Having a stout defense that can close out games is paramount in the NFL - especially in December. But the Miami Dolphins offense needs to be able to convert on third downs, and score touchdowns instead of field goals. A lot was made of the Dolphins defensive collapse late in games this season. The Green Bay and Detroit games are the two that stick out in people’s minds because of the way they ended. But the two games that really mattered, the two that demonstrate a total team failure? The Ravens game early in December, and the last game of the season against the Jets.
Heading into week 14 last season, the Dolphins were 7-5 and controlled their own destiny. A win at home against the Ravens and they were pretty much guaranteed a playoff berth for the first time in 6 years. By this time in the season the Dolphins secondary had been decimated by injuries - specifically at the cornerback position. Joe Flacco abused backup cornerback RJ Stanford in that game. The defense was able to hold the Ravens to 14 points through three quarters, but the Dolphins offense was only able to muster 13 points for the game. An inefficient 40% on third down and a 4.8 yards per pass attempt probably had a lot to do with it (the Dolphins third down conversion percentage for the year ended up being 40%). The offense’s inability to sustain drives put a noticeable strain on the defense, and after Cam Wake’s strip-sack-fumble was overturned to an incomplete pass, the game was over. If you remember, this was also the game where head coach Joe Philbin and DT Jared Odrick were caught on camera yelling at each other.
The last game of the season against the Jets did not have playoff implications. The Dolphins were trying to finish the season on a two game win streak after defeating the Minnesota Vikings the week before, and were playing for pride. By week 17 the Dolphins had lost another member of their secondary for the year (Louis Delmas), and were working with backup safety Jordan Kovacs on nickel downs. The defense allowed the Jets to put up 37 points, but somehow the game was tied heading into the 4th quarter. In the end, the Dolphins offense allowed 7 sacks for 51 yards, and was a disappointing 30% on third down. This was the game that Mike Wallace allegedly took himself out of, and was benched in the second half.
But can we really place the team’s late game collapses completely on the defense? There is plenty of blame to go around. Omar Kelly from the Sun-Sentinel reported that, “(Brent) Grimes and (Jared) Ordrick both acknowledged the Dolphins’ coaches have to do a better job making sure the players have some gas left in the tank in December.”
Grimes went on to say, “I don’t want to make excuses. We just played bad. A lot of things didn’t go right. People started getting hurt. We were stretched out thin.” He said, “Our linebackers were hurt and banged up all year. What it really comes down is we were playing through that all year and towards the end we just flamed out. Maybe we ran out of gas.”
Despite its flaws, the Dolphins defense is still pretty good. Dolphins.com lead writer Alain Poupart (@apoupartFins) went inside the numbers to show how good the Dolphins defense still is (Inside the Numbers: 2014 Miami Dolphins Defense).
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wake was the number one rated defensive end and went to his fourth Pro Bowl this year (and third straight overall). He was joined by defensive teammate Grimes who went to the Pro Bowl for the third time (second straight overall). He was also tied for third in the league in interceptions with five. Safety Reshad Jones was the third best safety according to Pro Football Focus and would have made his first Pro Bowl appearance if not for being suspended for the first four games due to testing positive for PEDs. And the Dolphins break-out player of the year Jelani Jenkins was rated in the top ten amongst outside linebackers in every Pro Football Focus Signature Stat category (Pass Rush Productivity, Run Stop %, Tackling Efficiency, and Coverage).
Injuries are part of the game. Everybody knows that. The players are obviously responsible for taking care of their own bodies but it’s on the coaching and training staff to keep the players in good condition to minimize the amount of injuries. If the players have a problem with the schedule they need to speak up and the coaches need to listen. It is incumbent upon management to draft enough players to provide quality depth at key positions. The Dolphins just didn’t have enough quality depth to make up for all the injuries - especially at the cornerback position. The front office will be looking to correct this issue during the off-season. Football truly is the ultimate team game. From the front office to the ball boy, and if one person doesn’t do their job right the whole organization suffers the consequences.
This column was written by Carlos Hernandez. Follow him on Twitter: @LosDez