With the Dolphins coming off of a reasonably nice performance in a 17-6 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, there are plenty of positive to emphasize this week. Here are ten thoughts after the win.
1. Everyone take note. I have never written this before and it's always possible that you will never see me write it again.
Jordan Phillips looked good Friday.
Like so many other things that we saw, Phillips' improvement in run defense was laudable. Starting last year and continuing into this preseason game, criticism of Phillips has been justifiably relentless. As the defensive tackle opposite Ndamukong Suh, Phillips has been the weak point in the run defense as time after time opponents have run away from Suh in his direction for big yardage.
His performances on the field seemed to contradict the sunshine and rainbows that head coach Adam Gase threw our way earlier in the week when addressing the play of Phillips.
"And then Jordan (Phillips) has done a good job. The one thing that I noticed about him from the Dallas game was he was really moving well once the plays kind of start happening and it was going sideline to sideline, he was trying to get to the ball. Even in practice, I’ve noticed that he’s been one of those guys finishing quite a bit down the field, trying to do what the coaches ask him as far as tagging off there at the end. For a big man like that to run 20, 30 yards down the field to tag off the runner and then come back and do another rep, that’s what you want to see out of that front. I know they preach it. You guys hear them yelling all the time on the field as far as chase the ball. I think he’s trying to do exactly what the coaches want.”
For the record, when your coach has to mention that you are making tackles 20 yards down field and not in the backfield for a loss, that’s not good, even when it’s in a lame attempt to be positive.
But it was all different on Friday where the Falcons rushed for just 2.1 yards per attempt. Phillips was penetrating into the backfield and disruptive, something that will be even critically important this year as the Dolphins transition to a wide-nine front.
If he continues to look like he did against Atlanta, kudos to him and kudos to the coaching staff for apparently helping him along - and this won’t be the last time I say that in regards to Friday’s performance.
2. As big of a factor as Phillips was, a major part of the improvement in the run defense was the play of the linebackers. As a group the linebackers, though athletic, have been far too passive in defending the run. Cameron Wake’s comments last week were to the point.
“You have to come downhill as a linebacker [in the run defense]. Stalemates don’t work. Sideways doesn’t work. You have to go and you have to impose your will on whoever it is – nine (technique), six (technique), four (technique), shade, linebacker – it doesn’t matter. In order to stop the run, you have to have a mentality of aggressiveness and aggressiveness is obviously moving forward, which… is penetration.”
And, again, that’s what we saw on Friday. Generally speaking, the linebackers did a marvelous job of attacking the line of scrimmage and the tackling as a whole was much improved. Kiko Alonso and Koa Misi totaled seven tackles between them and five of them were solo. That needs to continue.
Again, I’d like to throw some credit the coaching staff’s way. This was an adjustment over the mistakes made in previous games. It's early and those have to keep coming but I consider all of this to be a positive sign that the Dolphins might - maybe - have a staff that can help these players maximize their gifts.
3. As far as the pass rush goes, the good news is that Cam Wake looked like he was just fine to me. The 34-year old left defensive end was coming off of an achilles injury and, given his age, there was significant doubt about his ability to recover.
Friday went some way towards relieving that anxiety. Wake looked healthy and, even though he had no sacks and no tackles, he was a handful in limited play Friday night. I thought he got pressure and was disruptive. As long as that remains the case, it’s all good.
4. Unlike Cameron Wake, Mario Williams did not look good. At all. Again.
Williams spent part of last season and the offseason throwing shade at Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan for “playing him out of position” last year at outside linebacker and many Miami fans and members of the media bought into it. But a look at the tape showed a degradation of skills that Williams’ lame excuses couldn’t cover up. Now the rubber is meeting the road and though it’s still the preseason, it’s not surprising that Williams continues to fail to get close to the quarterback snap after snap.
The Dolphins should not lack pass rush with Suh and Wake on the field. But given what we’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t count on Williams to produce anything but more excuses in the near future.
5. The cornerback position remains a concern for the Dolphins.
There were times when the coverage looked good and they did produce one interception and some near misses. But these were mostly due to changes in coverage that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan simply failed to read correctly. Ryan wasn’t seeing the field well Friday night and he didn’t seem to see some of the Miami defensive backs. Perhaps we should give defensive coordinator Vance Joseph a little credit here.
But that aside, the cornerbacks looked bad in man coverage. Tony Lippett continues to stand out as a weak link and Julio Jones did whatever he wanted no matter who was covering him.
I know that many hope that things will get dramatically better when Chris Culliver is ready to play and when Xavien Howard gets his feet under him. I’m sorry but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Culliver was awful last year and he graded out as the 110th best cornerback last year at PFF. Though he was much better before that, I don’t think that’s way off for 2015.
Howard is a complete unknown and he definitely had some serious flaws coming out of college including some grabby hands when he panicked in coverage and that could get him into some trouble in the NFL with penalties.
Bottom line, this position might well be a problem all year.
6. Despite running the ball for only 2.5 yards per carry, to my eye the Miami run blocking was dramatically improved Friday night. This was particularly true on the drive where Arian Foster ran pretty much wherever he wanted through and around an Atlanta front that was being dominated at the time. Foster practically walked into the end zone at the end of it.
