Miami Dolphins Are Being Held Back by Joe Philbin, Poor Coaching

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2015

Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin watches play against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Blaming coaches is the easiest criticism to make in the NFL.

Coaches are always at the mercy of hindsight, and it's the only role on Sundays that can be carried out without being a professional athlete. Furthermore, players are typically worshiped by the fanbase, while most of what coaches do goes unnoticed.

Through two weeks this year, there has been a lot of bad coaching across the whole league. One of the worst coaching staffs is that of the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins are 1-1 when they were expected to be 2-0. A close victory over Washington in Week 1 came with an extremely underwhelming display, while that underwhelming display was matched by the result when they travelled to face the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Adding Ndamukong Suh and surrounding Ryan Tannehill with greater weapons was supposed to make the Dolphins a much better team than both Washington and the Jaguars. Often, the quarterback who hasn't been to the playoffs or won a Super Bowl is the first in line for criticism.

Even Tannehill's most ardent critics can't call him the issue in Miami. The quarterback has thrown an incredible 78 pass attempts, completing 52 (66.7 percent) for 585 yards (7.5 per attempt) and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

The quarterback hasn't had a running game to rely on while his re-tooled receiving corps has struggled to live up to expectations to this point.

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Failings on both the offensive and defensive side have prevented Tannehill's improved numbers from turning into an improved team. Offensively, the team refuses to run the ball consistently or play to the strengths of its running game, while the scheme defensively is proving to be a major issue.

Offense

This was supposed to be the season when the Dolphins finally featured Lamar Miller in their offense.

Miller finished last season carrying the ball more than he ever had in his career. Over the final three games of the regular season, he averaged 18 attempts per game. Over the first two weeks of this season, he is averaging 11.5 attempts.

So far this season, the Dolphins have run the ball with a running back on just 12 of their 51 first down plays, not including one kneel-down at the end of Week 1. That number means they are passing the ball more than 75 percent of the time on first down.

It's not that the Dolphins have been playing from behind.

During the first game of the year, they opened with 15 straight first downs that didn't feature a handoff. Not until there was roughly one minute left in the third quarter did they hand the ball off on a first down, when they did so on consecutive snaps for gains of 12 and 17 yards.

After gaining 29 yards on two handoffs, the Dolphins running backs didn't touch the ball again for the remainder of the series. The remaining four running back carries on first down in this game came when the Dolphins were trying to run out the clock with a lead late in the fourth quarter.

In Week 2, against the Jaguars, the Dolphins didn't correct this error. Just three of their first 16 first downs saw them hand the ball off to a running back. After that game, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor acknowledged their imbalance but didn't necessarily admit his mistake.

From Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel:

We've been at our best when we've been balanced, but there's no law that says we have to go into a game and be balanced. We've got to gain consistency and confidence in the run game as players, as coaches, together.

[It starts with] the decisiveness of the ball carriers, and I also have to look at myself. I know there are times where there were two- or three-yard runs, and they scare you off running it again, but we take all of those things into account.

The scheme that Lazor brought to Miami has worked wonders for their offense as a whole. However, his play-calling has been a problem. He is very reluctant to stay with the running game when it is effective and clearly doesn't trust the talent that Miller possesses.

An easy retort to that is to point to Miller's yards per carry in 2015, but that number is misleading.

The below table tracks Miller's carries through this season as a whole. Each column reflects where Miller is directed when he receives the ball at the snap, not where he crosses the line of scrimmage. This is in order to isolate the play call from his actions with the ball.

For example, if Tannehill takes the ball from under center and plants it in Miller's chest as he runs towards his left guard, that play goes between the tackles. If Tannehill lines up in the shotgun and pitches it to Miller as he moves laterally towards either sideline, that play goes either outside left or outside right.

Outside LeftBetween the TacklesOutside Right
Carries5117
Yards44321
Average Per Carry0.83.93.0
Negative Runs201
4+ Yard Runs252
10+ Yard Runs011
Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

Miller has lost 13 yards on outside runs. Each of those losses came when he was met with defenders behind the line of scrimmage and had no opportunity to create forward momentum or cut to space, because he was moving laterally from the start of the play.

More importantly, Miller's yards per carry and absence of negative runs between the tackles are clear indicators of how the Dolphins should be running the ball.

