Ryan Tannehill took a beating during the 2013 regular season, with a league-high 58 sacks. As a result, the Miami Dolphins offensive line has taken a beating in the media and has been almost completely turned over from last year's group.
The Dolphins running backs have been one group not getting enough scrutiny in the media, and in signing Knowshon Moreno to a one-year, $3 million contract last week, the Dolphins proved that they are aware of the issue and are doing something about it.
Ryan Tannehill stands to benefit more than anyone else from the presence of Moreno. Between their lack of pass-catching savvy and blitz protection awareness, the Dolphins weren't getting enough juice for the squeeze out of their running backs in the passing game. Those are areas where Moreno excels.
Peyton Manning came to trust Moreno on passing downs as both a receiver and a blocker.
"I sure have appreciated all he's done," Manning said prior to the AFC Championship Game, according to Julian Benbow of The Boston Globe. "Just in the two seasons we've been together, he's been through an incredible journey as well. His attitude has been great and I sure do like having him next to me in the shotgun. It makes me feel real comfortable."
Manning's comfort meant Moreno had carved out a role for himself that he was not likely to relinquish.
"He's a three-down back that can help our team in a lot of different ways," Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said. "He has the kind of mentality that we want to add to our team."
Moreno shows a natural feel for pass protection and is fundamentally sound in that respect.
On this play against the Tennessee Titans, Moreno lined up to Peyton Manning's left in the shotgun. He kept his shoulders square to the linebacker rushing off the edge, and when the time was right, he sank his hips and drove into the defender to prevent him from getting to the quarterback.
Running backs Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller left a lot to be desired in that area. Greg A. Bedard of The MMQB highlighted one of their poor plays against the Patriots, calling the pass protection from the running backs "putrid," and it's hard to disagree with him. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) attributed five of Tannehill's 58 sacks to the running backs.
Of course, Moreno wouldn't have been the Broncos' lead back on passing downs without some skills catching the ball.
He's smooth running with the ball in his hands, and a majority of his production in the passing game comes after the catch. He had 602 receiving yards in 2013 (regular season and playoffs) and 541 yards after catch—nearly 90 percent of all his receiving yards. His average of 8.1 yards after catch per catch was the 17th-highest of the 49 running backs to catch over 20 passes in 2013.
One group he should thank: the offensive linemen, who were often seen making blocks at the second level to spring Moreno for long gains on screens. The above 35-yard touchdown was made possible by Manny Ramirez, Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez getting out in front of the play.
This kind of play is made possible by having linemen who excel at moving laterally and finding someone to block with a head of steam. The Dolphins have not had those kinds of linemen at their disposal under Joe Philbin. Not even taking their off-field actions into account, neither Richie Incognito nor John Jerry was a fit for the new zone-blocking scheme.
It is imperative that the Dolphins find fits for their scheme this offseason. Having a running back as an outlet is only as effective as the linemen who will eventually lead the way.
Moreno is far from the only running back who can be effective on screens, but not every back can run routes like he can.
In the divisional-round playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, Moreno proved he can run crisp routes even when split out wide. He ran a stop-and-go route on the outside against linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and with Manning pump-faking to the receiver at the same time as Moreno stopped his route, the defense started to flow toward where it looked like the pass was headed.
Instead, Manning dropped one in the bucket for Moreno to make a tough touchdown grab in the back corner of the end zone.
Even if we put aside his abilities in the passing game, Moreno may instantly be the best pure runner on the team.
|Miami Dolphins' 2014 stable|
|Running back||Car||Yds||YPA||TD||Yards after contact||YCO/att||Missed tackles (rushing)|
Moreno's detractors will argue that he had an unfair advantage because he got to face lighter boxes with Peyton Manning forcing defenses to send extra defensive backs onto the field.
That argument holds some merit, as explained by ESPN's Christopher Harris:
One more thing to consider, though, is the offense of new coordinator Bill Lazor. The former Eagles quarterbacks coach will employ a new offense which no one has seen yet. Maybe it will look like the Eagles offense last year, with a lot of spread sets utilizing three or more receivers, leading to lighter fronts. Perhaps he decides he wants to establish the run with a heavier personnel grouping.
It could be a variation on the Eagles offense or something completely different, but there's no way of knowing until we see it in action.
If teams try to stack the box against Moreno, he could have some trouble. He is not considered a hard runner, and he finished 17th in the league in yards after contact with 489 and 35th in the league in yards after contact per attempt with 2.03. That is probably why, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins are still in the market for a running back and are targeting a very specific kind of back:
That player, from what is considered a deep running back class in this draft, must have one of the following abilities: He needs to make defenders miss. Or he needs to be able to break tackles (run through tackles) when the running is hard—such as in the fourth quarter protecting a lead. The Dolphins want a clock killer.
Sure, they'd take a dynamic, big-play runner. But just as valuable later in the draft is a back who can go in with the team up a field goal with four minutes to play and run the ball against a defense that knows the Dolphins are going to run the ball ... and still gain yardage.
There is some evidence that Moreno could be a short-yardage upgrade over Thomas, as outlined by Sean Donovan at SB Nation, but the Dolphins could only benefit by adding another horse to the stable, especially with Daniel Thomas entering the final year of his contract.
For that matter, so is Moreno.
For now, though, the Dolphins have given Tannehill the necessary outlet in the passing game as well as a trustworthy blocker in the backfield. If those are Moreno's only contributions, he will be valuable to the Dolphins in 2014.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (premium content).