The New England Patriots have been anointed AFC heavyweights following their impressive dismantling of the Denver Broncos, but Bill Belichick's bunch might not even be the best team in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins (5-3), who beat the Pats in Week 1, look like a true contender in the division race -- and could be a scary team to face in January, based on the emergence of a young, dynamic quarterback and a championship-caliber defense that could spark a postseason run.
While I know skeptics will snicker at the notion of Joe Philbin's group emerging as a major player in the AFC, a look at the All-22 Coaches Film reveals a team that must be taken seriously. Here are three reasons why the Dolphins are poised to make a serious run at the division title -- and maybe much more:
1) Ryan Tannehill is thriving in Bill Lazor's offense.
Whenever a new offensive coordinator takes over a group with an established quarterback, there are always concerns about how well the signal-caller will blend into the new scheme. While most play-callers will tweak and adjust the system to accentuate the strengths of a quarterback, it takes a while for the coach and player to develop the trust and communication that allows the offense to prosper under the guidance of a new leader.
In Miami, the budding relationship between Lazor and Tannehill has helped the third-year QB finally reach his potential as a playmaker -- inherently making the Dolphins' offense more dynamic in 2014.
Lazor, a 42-year-old riser with apprenticeships under the likes of Mike Holmgren, Dan Reeves and Joe Gibbs, is an excellent teacher and communicator. He helped Nick Foles understand the importance of accuracy, ball security and judgment within the pocket last year in Philadelphia, which allowed the quarterback to enjoy spectacular production (27-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio) during his first season in Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense.
With the Dolphins, Lazor inherited an ultra-athletic quarterback with untapped talent and potential. Taken eighth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, Tannehill was considered a developmental prospect by several scouts around the league. He only registered 19 collegiate starts at quarterback during his time at Texas A&M, having spent the early part of his career as a productive wide receiver. Thus, he didn't log enough game repetitions to truly understand the timing of the position and wasn't immediately prepared to face complex fronts/coverages at the pro level. Consequently, in his first two NFL campaigns, Tannehill posted a 36:30 touchdown-to-interception ratio, took 93 sacks and frustrated team officials with his inconsistency as a playmaker.
After getting off to a slow start that nearly cost him his starting job prior to Week 4, Tannehill has shown signs of growing into a superb player for the Dolphins. He has connected on 68.8 percent of his throws over the past five games, posting a 10:4 TD-to-INT ratio in that span. In addition, he has rushed for 227 yards on 23 carries (9.9 yards a pop) during this stretch, helping the Dolphins average 30.6 points per game and win four of five.
After poring over the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Lazor has helped his young quarterback find success by featuring an assortment of quick-rhythm throws in the game plan. From slants, hitches and stick routes to quick crossers over the middle, the Dolphins are allowing Tannehill to pick apart the underneath areas of coverage. In addition, Lazor has incorporated a number of pre-snap motions and shifts designed to help Tannehill diagnose the coverage and quickly identify the primary receiver in the progression.
Let's take a look at a few examples ...
In the play depicted just below, the Dolphins are originally aligned in a split-back formation with rookie receiver Jarvis Landry positioned at halfback. Prior to the snap, Landry motions out of the backfield to the right. Tannehill is instructed to read the reaction of the linebackers to determine whether the Chargers are in man or zone coverage. The motion by Landry pulls Chargers linebacker Donald Butler out of the box, but safety Eric Weddle replaces him as the defender in the hole. Despite Weddle's presence in the box, the swing route by Landry creates a void for Charles Clay on his crossing route across the field. Tannehill hits Clay for an easy 24-yard gain -- thanks, in large part, to clever pre-snap motion (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the following play, the Dolphins once again break the huddle in a split-back formation with Landry positioned at halfback. Prior to the snap, Landry motions out of the backfield and runs a swing route to the right. Running back Lamar Miller quickly fakes an inside run before helping in pass protection. The fake is designed to hold the linebackers in the box and create a one-on-one opportunity for Landry in space. Tannehill fires the ball to Landry, who catches it outside the numbers with a lone defender in his area. He makes a nifty move along the boundary and races up the field for a 13-yard gain off a high-percentage pass (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Those examples illustrate the effectiveness of the Dolphins' quick-rhythm passing game, but it is Lazor's willingness to repeat fruitful play calls that really keys this offense's success. Unlike some offensive coordinators who find it necessary to feature the entire playbook in every game plan, the Dolphins' play-caller utilizes a smaller menu with a variety of pre-snap shifts and motions to disguise concepts. This allows Tannehill and his teammates to fully master the intricacies of the concept, but puts the onus on the coach to come up with creative alignments to throw off the defense.
