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Offense good on surface but has issues deep down

The Miami Dolphins have scored 227 points this season and that suggests everything is working smoothly because that's 11th-best in the NFL and the 25.2 per game average exceeds the 25-point per game goal coach Joe Philbin set for his team before the season.

But this statistic is indicative of what the Miami offense really has been so far in 2014. It has been an iceberg that allows one view for everyone to see above the surface and a hidden and more ominous picture that is harder to find below the water line.  

Below the surface everyone knows that average is a mirage. It includes the three defensive touchdowns so far compared to only one all of last season. It doesn't speak to the habitual slow starts and frustrating inability to seal victories by simply moving the football and killing the clock. And it says little about the games against Buffalo, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Detroit in which Miami scored exactly one offensive touchdown.

Nine games played. One offensive touchdown in four of them.

Against the Lions last week, the lone touchdown came when the offense got the football at the Detroit 3 yard line, following a blocked punt returned 55 yards by Dion Jordan. That was Miami's touchdown drive last week: Three yards.

So while this unit. led by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, is seemingly well ahead of last year's 19.8 points per game, no one on the Dolphins -- not coaches nor players -- are celebrating because this unit has potential that's not being met and issues below the surface.

That's what multiple players are saying. That's what several sources within the organization are seeing.

The passing game, for example, suggests marked improvement compared to last season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has improved his completion percentage, his touchdown-to-interception ratio and his quarterback rating this season.

Tannehill has added running the ball as a dimension to his game and is making better decisions throwing the football.

You know what that makes him so far? The No. 17 rated quarterback in the NFL. Yes, that's better than No. 24 last year but everyone I've spoken to and even Tannehill admits that in Year Three he is still a work in progress because there are still worries about accuracy and pocket awareness and quickness making decisions.

Tannehill's yards per attempt average is 6.63 this season, which is 29th out of 32 quarterbacks and lower than last year's 6.66 average. This may not seem important to you, but Lazor is on record stating yards per attempt is the most accurate measure for the health of a passing game. So in a year where NFL passing numbers are better and higher across the board, the Dolphins have taken a small step back in this area.

Tannehill also has still not solved his deep ball accuracy issues. He missed three deep touchdown throws earlier in the season and one on Sunday against Detroit. Yes, that's fewer than a year ago. But that's the view above the surface.

Below the surface the fewer missed deep passes is, in part, a function of the Dolphins trying fewer shot plays.

One player recently told me in frustration, "they were there earlier this season but something always went wrong, just like last year. Either the receiver drops a pass or the quarterback has no time or he can't get it to his guy. It was nobody's fault. It was everybody's fault and now he (Lazor) doesn't seem to trust us dialing them up."

The evidence of such mistrust? It is not on the surface where Mike Wallace is on his way to an 80-catch season or rookie Jarvis Landry has become a threat all over the field. That's good. Very good.

The evidence is that Wallace's yards per catch is at 13.0 this year. And that is disappointing considering Wallace came to the Dolphins as a dynamic deep threat who averaged 17.2 yards per catch in Pittsburgh. He leads Dolphins wide receivers in yards per catch now but is merely tied for 50th among NFL receivers in the category.

Brian Hartline who averaged 13.4 yards per catch last year is still getting open, still running good routes, still practicing well, according to coaches. But his yards per catch stat has suffered by 3.2 yards since last year and is at a career low 10.2 yards per catch.  

Nobody's fault. Everybody's fault.

That leads us to the team's crunch time statistics -- third down passing, fouth-quarter passing, and red zone scoring.

On third down, Tannehill is completing 55 percent of his passes. His yards per attempt is at 5.86 yards. His rating is 74.4. And that translates to him ranking 26th among NFL third down passing leaders.

The fourth quarter has not been a friend to Tannehill and the passing game, either. Miami's QB is 34th in the NFL. The only QB below him that has gotten at least 80 fourth-quarter pass attempts is Austin Davis of the St. Louis Rams. Davis is usually a third-stringer and has this week been benched.

Statistics, you say? They can be skewed in number of ways, you say?

Consider: For whatever reason, be it a product of the system Lazor is running or the coaching staff's trust level, Tannehill does not often have the luxury of changing plays at the line if he sees something in the defense he does not like. He sometimes has the choice of two different plays -- a check-with-me option -- but hardly ever the option of going in a different direction.

This has raised eyebrows among players who say they had most success in systems the quarterback has greater freedom to be a playmaker.

That's not the only reason a couple of players have questions about Lazor. Before the season, Lazor told players the days of passing the ball on third-and-one were over. There was a buzz among Miami players about becoming a physical offense.

But after showing that phyiscal intent in the season opener against New England, with runs outnumbering passes 38-32, the Dolphins have settled into more of a passing mode. They've passed more than run in six of the past eight games. In two of those games the Dolphins threw twice as many passes as they tried runs.

The two players are wondering what happened to the idea of being a phyiscal offense.  

Making plays in the red zone has been an issue for the Dolphins this year. They are tied for eighth in the NFL with 20 red zone touchdowns. They lead the league with 43 red zone visits. Both numbers are good taken separately. Combined it's a bad thing.

As a result of inconsistent tight end play, because they don't have a running game they trust enough, and because they don't possess a player who is a matchup nightmare for the opposing defense in a short field, the Dolphins are converting 46.5 of their red zone visits into touchdowns.

That's 30th in the NFL.

“Well, we’ve had some negative runs down there," Philbin said. "We’ve had some sacks down there. We’ve had some dropped passes down there. We’ve had some penalties. I think the execution, when we study it, you look at the film, there’s some reason. Some of it has been good defense by our opposition. We certainly have to do better, but there are a lot of things that we can do better to help our scoring average go up.”

Yes, back to the scoring average.

The Miami offense has had some truly bright moments this year to get that average where it is. They've scored 38, 37, 33, and 27 points a couple of times.

The 37-point game against San Diego is the pretty, pristine tip of the iceberg because the Dolphins started well and didn't slow down until the game was out of reach. They struck a balance between pass and run, they spread the football around in the passing game, and they did it against the NFL's No. 8 defense.

The other high-scoring performances? The 38-point outburst came against Oakland, the NFL's 28th-ranked defense. And the two 27-point games came against Chicago, which has the NFL's worst scoring defense, and Jacksonville, which has the NFL's third-worst scoring defense.

But that probably goes unnoticed below the surface.

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