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Dolphins' Absent Running Game Increases Pressure on Ryan Tannehill

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Dolphins' Absent Running Game Increases Pressure on Ryan Tannehill
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It's a good thing the Miami Dolphins have weapons in the passing game like Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Charles Clay, Rishard Matthews, Brandon Gibson and rookie Jarvis Landry.

The Dolphins will need them all, because if the preseason is any indication, they're not going to get much help from the running game. 

Unless the Dolphins suddenly find the miracle cure to what ails their rush attack, the hopes of the Dolphins' offense may lie in the hands of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

That would not be a diversion from last year, when the Dolphins ran a pass play on 65.2 percent of their offensive plays, the third-highest percentage in the league according to TeamRankings.com. If their running game doesn't improve from what we've seen so far in the preseason, the Dolphins may not be able to get any closer to finding balance on offense. 

There has been a lot of talk about the beating Tannehill took last season, with a league-high 58 sacks, but the quarterback isn't the only one feeling the pinch of the offensive line's inability to block. The Dolphins' running game averaged a paltry 4.1 yards per rush attempt, ranked 17th in the NFL, but they ran the ball 349 times for 1,440 yards and eight rushing touchdowns, all in the bottom seven in the league. 

Last year's struggles on the offensive line have become this year's rebuilding project, and so far, things have not gone well on the ground.

Dolphins preseason rushing stats
Week Attempts Yards YPA TD
Week 1 21 52 2.5 0
Week 1 (first half) 11 17 1.5 0
Week 2 26 46 1.8 1
Week 2 (first half) 9 -5 -0.6 0
Total 47 98 2.1 1

Source: NFL.com

In Week 1, the team averaged 2.5 yards per rush attempt. In Week 2, that number was 1.8. In the first half of their two preseason games, the Dolphins have rushed for 47 yards on 30 carries (1.6 YPA).

"A lot of penetration," head coach Joe Philbin said of the Dolphins' problems in the running game in a press conference. "We had guys in the backfield, we didn't establish an edge. They established an edge on us, got upfield on us a couple times, penetrated and got in our backfield way too much, way too much."

Granted, the Dolphins have been without running back Knowshon Moreno, who has missed time recovering from a knee scope this offseason. Moreno's only compatriots in the backfield are Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas—otherwise known as the two backs who were bearing the burden of the running game during those struggles last year.

It's hard to place too much blame on Miller and Thomas, given the aforementioned woes on the offensive line, but neither man has done anything to prove he deserves a lion's share of the carries.

None of this plays well into Philbin's desire for more balance in his offense than last year.

"Yeah, I definitely would like to have more balance," he said. "I think, in my mind, the running game does a lot of things for you. No. 1, it helps you, if it's productive, it helps you with the sticks a little bit and it gets you in manageable down-and-distance situations. And I think when you study football, it provides an opportunity to really, the deep shots and the vertical shots, I think on play action, on first and second down, are some of the best ways to throw the ball down the field. I think the better you are in the running game, there are going to be opportunities to do that in the passing game."

Ryan Tannehill on play-action passes (aimed passes only)
Play type Comp Att % Yds YPA TD INT Rate Sacked
Play action 57 90 63.33 787 8.74 7 1 112.59 7
No play action 298 458 65.07 3110 6.79 17 16 82.41 51

Source: Bleacher Report Research

It's interesting that Tannehill was effective on play-action passes, despite their ineffective running game. His passer rating was high, thanks largely to a 7-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, and his yards per attempt were high as well, but his completion percentage was slightly lower than on standard passes. 

That being said, we did see more than one example last season of the advantages a good play-action fake can give a quarterback.

Source: NFL Game Rewind

Tannehill hit Wallace on this in-route over the middle against the Cincinnati Bengals thanks in large part to a play-action fake. Watch the linebackers come downhill to stop the run, leaving the middle of the field wide-open. Once Wallace broke past the coverage of the defender, this throw-and-catch were both elementary.

Also, as a result of the play action, there were large parts of the opposite side of the field that were wide-open, allowing Wallace to run free through the secondary for extra yards.

The Dolphins may have been able to get some juice out of the play-action passing game last season despite their struggles in the running game, but play-action will be at its most effective when the Dolphins are running the ball effectively as well.

Surely, part of the problem is the Dolphins' revamped offensive line, which is still missing the lone holdover from last year's group, center Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins added Branden Albert and Ja'Wuan James at tackle and Shelley Smith, Billy Turner and Daryn Colledge at guard.  

Not only are there question marks about the ability of several of those players, but the group as a whole must get on the same page in a hurry. Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel brings up an interesting point as to how successful the line can be: 

Even if the Dolphins 'hit' on three of their major offensive line acquisitions (Albert, Satele and James), which would be pretty good, they'd still have big problems on the offensive line. That would mean they didn't 'hit', at least this season, on three other acquisitions—guard Billy Turner, the third-round pick from North Dakota State, Colledge, or Smith. And there would also be also the realization [guard Dallas] Thomas, last year's third-round pick, hasn't developed properly.

Thomas' struggles have been so rampant, they warranted their own separate discussion by Perkins, who adds that Thomas was responsible for two penalties and "at least partially responsible for allowing a sack that resulted in a fumble" against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their preseason Week 2 matchup. 

The line may improve once Pouncey returns, but the interior of the offensive line is still shaky at best. For years, the Dolphins have lacked the presence of a guard who can block on the move and in the open field. They have been playing a zone-blocking scheme largely comprised of linemen acquired to execute a man-blocking system under former head coach Tony Sparano.

The revamped group may be a better fit for the scheme, but their talent and cohesion are still in doubt. The sooner everyone gets on the same page, the better the Dolphins' running game will be as a result.

 

Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained via team news release.

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