Those numbers don't do the difference full justice, because many of Miller's runs between the tackles came in game situations (short-yardage or clock-killing situations) where the defense was selling out to stop him. Lazor and his staff are treating Miller like he is Dri Archer.

It's obvious that they don't believe in his durability, but with how they are calling plays, they also don't appear to believe in his talent.

The 24-year-old running back has developed into a well-rounded back who can be consistently effective between the tackles. His speed and agility are still his greatest strengths, but his strength to finish plays moving forward through contact and his vision to find and create running lanes are very impressive.

Miller is a disciplined runner who understands when to look for cutback opportunities and when to follow the momentum of the play design. He proved that last year when he was the focal point of a running game that was ranked second in the league by Football Outsiders' DVOA that measures snap-by-snap efficiency.

The gap between them and the third-placed team was significant, as well.

Attaining that level of efficiency wasn't about having a great offensive line or relying on Miller to make defenders miss behind the line of scrimmage outside. The Dolphins rushing game was built on running between the tackles and stretching the defense with the threat of Ryan Tannehill on option plays.

Credit: NFL.com

Before the ball is snapped on this play, Jarvis Landry lines up in the backfield alongside Tannehill and Miller. Landry is part of the play, but he motions outside just before the ball is snapped to be a throwing option for Tannehill if he keeps the ball.

That draws an inside linebacker away from the box, but that linebacker is replaced by a defensive back who rotates down when the linebacker goes to the outside.

This means that the defense has seven defenders in the box to combat the six blockers that the Dolphins offense has. Tannehill is responsible for the seventh defender, the defensive back who rotated down before the snap, as he is going to read him in space.

Credit: NFL.com

Once Tannehill gets the ball, he holds it out in front of him so he can read the edge defender. The edge defender is so far away that Tannehill was always likely to hand the ball off to Miller. That was the impact of Landry's motion into the flat.

Typically, this read would be tougher because Tannehill would be reading the defensive end as the left tackle advances downfield to block the linebacker who has instead departed.

Miller is running inside zone blocking for Miller to follow. This allows them to double team the nose tackle before the left guard advances downfield to block on the second level. Miller has space to run before he has to make a decision.

Credit: NFL.com

As Miller advances, he pushes the play to the outside. He is attempting to manipulate the movement of No. 99 and No. 64 on the defensive line. Miller presses the outside before straightening his movement at the perfect time.

The development of the play and his patience as a runner allowed Miller to run clean into the secondary.

This was one of the few plays this season when the Dolphins gave the ball to Miller on first down. It was 1st-and-10, and he gained 12 yards. Ten of those 12 yards came untouched before he was met by a safety at the first down marker.

Obviously, every inside running play won't be as effective as this one, but the success rate of this play should be much greater than the ones the Dolphins are currently relying on. That is because it plays to the strength of Lazor's available personnel.

Much of the personnel involved in running the ball this year is the same as last year. 

Miller faced the eighth-highest percentage of loaded boxes (where the defense has one more defender in the box than the offense has blockers) last year according to Football Outsiders. Using Tannehill's threat to account for a defender without having to use a blocker on him allowed them to be so effective.

Lazor needs to re-emphasize this type of play as the foundation of his offense. It will not only make the running game more efficient, but also alleviate pressure on the offensive line and make it easier for receivers to get open downfield.

Acknowledging that you are a better team when you are balanced is worthless if you follow it up by saying there is no law that you need to be. Lazor brought over a great scheme from his former head coach, Chip Kelly, but his own ability as an offensive coordinator remains very suspect.

It could prove to be fatal for the Dolphins' season if they don't correct it sooner rather than later.

Defense

Much was made of Ndamukong Suh's supposed freelancing against the Jaguars.

Suh himself has denied the report, while the MMQB's Andy Benoit noted that he didn't recognize any potential problem with Suh after going through his film. Benoit calls it a smear campaign and questions where it originated from.

Regardless of where it originated from, a purpose it has served is to pull attention away from the poor play of the defense as a whole. Against two limited offenses, the Dolphins defense has given up 33 points and 745 yards while struggling to get off the field.

It's true that the Dolphins lack talent around their exceptional defensive line, but the complementary pieces of the defense aren't being put in positions to succeed by defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. This is most severe at cornerback.

Coyle employs a scheme that keeps his cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage. That's not necessarily an unusual approach but the depth of their alignments combined with a lack of diversity in play-calling puts the outside defensive backs in losing situations.

