Why Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill Is Off to a Hot Start This Season

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterSeptember 25, 2013

JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 09:  Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins passes during a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on August 9, 2013 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins and quarterback Ryan Tannehill should be talked about as one of the early surprises of the 2013 season. Fresh off a win against the Falcons that pushed their record to 3-0, Joe Philbin’s team is playing at a high level.

Today, let’s go to the tape and break down why the second-year quarterback is producing within the Dolphins playbook.

Short to Intermediate route tree

This offense in Miami under Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman has a West Coast feel to it. I’m talking about the three-step game, inside breaking cuts, the Hi-Lo concepts, and the vertical seam out of spread looks—high percentage throws for Tannehill to work the ball to the middle of the field.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 15:  Mike Wallace #11 of the Miami Dolphins runs for a touchdown during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 15, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

And because of the off-coverage the Dolphins have seen throughout the first three weeks of the season (especially versus wide receiver Mike Wallace), the out cuts—plus the comeback—are a big part of the Sunday game plan.

Wide receivers align at the top of the numbers—that creates room to run the outside breaking route—and Tannehill gets the ball out before they come out of their cuts.

That’s stealing for the Dolphins with the velocity Tannehill can put on the throw.

Inside of the numbers, Tannehill can work with a two-level read when the Dolphins get to their Hi-Lo concepts out of stack or bunch looks. This allows the quarterback to target Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and tight end Charles Clay—quick reads that beat up Cover 1, Cover 3 and zone pressure.

Here are a couple of examples:   

Two-level combination (option-dig) for Tannehill: No. 1 (Hartline) will stem up the field and break on the dig (square-in) with No. 2 running the short option route (working off the defender’s leverage). With the corner playing off and to the outside, Tannehill can target Hartline on the inside break in front of the safety. That’s an easy read for a positive gain.

This plays out like a Hi-Lo concept with Wallace on the shallow drive and Gibson on the dig. With the Colts in a zone pressure (rush five, drop six), the middle hook defender drives the underneath crosser. That creates a solid throwing window for Tannehill to target Gibson working away from the seam-flat defender in the middle of the field.

Miami has put the vertical game on tape. But through three weeks, Tannehill makes his money in the short to intermediate route tree.

Exposing coverages/matchups

Think single-high (Cover 1, Cover 3, pressure) versus two-deep (Cover 2, 2-Man). That is exactly what quarterbacks are looking for when they come to the line of scrimmage—because it impacts the route concept and their primary reads.

Ryan Tannehill has shown the ability to recognize coverage schemes during his pre-snap routine. And that allows him to identify (and target) the matchups he wants based off the alignment in the secondary.

Go back to the seam route I broke down on Monday when Tannehill targeted the Falcons 2-man. He understands the coverage, the matchup (Clay versus a linebacker in trail man), and delivers a top-tier throw to set up the game-winner.

Let’s take a look at two more examples:

This is a “999” concept (four verticals from a 3x1 alignment) versus Cover 1 (man-free). With the Colts showing a single-high look, Tannehill can hold the free safety in the middle of the field and come back to Hartline (aligned as the No. 2 receiver) on the inside seam working against man coverage. 

This ball has to be thrown to the upfield shoulder (away from the defender’s leverage), and that is exactly where Tannehill puts it. That takes the free safety out of the play and produces an explosive gain. 

Flat-7 (corner) versus Cover 2: This is a classic two-deep beater. Tannehill is going to read the drop of the open side cornerback. If he sinks hard at a 45-degree angle to cushion the safety, the quarterback will take the flat. However, if the cornerback squats in the flat, Tannehill gets the one-on-one matchup (within a zone defense) versus the safety on an outside breaking route.

The Falcons cornerback takes the bait in the flat, and the safety is stuck inside with no underneath help. That opens up a throwing window for Tannehill to target Hartline in the corner of the end zone for the score. Again, he sees the coverage and takes advantage of the defense by targeting the matchup that beats the scheme.

Ability to identify pressure

The Dolphins' pass protection has been subpar at best. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 14 times already this season, and both tackles, Tyson Clabo and Jonathan Martin, look suspect on tape versus edge speed. Add in struggles from running back Daniel Thomas to pick up blitzing linebackers, and the pocket collapses pretty quickly in Miami.

This has to be addressed, and the Dolphins are already showing seven-man protection schemes in third-down situations to compensate for the poor play up front.

However, when Tannehill can identify man pressure, he has displayed the ability to find his hot reads. Here are two quick looks with Tannehill versus man pressure:

Cover 0 (man pressure with no inside safety help) from the Browns: Tannehill sees the nickel stem to a blitz alignment and targets the slot receiver (Gibson) on the inside slant route versus a safety dropping down in coverage. He identifies the blitz and gets that ball out to move the sticks.

Closed (strong) side pressure from the Falcons: With the free safety showing high and then dropping down to the open (weak) side of the formation, Tannehill can see the pressure, read the secondary and target No. 2 on the inside slant route. Remember, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Get the ball out, avoid the pressure and move onto the next play.

What’s next for Dolphins, Tannehill?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan of the New Orleans Saints stands on the sidelines during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 22, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chri
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There's a prime-time matchup with the Saints on Monday night.

Ryan Tannehill should expect multiple pressure fronts from Rob Ryan’s defense in New Orleans plus a secondary that will disguise and roll coverage in the back end.

The quarterback will have to handle the blitz looks from the Saints and find the matchups he can target when this defense sends six- and seven-man pressure schemes. Plus, there will be opportunities to test the top of the secondary with Wallace if the Saints challenge these Dolphins receivers at the line of scrimmage in press alignments. 

Can he handle the pressure? That’s what I want to find out on Monday night.

I’ve been impressed with Tannehill on tape—he can play. But we are still only three weeks into the season. And with any young quarterback, consistency is key. Let’s see what the second-year pro does moving forward and if he can build off his hot start.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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