Previewing the Dolphins Game: The Offense

The Miami Dolphins ranked 14th in total offense in the NFL last year. They played with reasonably good balance in that they were 17th in passing and 12th in rushing, being almost equally mediocre in both – statistically that is.

Deep Thinking

The Dolphins hired Bill Lazor to be their offensive coordinator last year, hoping that he’d bring some Chip Kelly magic to the team after he spent time as the Eagles quarterbacks coach. Lazor kept life simple for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2014, with a vast majority of his throws targeted at receivers on short and intermediate routes. Tannehill accumulated 1,965 of his passing yards after the catch (11th-most in the NFL), although his YAC percentage was 48.6 (19th), according to Advanced Football Analytics. This sounds OK but it points to the major issue with last year’s Dolphins offense – the lack of explosive downfield plays. Tannehill has a reputation around the league as throwing one of the worst deep balls of any NFL starter.

He wasn’t helped by the presence of wide out Mike Wallace, his only downfield threat at receiver and a disappointment as a Dolphin after signing a huge contract to come over from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. Wallace was criticized for his lack of physicality and fell further out of favor in Miami last season following a Week 17 sideline altercation with head coach Joe Philbin in a loss to the New York Jets. He was benched in the second half, which raised questions about his future with the team. He was traded along with a seventh round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for a fifth round draft pick in the offseason.

Time will tell whether the lack of a deep threat was more due to Wallace or Tannehill. Thanks to a younger, bigger, stronger and faster group of wide receivers this year, in theory Tannehill will have more capable options in the vertical passing game. The hope is that Kenny Stills, acquired in the offseason by trade from the New Orleans Saints, and first round draft pick DeVante Parker may provide a one-two punch of downfield threats and finally force defenses to play a little further back, opening up everything else in the process.

Parker is out with a foot injury and the hope is that he’ll be ready for at least limited snaps by the opener.  Nevertheless, how often the Dolphins throw deep and how effective they are at it will be a point of interest to keep an eye on Thursday night. We will also want to keep an eye on how Wallace does with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback under offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Minnesota this season. Between the two, much will likely be determined in Miami about the reasons for the limitations in their offense, past and/or present.

One last note on the Dolphins’ receiving game. The Dolphins signed Jordan Cameron at tight end while losing Charles Clay in free agency. Clay accounted for a lot of yardage last year but wasn’t particularly effective at scoring touch downs in the red zone where tight ends can become such a huge factor in the game. The hope is that Cameron, a former Pro Bowler, can improve this area of the game and it will be interesting to see if that is evident on Thursday night.

Line Dancing

Lack of a deep threat aside, there has been much offseason hand-wringing amongst fans and media in Miami about the offensive line.  And with some justification.

The Dolphins use a zone blocking scheme, something the Bears will be doing more of this year and it will be interesting to observe their technique along the line. At least where they have the talent to play there.

The Dolphins are well-established at right tackle, where Ja’Wuan James is a solid starter, and at center, where Mike Pouncey is a star. The problems come when you look virtually everywhere else.

They start at left tackle where Branden Albert is normally the best player in this group.  But he has undergone a knee reconstruction. He’s supposed to be ready for the season opener but he hasn’t seen the practice field and no one knows if he’ll be the same coming off of the injury. Jason Fox is supposed to be starting at left tackle in his place but he didn’t play in Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage and may be injured. Donald Hawkins reportedly is not playing well at the position as Fox’s backup. It will be a bad sign if whoever plays outside linebacker for the Bears on Hawkins’ side on Thursday night, likely either Jared Allen or Pernell McPhee, doesn’t dominate.

Both guard positions are arguably an even bigger problem. Albert at least is a very good player when healthy. But the right guard is Billy Turner, a virtual nobody. How big of a nobody? When looking for biographical information about Turner on the Dolphin’s website the only notation was “No data available”. Other sites where they apparently care more about Turner than the Dolphins do indicate that he was drafted in the third round in 2014 by the team.

Turner has been competing with (and understandably losing to) newly signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. In fairness, a likely guess is that, for the purposes of practice in camp, the Dolphins have been often leaving Turner to single block Suh, something that no sane offensive coordinator would do very often in a real game. It will be interesting to watch Turner against the lesser talent along the Bears defensive front to see how well he can be expected to play against normal competition.

The left guard competition is between Dallas Thomas and rookie Jamil Douglas. It sounds like the third year veteran Thomas is winning the competition but that’s not very comforting to many Dolphins fans. Veteran football writer Armando Salguero at the Miami Herald calls Thomas “only good enough to be embroiled in a full-blown competition with a rookie fourth-round pick who is still learning the offense”.

The Dolphins are painfully aware that they have a problem at guard. They sent a committee of players to woo guard La’el Collins, the undrafted standout from LSU, but they were unsuccessful. They were amongst the first teams to call Evan Mathis after the Eagles released him but they are reportedly far apart on money. Still, no one would be surprised if something is done on this front before the season starts.

Bottom Line

The Dolphins are going to be a good opening opponent for the Bears defense with their newly minted 3-4 scheme. Problems along the Miami offensive front should give fans a good idea of where the Bears are in terms of their front seven. Given the Bears’ inexperience in the scheme and the apparent lack of talent in this area, the Miami offense should still be significantly better but not overly so. They should offer just the right degree of competitive challenge to allow some individual Bears players to perform without the team overall being completely buried by a much superior unit.

Points to bear in mind while watching:

  1. How well will the Bears outside linebackers do against a team that should be badly hurting at left tackle?
  2. How will the Dolphins competition at left guard between Thomas and Douglas grade out? How will right guard Turner grade out against fair competition?
  3. How will Bears rookie Eddie Goldman, who shows a fair prospect of starting at nose guard, do facing a Pro Bowl-quality center in Pouncey?
  4. Will Tannehill be able to effectively throw the deep ball against a mediocre Bears defensive backfield that is unlikely to do anything fancy on Thursday night?
  5. Will the Bears linebackers and/or safeties be able to clamp down and keep tight end Cameron out of the end zone?

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