The only pick that I have is that I’d like to see this more consistently over the course of the entire game. But that drive gave us a glimpse of what could be if the players manage to perform to the level of their talent.
7. Everyone loves Arian Foster. Everyone wants to see him succeed and for one drive Friday night he certainly did. But a close look at the way he’s running the ball still has me concerned.
Foster looks slow. You can cover it up with phrases like “smooth cuts” and you can rave about his vision and veteran savvy. But there’s no getting around that he was visibly inferior physically to every back on the field on both teams.
I’m not saying that this can’t be overcome or that Foster won’t contribute. That was patently obvious based upon his production even to his biggest doubters and the offensive line did a wonderful job of blocking for him Friday. But the hallmark of a good back is the ability to make yardage on his own and there’s no getting around the fact that, other than one move that he put on an injured defender on the outside in space, Foster didn’t do much of that - or have to do much of it.
One thing that Foster does very, very well is catch the ball. He’s amongst the most natural pass catching running backs I’ve ever seen. That stands in stark contrast to both Jay Ajayi and Isaiah Pead. Especially Ajayi. Though he caught everything that came his way Friday, Ajayi looks like the tin man running routes out of the back field.
What Ajayi did show was power and he definitely runs hard. On some runs it was obvious that he was trying to be more patient. He broke one or two tackles and that’s also a good sign. But he’s probably never going to be anything more than an adequate pass catcher.
Particularly disappointing on Friday was the performance of Pead. To me, Pead was looking the best of all of the running backs and many were high on him despite the fact that he was playing mostly against backups. But to my eye, Pead showed almost nothing Friday night. I think he had opportunities to show what he could do and he didn’t perform.
Bottom line, the Dolphins run game looked better in spurts Friday night. But I still think running back is an issue. Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen are going to have to use these guys carefully to play to their strengths while they’re out there.
8. Perhaps the best sign of all on Friday was that Ryan Tannehill continues to play well. The Dolphins put Tannehill on the move again the very first play of the game with a read option that busted loose for 22 yards.
Miami fans won’t want to hear this but don’t count on this happening more than occasionally over the course of a game. Matt Moore’s concussion last week was a prime example of why coaches (and many quarterbacks) hate plays like this and though they’re willing to use them, neither this nor the planned rollouts are ever likely to be a staple of the offense.
Tannehill was reasonably accurate this game and though he did have the occasionally poorly placed ball, generally it was all pretty good. He’s ready to start the season. He had one interception that on a tipped ball that was simply a good play by defensive end Brooks Reed. It wasn’t his fault.
Tannehill also generally got good protection and that’s how it should be. The Atlanta pass rush looks to be amongst the worst in the league with the only legitimate threat that I saw being Vic Beasley.
Atlanta had no sacks and they’ve had only five all preseason. And, it being the preseason, they did not try to blitz much to make up for the deficit. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t do anything.
One reason I would like to take yet another opportunity to laud the coaching staff is the fine way that the offensive line handled Atlanta’s line stunts up front. This has been a definite weak point of this group and they did a fine job of smoothly reacting and exchanging defenders along the line to pick up wayward linemen coming around the outside.
9. Speaking of the offensive line, backup center Anthony Steen deserves mention in this space. Along with the rest of the line, Steen looked like he was well prepared for what came his way. His head was on a swivel and he did a reasonably good job of helping his line mates when he was uncovered.
When he was covered or when he was called upon to block a pass rusher one-on-one, things got a little less stable. Steen was over powered on occasion and I wouldn’t exactly have called the pocket up the middle clean when Tannehill had to hold the ball for any length of time. But there were no free pass rushers and he didn’t give up a sack.
He won’t be replacing Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey any time soon but, generally speaking, I would say Steen was “good enough”.
10a. [Head shake] Jordan Cameron. Come on, man.
10b. There are a lot of nice things to say about the Dolphins offense but the bottom line concern is a big one. Only seven points in the first half.
The Dolphins have chosen to go with the short passing game with very few shots down field and that’s fine - as long as you execute and do so consistently. They just didn’t do that enough.
There weren’t an unreasonable number of penalties and there was only one turnover. So I can’t claim that they were shooting themselves in the foot that much. But if I’m Adam Gase the one thing I’m emphasizing to the offense leading up to their first game against Seattle is that they need to make positive yardage on every single play. Everything falls into place if they do that.
10c. Next up is the Tennessee Titans, who play against Oakland on national television Saturday night. Marcus Mariota and wide receiver Tajae Sharp have been stealing the show in Tennessee as they connected six times for 68 yards last game against the Panthers.
Tennessee has been emphasizing the run with what they are calling “exotic smash mouth” football. Though we won’t see much of the starters it will be of interest to see how the Dolphins backups do as they continue to try to stop the run against what could be a determined opponent. A player’s ability to demonstrate that he can do so may be the difference between making the roster and being left off come Tuesday (if not before).
This column was written by Tom Shannon. Follow him on Twitter: @bearingthenews
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