By: Tom Shannon
Armando Salguero at the Miami Herald puts his finger on the major issue that the Miami Dolphins offense has to solve. And, no, it’s not Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
"The Dolphins struggled to run the football against the Denver Broncos. That’s something of an understatement because the team rushed for an unremarkable 56 yards on 17 carries. That’s a 3.3 yard per carry average.
"'We didn’t run it effectively enough,' [head coach Brian] Flores said. 'Again, when we get behind, it’s hard to continue to stick runs in there. But even when the score was 10-10 or 13-10 or we were up, we didn’t run it effectively enough.
“'We’ve got to do a better job up front running it, tight ends, receivers, really everyone.'
"Yes, coach, everyone."
I was fascinated to watch Sunday's game in part because both defenses had the same game plan. Both defenses knew that they were facing young quarterbacks that might be confused by some razzle-dazzle. Both teams went to disguise looks, something that the Broncos specialize in, and both teams went to stunts and trickery. The "amoeba" defense was a part of each team's game plan.
I thought it was interesting that immediately after the game, Flores claimed that the Broncos had "brought pressure". In re-watching the game, he and I both evidently drew the same conclusion because his tune changed on Monday.
The Broncos didn’t blitz much and, indeed, they don't blitz much as a rule. It just looked like that because the stunts and the hazy looks caused Tagovailoa to hold the ball and gave his offensive line a great deal of trouble. So, the pressure came anyway.
For the Dolphins, the same sequence played out over and over again over the course of the game. Tagovailoa would drop back having made a pre-snap read and with a pre-determined receiver in mind for the ball. Then a defensive end or a linebacker who has been mugging the line in a blitz look would drop back into his passing lane and his first read would be gone. The play was basically over at that point.
That is not criticism of Tagovailoa.
Sure, you could argue that Tagovailoa is a high first round talent who should be expected to carry the team. You could look at Justin Herbert and argue that he is doing exactly that for a very poor Charger's team with nothing around him.
But I do not buy that. Not yet. Not every quarterback who succeeds in his first year can sustain it through the second after the league adjusts. And not every quarterback who is simply average in his first year will be simply average throughout his career.
Tagovailoa is a young quarterback who is still learning, and the game has yet to slow down for him. In them mean time the Dolphins are going to have to help him in other areas. And this is where their failure was on Sunday.
In truth this was always going to be a bad match up for the Dolphins. The Broncos are an excellent defensive team, and they tackle well. Tagovailoa's strength is his accuracy on short and intermediate passes where he seems to have a gift for hitting receivers in stride to allow them to make big gains after the catch. But the Broncos have exactly the kind of defense that is designed to stop those runs after the catch.
The key to attacking such a game plan is always the same, even with a veteran behind center. And that is to run the ball. And that was the difference on Sunday. One team, the Broncos, ran the ball effectively, the other one, the Dolphins, didn't. One team helped its young quarterback, Drew Lock. The other one didn't.
Unfortunately, this could well be a common situation that we are going to see over the course of the rest of the year. The Dolphins are a poor team at defending the run. They are also a poor team at running the ball. They have a young offensive line in spots, and they are also learning in the same way that Tagovailoa is.
This is the risk that you run when you decide to develop a young quarterback at the same time you are trying to sustain a playoff run.
The Dolphins defense, despite their inability to stop the running game in spots, is actually an excellent unit. They fly to the ball and they do extremely well when they're playing with a lead.
And the opportunity to play with the lead has come frequently this season because the Dolphins have had the ball bounce their way so often. Special teams’ plays have come at opportune times. They have gotten turnovers on a fairly consistent basis.
Frankly, this has been the Dolphins' year, one of those magical seasons where the ball just seems to bounce your way and great things simply happen at opportune times. Coaches will say that such years don't "just happen" and that good teams are ready to take advantage of those fortunate events. To some extent that's true. But whatever it is, there's always something special about some years and the Dolphins are in the middle of one.
You could question the wisdom of wasting it by choosing to develop Tagovailoa rather than playing it out with the veteran, Ryan Fitzpatrick, behind center. But that ship has sailed, and they have made their decision.
In any case, the defense, at least, has been taking full advantage of their opportunities and they've been impressive. But they have to do more against good teams if they are going to achieve the kind of sustained success that they need to go deep into the playoffs. And that means muscling up and stopping the run. And the Dolphins offense has to do the same. Because a good run game is the only antidote for the kind of game plan that the Broncos threw at Tagovailoa on Sunday. And they are going to see it again, now. A lot.
If they are going to be successful this season, the Dolphins as a team have to do more to help its young quarterback out. Otherwise, they will have wasted a great opportunity to succeed in a year that was theirs for the taking.
Tom has been a PhinManiacs contributor and will be back in the mix as the season continues. Please follow him on Twitter @bearingthenews