With Tannehill allowed to play free and loose under a simple game plan, the Dolphins have gotten better returns from their young quarterback.
2) The sneaky run game provides enough balance to spark a playoff run.
For all of the attention the quarterback position receives, the legitimate title contenders have the ability to run the ball when it counts. From pounding the ball between the tackles in the game's opening moments to salting away the clock in four-minute offense, the teams built for postseason success can rely on the ground game when necessary.
Looking at the Dolphins, I see a team with a sneaky running game that could be problematic for opponents down the road. While the loss of Knowshon Moreno certainly affected the "grind it out" potential of the unit, the presence of Lamar Miller and a zone-read blocking scheme gives the Dolphins an opportunity to muster a formidable rushing attack.
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Miller, a fourth-year pro, has scored a rushing touchdown in four of the team's last five games, flashing the kind of vision and burst that allows runners to thrive in zone-based schemes. He aggressively attacks the perimeter, yet has the balance and body control to slither through creases on the back side. Miller's wiggle and burst have allowed him to be a productive inside/outside runner (4.9 yards per carry), despite receiving limited touches (13.3 rushing attempts per game) as a feature runner. Although a shoulder injury forced him out of the Chargers' game, the ailment is not expected to keep him out of the lineup when the Dolphins return to action against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
From a schematic standpoint, the Dolphins' utilization of the zone-read has allowed Tannehill to be an integral part of the ground attack. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has finished with at least 35 rushing yards in each of the team's last five games, with the majority of those yards coming on zone-read plays or designed quarterback runs. The Dolphins sprinkle in enough QB runs to keep defensive ends and linebackers from keying extensively on Miller, which leads to better production on inside- and outside-zone plays with the shifty tailback. In addition, the hidden rushing yardage tallied by Tannehill keeps opponents from sitting back in coverage to slow down the potent, quick-rhythm passing game.
Looking at the coaches tape, I was impressed with Tannehill's execution of the zone-read scheme under duress. He easily identified the unblocked defender and made smart decisions on whether to give or keep the ball based on the designated defender's reaction.
On the play just below, Miami is aligned in a trips formation to the left with Miller in the backfield. The Chargers flash a blitz look prior to the snap. At the snap, the Dolphins are running an inside zone-read play with Tannehill instructed to read the outside linebacker (end man on the line of scrimmage) to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep on the play. When the outside linebacker collapses inside to take away the dive, Tannehill keeps the ball and races around the corner behind Clay on a quarterback sweep that results in a 22-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Miami is playing championship-caliber defense under Kevin Coyle.
As we saw last season, the road to the Super Bowl is often paved by the play of the defense. Legitimate title contenders look to excel in three key defensive aspects: scoring defense, takeaways and sacks.
Looking at the Dolphins, I see a well-constructed lineup that has all the core components needed to thrive in those areas. Miami features an athletic front line with a pair of explosive edge rushers (Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon) and a rock-solid defensive tackle in the middle (Randy Starks). In addition, the Dolphins have some crafty cover corners (Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes) with the instincts, awareness and ball skills to snag errant passes down the boundary. Lastly, this defense presents both an enforcer down the middle (Reshad Jones) and a wily playmaker in the back end (Louis Delmas).
Chemistry between the front line and secondary is critical in today's pass-centric NFL, which is why the Dolphins are positioned for long-term success under Coyle. The Dolphins' defensive architect spent his formative years in the league working as a secondary coach, so he wisely ties his fronts and blitzes to airtight coverage in the back end. While there isn't anything exotic about Miami's scheme, I believe the unit plays on a string in the secondary -- and the absence of mental lapses limits big plays in the passing game. As a result, the Dolphins have allowed just 20 completions of 20-plus yards (tied for fourth-fewest in the NFL) and just two completions of 40-plus yards (tied for second-fewest).
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From a pass-rushing perspective, the Dolphins are capable of generating organic pressure from the edges. Wake (6.5 sacks) and Vernon (4.5) have combined for 11 of the team's 25 sacks and each is capable of winning on simple speed-rush maneuvers. Although Coyle will enhance their chances of getting home at times by bringing five-man pressures -- with linebackers/safeties executing overload blitzes -- the ability to fall back into conservative man or zone coverage allows the Dolphins to keep the ball in front of them on defense. With most interceptions occurring on tips and overthrows, the ideal positioning of the secondary has helped the unit become a takeaway machine while also eliminating big plays on the perimeter -- two key factors in playing championship defense.