Can Miami Dolphins Quarterback Ryan Tannehill Continue Hot Start to Preseason?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

Miami Dolphins assistant coach Bill Lazor, left, talks to quarterback Ryan Tannehill during NFL football training camp Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

It's an important season for Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The eighth overall pick from the 2012 draft has endured two relatively uninspiring years to this point. Tannehill himself has been an impressive player considering his supporting cast, but that supporting cast has made any team success an impossibility.

An absence of team success has also put more pressure on the Dolphins current coaching staff and, in particular, head coach Joe Philbin.

Philbin was appointed during the same offseason that Tannehill was drafted. Philbin and then general manager Jeff Ireland decided to draft Tannehill while also hiring his college head coach to be the team's offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman.

The familiarity between coach and quarterback was supposed to ease Tannehill's transition into the NFL. While that may have happened, it was hard to see because Sherman's play-calling and offensive system left a lot to be desired, while both the 2012 and 2013 personnel groups had major weaknesses.

Part of the reason that this year is so big for Tannehill is the changeover at the offensive coordinator position. While it may not be fair to him, Tannehill will be more harshly judged now that the team has changed coordinators. Even though there are many, many factors that affect performance on the field, the decision to swap out Sherman instead of Tannehill creates an environment that heightens expectations for the quarterback.

Sherman has been used as an excuse to deflect blame from Tannehill to this point.

New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's presence won't be used that way. Lazor arrives in Miami from the Chip Kelly coaching tree. His offense integrates the concepts upon which Kelly has built his career, concepts that may be the next direction that many NFL teams will follow.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in the first preseason game, we got our first glimpse of Lazor's offensive philosophy and Tannehill's effectiveness in it.

Tannehill played just one series and threw just six passes. Every single one of those passes was caught and allowed the offense to rack up 62 yards and a touchdown. Perfect statistics don't always reflect a perfect performance, but Tannehill couldn't have expected to announce himself in a better way.

On the very first play of the game, Tannehill found something that was foreign to him last year: A clean pocket.

The Dolphins start from the shotgun, and the Falcons respond by rushing only four defenders at the snap. Not only does Tannehill have a clean pocket, the Falcons front four isn't closing on him when he decides to release the football.

It could be argued that Tannehill should have held the ball to try and get a bigger play downfield, but six yards on 1st-and-10 to start the game is a good way to start a drive.

What must be noted on this play is that clean pocket and how it came about. The Dolphins offensive line isn't anything spectacular. In fact, without Mike Pouncey in the middle, it likely has less talent than the majority of the other units in the NFL. The Dolphins' ability to keep their quarterback clean on the first drive said more about the quality of the opposition than the strength of their offensive line.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have put an emphasis on toughness this year. Toughness means investing in run-stuffing defensive linemen. The drawback of this new emphasis is that the Falcons have no viable pass rush.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will need to blitz to get pressure this year, something he didn't do on the play described above.

Because the Falcons defense was a really good matchup for the Dolphins offense, it's hard to put too much stock in their first outing of the preseason. Results from the preseason in general can't be trusted, but they're even more unreliable when the matchup heavily favors one team.

In Week 2, the Dolphins face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team with a defense that should put pressure on all Miami's weak spots on offense.

There is one weak spot for Miami that is still in need of careful examination and that is the team's interior pass protection. Tampa Bay defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald are significantly better pass-rushers than anyone on the Falcons roster.

McCoy and McDonald would both overwhelm any of the Dolphins interior offensive linemen in one-on-one drills. And since they'd likely do it with ease, the matchup may not hold much interest.

Even though the competition was terrible in the preseason opener, Lazor showed how he plans to alleviate the pressure on the interior of the offensive line. But how effective can this scheme be? Can the Dolphins neutralize the Buccaneers' front seven like they did that the Falcons?

Lazor's offense creates hesitation in the front seven by using option plays that look very similar on a snap-to-snap basis. These three plays come from just the first drive against the Falcons:

On this play, Tannehill holds the ball in such a way that he appears to be running a read-option play off the left side of the offense. The Dolphins blocking leaves one defender free on the edge, while Tannehill watches that defender as he hands the ball off to Lamar Miller to run up the middle.

The next time in this situation, the Falcons defense reacts more aggressively to Miller. This time, Tannehill pulls the ball back and throws the ball towards the opposite sideline where Brandon Gibson waits to catch a screen pass.

After handing the ball off to the running back and completing a pass behind the line of scrimmage, the Dolphins use play action on 2nd-and-8 to throw the ball downfield. A defender isn't left unblocked this time, but the combination of the constant misdirection and the uptempo offense significantly slows the pass rush.

Successful defensive plays starts with disciplined defensive play. Lazor's offensive approach inverts the effect of that discipline and uses it to punish the defense.

Because of that, the impact of the scheme needs to be measured. If McCoy and McDonald, or anyone playing on the opposition's defensive line in general, is disciplined against the run and waits to read where the ball goes before beginning their pass rush, then the offensive line gets an advantage in pass protection.

This is why you can't simply focus on one-on-one matchups and who wins these individual battles.

For the team's touchdown pass that capped off the drive, the misdirection and the scheme's impact on the defense again determined the outcome.

Again, Tannehill uses play-action in the backfield while the offensive line slides aggressively to that side of the field. As the image above highlights, many of the Falcons defenders are upright and not moving towards the quarterback as they search for the football. The defensive line itself is sliding with the offensive line to the other side of the field.

Wide receiver Brandon Gibson, the player who ultimately catches the wide open touchdown pass, is running behind the line of scrimmage. The defender who would be in the best position to pick him up in the right flat is being distracted by the play-action in the backfield.

On this play, the talent on the offensive line was made irrelevant by the design of the play and the play-calling on the drive up to that point.

Sure, Tannehill and Lazor's success will be determined by what they do during the regular season. But we can get a good idea of how effective the offense can be, despite a poor offensive line, against the Buccaneers this week. In Philadelphia, Chip Kelly had arguably the most talented and effective offensive line in the NFL. That wasn't simply a result of scheme, so the impact of his offense still remains unclear.

For Tannehill, Lazor's offense may be less familiar than Sherman's, but it should definitely be much more comfortable.


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