This was made apparent on a number of occasions against the Jaguars.

Credit: NFL.com

The above chart tracks where Blake Bortles completed his passes against the Dolphins. The numbers are placed where the ball is caught, and that number itself represents how many yards were gained. Green numbers were first downs or touchdowns, while red numbers were completed passes but not first downs.

Bortles missed a number of open throws, while his receivers also had some costly drops that made the Dolphins defense look more statistically effective than it actually was. 

Coyle's cautious coverage is supposed to prevent big plays. The defensive backs drop back so far to keep the play in front of them, coming up to make tackles on underneath throws that don't result in first downs. Even against the limited passing attack of the Jaguars, the Dolphins cornerbacks couldn't do this.

It may simply be that his players aren't talented enough, but it's more likely that this approach is simply too difficult to execute in today's NFL unless you have overwhelming levels of talent through the spine of your team.

Credit: NFL.com

During the first half, the Dolphins surrendered easy first downs on a number of occasions. Two of those came in 3rd-and-short situations when their alignment at the snap and passive coverage after the snap gave the quarterback simple reads to make.

In the above image, the Dolphins are playing off-man coverage.

The outside defensive backs are so deep that Bortles knows they won't be able to jump any first-down throw to the outside flat. When the offense motions a receiver from the left behind the line of scrimmage, his trailing cornerback has no chance of getting to him before he crosses the first-down line.

Bortles is able to immediately make his decision with the ball, and the receiver gets what is essentially a free first down. He had the first down before turning downfield, untouched by the cornerback who desperately dives to try and recover his position in coverage.

The play results in an untouched 16-yard gain.

Credit: NFL.com

On this 3rd-and-2 play, Coyle drops six defenders into zone coverage but not a single defender is close to the first-down line to prevent a simple throw to the fullback for a first down. It was 3rd-and-2 and Coyle was primarily concerned with preventing a big play.

The play action from the offense may have disrupted the call from the defense, but it didn't appear to.

Playing such cautious coverage allows quarterbacks to complete underneath passes more easily, but the depth of the cornerbacks' alignments can also make it tougher to cover deep routes. Such deep-off coverage always gives the receiver a free release.

Even if you don't aggressively press the receiver at the line of scrimmage, being within five or six yards to threaten contact is much more difficult for a receiver to work around opposed to someone who is eight-plus yards away.

Credit: NFL.com

Allen Robinson was able to beat Brice McCain on a number of occasions with such ease because of the space he was afforded early in his route. Even Allen Hurns, an undrafted receiver from 2014, was able to comfortably get open against Jamar Taylor's soft coverage late on what proved to be a key reception.

Taylor could clearly have played Hurns' route better than he did.

It's fair to say that the Dolphins don't have exceptional cornerback talent. These players could execute better in their roles than they do, but it's a problem that Coyle doesn't appear to recognize or attempt to adjust to.

Coyle could ease the pressure on his cornerbacks by showing greater creativity and diversity in his play-calling. He is not like Rex Ryan or Bob Sutton in the sense that he understands how to confuse quarterbacks by alignment or what he does after the snap.

He also doesn't understand how to play to the situation or opposition. Against the Jaguars, we saw a clear example of this.

Credit: NFL.com

Bortles is an athletic quarterback. He isn't an exceptionally intelligent or precise passer, so his greatest strength is his ability to use his feet to make plays. He can manipulate the pocket or extend plays into the flat before throwing downfield, but he's also an adept scrambler.

With Bortles' athleticism, the defense should be less aggressive with its blitzes.

That's not what Coyle did. On this 3rd-and-5 play, he aggressively sends five defenders off both edges. With no spying linebacker and man coverage across the board behind the blitz, Bortles was almost immediately given a huge amount of space in front of him to run into.

Not only did he easily gain a first down, but he was able to continue downfield for a 28-yard gain. The man coverage on the back-end meant no defensive back was able to react to him when he broke the pocket.

The Miami Dolphins may not be getting the production they expected to get from their defensive line to this point, but that's not the primary reason for their struggles. The back-seven defenders need to perform better, and their defensive coordinator needs to help them do that more than he is.

Joe Philbin's job is on the line. He is the one who will take the blame for an under-performing team, so it's his responsibility to correct (or even replace) his coordinators if they continue to repeat their mistakes.

First down running statistics were compiled by the author through NFL.com