Expect Big Things from Lamar Miller in 2014

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Expect Big Things from Lamar Miller in 2014
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller is just 23 years of age entering his third season in the NFL.

To this point, the former fourth-round draft pick out of Miami has averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 6.7 yards per reception during his career. Miller's averages are good, but his production overall is not. He has carried the ball just 228 times in his career with just 32 receptions.

Miller was initially trapped behind Reggie Bush during his rookie season before he split time with Daniel Thomas in the backfield last year.

Entering the 2014 season, Miller is expected to be the primary ball-carrier for the Dolphins. That is mainly because of his fit in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's offense and because of the uncertainty over offseason addition Knowshon Moreno's health.

Lazor's presence is vital for Miller.

Although he is already exuding coach speak about playing with a faster tempo that seemingly every new coach talks about during the offseason, there are reasons to believe Lazor will actually speed the Dolphins offense up.

The 42-year-old joined the Dolphins after being the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. Lazor worked under Chip Kelly, a coach who has established his reputation on playing fast, for an offense that ranked 13th in the league in offensive plays last year.

Thirteenth in the league isn't that high, but the balance between tempo and execution was, as the Eagles finished fourth in points per game during the regular season.

The Eagles offense created lots of big plays last year, but the tone of the offense was set by the running game. Averaging 5.1 yards per carry and 160.4 yards per game, both the most in the NFL, plus scoring 19 rushing touchdowns, also the most in the NFL, suggests that the Eagles had clearly the best rushing attack in the NFL last year.

Being the top-ranked rush offense in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which measures efficiency, confirms that suggestion.

Even though Lazor was the quarterbacks coach and not the running backs coach for the Eagles, he does appear to understand the importance of the running game—more specifically, the importance of big plays and putting backs in space, something that suits Miller more than any other back on the Dolphins roster.

"Every single day we're pushing them to see them make big plays in the running game," Lazor said, per NFL.com's Marc Sessler. "And I think that's what separates some teams in this league, is the ability to get those backs in space."

LeSean McCoy, the Eagles' primary back last season, had nine rushes of more than 20 yards in 2013, and three of those went for more than 40 yards. He added eight more 20-plus-yard plays on receptions, with three more of those going for 40 or more yards.

Miller had just four 20-plus-yard rushes in 2013, with two of those going for 40-plus yards. He added just one more 20-plus-yard reception as a receiver. However, it must be noted that Miller only had 203 total touches, whereas McCoy had 366.

On average, Miller had a big play once every 40.6 touches, while McCoy had a big play once every 21.5 touches.

McCoy is a special back in terms of explosion. Expecting Miller to match him in terms of overall talent isn't realistic. However, the gap between the two in terms of creating big plays isn't as wide as those numbers suggest.

In 2013, McCoy played behind the best offensive line in the NFL in a spread-out offense that created space for him to work in. Meanwhile, Miller played in a more traditional offense that didn't create space for him behind arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL.

That's not to say that all of McCoy's production was a result of his situation—that's simply not the case. McCoy has been very productive throughout his career. Kelly's offense simply magnified his talent last year.

If Lazor can do the same for Miller in Miami, he should have a very productive season.

Even though the Dolphins don't have an offensive line as good as the Eagles' unit, they are much improved in that area entering this season. The addition of offensive tackles Brandon Albert and Ja'Wuan James should dramatically improve the pass protection, but it's the guard spots that are vital for the running game.

Neither Shelley Smith nor Billy Turner (who should start over Dallas Thomas) are massive, overwhelming run-blockers, but both are relatively strong players who can move in space. With the very athletic Mike Pouncey entrenched as the starting center, the Dolphins should have a very versatile offensive line in 2014.

This is the type of offensive line that fits on an uptempo, spread-out system.

NFL.com

On this play, we see how both the offensive system and the offensive line allowed McCoy's speed to give him a relatively simple big play. Before the snap, the first thing to note is how both outside receivers are lined up outside the numbers, while the slot receiver and tight end are lined up to the wider side of the field.

NFL.com

The Kansas City Chiefs have just seven players in the box, with three of those lined up outside of the tackles, two to the left and one to the right. Importantly, the Eagles are in the shotgun, so even though Michael Vick isn't an option as a blocker, he can still occupy a defender with a play fake.

