corner playing off-man against him made the mistake of backing up in his back pedal too far, which left Wallace open on the slant.
Tannehill executed a play-fake in the backfield. The fake did not take long, because the mesh point was directly behind him. As soon as he popped out of the fake, Tannehill threw the ball to the in-breaking Wallace.
For whatever reason, Wallace decided to stop his slant and sit down to wait for the football. This was most likely an error on Wallace’s part in reading the coverage. Sitting down would normally be appropriate if the receiver was about to cross into another zone defender’s area of responsibility. This is what is commonly referred to as finding the hole between zones.
However, in this case there was no zone defender in front of Wallace. His corner was playing off-man, with the corner on the opposite side playing press-man. The defense was in “cover one.” Wallace needed to run through the slant right into the wide-open space in front of him underneath the deep center fielder.
The opportunity missed on the play is difficult to gauge, as the corner playing off-man did a good job breaking on Wallace and may have been able to drag him down immediately after the catch. If so, the play would have given Miami an extra first down with more opportunity to run the clock out in order to protect the lead.
However, if Wallace had caught the ball in stride, there is a possibility that he would not have stopped running until he got to the locker room. The corner on the right side of the football field was occupied in man coverage. He would not have been able to react to Wallace running into his side of the field in a timely manner. The deep center fielder would have had to bring Wallace down, and his angle was such that it may have been difficult if Wallace was able to catch the football in stride.
Instead, Wallace sat down on the route while Tannehill threw the football as if he were going to run through it. This left Wallace lunging for the football awkwardly, resulting in an incomplete pass and a blown opportunity.
The Dolphins cannot keep wasting opportunities when they present themselves during close ballgames. The team does not have a talented enough roster to consistently make games easier by running out to big leads and then adding onto them. The roster talent is such that Miami will be forced to find ways to win close games.
If they are going to consistently do that, the team’s players cannot keep making inexcusable mental errors. Similarly, the coaches need to get out of their players’ way by running fundamentally sound plays that do not force the players to be good enough to make up for their coaches’ shortcomings.