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At the snap, the Eagles offensive line slides to the right. The Chiefs defense is very quick to attack that side, but the quickness of the offensive linemen allows them to get in position. Most importantly, left tackle Jason Peters is able to get inside of the right defensive end to free left guard Evan Mathis to move forward.

This creates the running lane for McCoy, but it's not a completely clean running lane.

NFL.com

While Mathis' quickness allowed him to get into position, he is beaten at the point of contact because he never establishes his base. The linebacker on the second level plays this perfectly as he spins back inside, but McCoy's speed through the hole negates Mathis' failed block.

Because of McCoy's speed, Mathis didn't need to be perfect in his block, but he did need the quickness to get in the right position.

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Even before McCoy gets through the offensive line, another key aspect of this play must be pointed out. After Vick gave the ball to McCoy, he continued to move toward his left tackle to carry out a play fake. This held the backside defender, Eric Berry.

This seems like a minor aspect of the play, but it gave McCoy a free run into space on the second level. Having Vick on the field obviously makes the defense more wary, but this play fake worked with Nick Foles also and will work with Ryan Tannehill, who is a good athlete.

NFL.com

McCoy gained 30 yards on this play. His speed through the hole was important for its success, but he wasn't asked to do a huge amount.

He didn't need to manipulate defenders with his movement before the line of scrimmage. He didn't need to search for a hole or wait for the blocking to develop in front of him. He didn't need to make multiple defenders miss or change direction.

What McCoy did on this play is something that Miller can replicate. He has that kind of speed to take advantage of space if the situation affords him enough opportunities.

Creativity is something that was severely lacking for the Dolphins last season. Former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had a connection with starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill that dated back to their time at Texas A&M together, but Sherman's offense proved to be too rigid in the NFL.

Lazor may not be Kelly, but the Dolphins will be hoping that he can bring some of that creativity to his offense in Miami.

NFL.com

Again on this play, the Eagles spread the field with a receiver outside of the numbers on either side of the field. The rest of their skill-position players are bunched together to the left of the offensive line. However, it must also be noted that the Eagles have an unbalanced line with a tight end lined up at left tackle.

Importantly, the Eagles have bunched their skill-position players on the narrow side of the field.

NFL.com

The Eagles are running laterally to the right sideline.

The backside of the play isn't vitally important here because of the speed of McCoy, but each blocker looks to get inside of his defender in that area of the field. Meanwhile, the center and right guard pull outside of the right tackles while they overplay the outside at the snap to block their defenders down inside.

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The outer right tackle is beaten on his block, but critically he is beaten inside, so it doesn't affect the play. By overplaying the outside at the beginning of the play, the offensive lineman set himself up for this situation.

McCoy's speed and the speed of his two pulling offensive linemen allow him to escape outside without being affected by the interior penetration.

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Also because of the quickness of the pulling offensive linemen, the edge defender who works around from inside linebacker has no chance of getting to McCoy. The linemen are in position to double-team him as he arrives, but they don't need to, as McCoy has space outside to run into.

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Instead of double-teaming the edge defender, one of the offensive lineman continues downfield to cut off the other inside linebacker cutting across the field.

The quickness of the team's offensive linemen on this play is easy to see, but the design was also crucial. McCoy has a huge amount of space to run into because the Eagles bunched their skill-position players on the other, shorter side of the field.

Replicating the consistency and execution of the Eagles rushing attack from last season will be very difficult, but the Dolphins must attempt to in order to get the most out of Miller.

Getting Miller in space is ideal for the young back because of his exceptional acceleration. To this point in his career, Miller has struggled with being a consistent decision-maker and with his vision. Because he hasn't been the feature option, getting as many repetitions as possible in practice and games, that's not a major concern.

The optimism surrounding Miller is borne out of what happens when he does make the right decisions and reads.

NFL.com

This was his longest play of last season: a 49-yard rush against the Atlanta Falcons. Miller's acceleration through the line of scrimmage is easy to see here, but the initial hesitation where he reads the defender in front of him is just as impressive.

He should really have taken this run to the end zone, but he floated too much after stepping away from the last defender down the field.

Miller was decisive when running through the defense initially but looked hesitant once confronted down the field. This play was a great example of how he didn't look fully comfortable despite making such a big play. With more time on the field and more experience in the league, that comfort should come.

Comfort in Lazor's offense should come more easily than it did in Sherman's.

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