Fight or Fold: Stats, Predictions and Keys to the Game for Titans vs. Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans are both 1-3 heading into their Week 5 showdown, but the Titans seem to have a lot more going for them at this point in the season. They may have three losses on their resume, but they have managed to keep the final result within nine points in each of their games against the Vikings, Oakland and Houston (three 3-1 teams.)
The Dolphins, meanwhile, suffered through yet another ugly outing against the Bengals in a Thursday night matchup in which they were simply overmatched. Issues remain on both sides of the ball: Ryan Tannehill keeps making costly turnovers, and the ineptness of the defense beyond the defensive line continues to be illuminated.
Adam Gase desperately needs a decent performance to inspire some optimism throughout the organization and fan base. If Miami doesn’t find a way to pull out a win against this talented but underachieving Tennessee squad, they have a real chance of heading into their bye week 1-6 with games against Pittsburgh and Buffalo on the horizon.
The Titans are fueled by their run game. Tennessee had fans scratching their heads after signing DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry, but no one seems to be complaining about the moves now. Led by Murray, Tennessee ranks fourth in the league in total rushing yards (508), and third in yards per carry (4.7). They are also fifth best in first downs rushing with 27. When compared with their total first downs on the season (76, 21st in the league), the discrepancy between their run and pass offenses is clearly evident.
Tennessee and Miami are each among the league’s worst in terms of turnover differential. At 28th and 29th, respectively, the Titans (-4) and Dolphins (-5) have both had their fair share of issues in this department. Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill are each tied for the fifth most interceptions in the NFL. While Tennessee has failed to notch even a single take-away fumble through four weeks, Miami has only tallied one interception up to this point. Considering the addition of Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator, and the defense’s focus on pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the lack of interceptions is extremely worrisome. Ball security will be key for both teams come Sunday.
Additionally, one storyline that has surprisingly received far too little attention is Miami’s performance on third downs. This is true both for their offense and defense. One of the few bright spots on the Dolphins’ defense has been their percentage of third down conversions allowed. In fact, they trail only Seattle’s vaunted defense in terms of this percentage. On the other hand, their offense has been absolutely abysmal in moving the chains on third down, coming in at dead last with a 26.7 conversion percentage. This type of performance simply won’t cut it if Gase wants his offense to be successful.
Keys to the Game:
The Dolphins haven’t been doing much tackling this season. Wide receivers are consistently picking up yards after the catch. Running backs are taking advantage of the linebackers’ inability to diagnose plays by accelerating through the offensive line before anyone is there to fill the hole. When they have reached the running lanes in time, there has been far too many attempted arm tackles.
Power and elusive runners alike have given Miami fits up to this point. Against the Browns, Isaiah Crowell (power) and Duke Johnson (elusive) each averaged upwards of 5.3 yards per carry. Murray and Henry are both power backs with elusiveness to boot. Tennessee is going to ride them throughout the game; Miami knows this. The question is: Does that even make a difference?
Tackling has been at the forefront of the Dolphins’ defensive problems since the preseason game versus the Giants. Nearly the entire linebacker corps has had issues with tackling at some point in 2016. Kiko Alonso has been making a lot of tackles, but missing a lot of tackles too. Spencer Paysinger had problems of his own against the Bengals, and cornerback Tony Lippett whiffed on an attempted tackle against A.J. Green as well.
If they don’t sure up their technique, Murray is going to have a field day, and Henry will be just as efficient in a backup role.
Option Run Game/Containing Mariota:
Considering Mariota’s explosiveness, elusiveness and experience carrying the football, it only makes sense that the Titans implement an option run game into their offense. Unfortunately, the Dolphins have struggled mightily against these types of dual threat quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Jacoby Brissett and Terrelle Pryor all had success on the ground against Miami, each tallying a run of 9+ yards.
Pryor scored a critical touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins on what looked to be a broken option play as well. Given Miami’s difficulty in diagnosing regular run plays, it would be foolish to expect them to be much better when they must account for the quarterback as well. On Pryor’s touchdown, Alonso failed to set the edge in containment for just that reason.
With the holes created by the Wide-9 and Joseph’s focus on the pass rush, the linebacker corps has to be fully dedicated to stopping Murray and Henry. However, they must not forget that Mariota can be just as dangerous. The key will be finding a way to limit him without permitting the running backs to find success too easily, perhaps implementing a quarterback spy. Mariota is an intelligent player who has the tools to effectively run the read-option, and he does it often. It is Joseph’s responsibility to game plan against this aspect, as it has hurt his defense so far in 2016.
Mike Pouncey’s Return:
There may be no more obvious key to this game than Mike Pouncey’s return to the field. The offensive line, and thus the entire offense, has suffered terribly in his absence. Many regard Pouncey as the one of the best run blocking offensive linemen in the league, and he can only help in terms of pass protection as well.
Pouncey could play a crucial role in finally establishing a balanced offense under Gase. There is no telling if Arian Foster is going to play at this point in the week, but it seems as if Gase has every intention of leaning on a single running back as opposed to the ineffective committee of Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead. Gase knows that he has to allow one of his backs to get into a game-long rhythm, and Pouncey will be important in this process. The middle of the offensive line will be fortified, and communication across the line should also be better. The Dolphins need to take advantage of this in order to maintain possession and keep up with the Titans’ run-heavy scheme.
Delanie Walker has been Mariota’s favorite target since the former Oregon quarterback’s arrival to the NFL, and the Dolphins just so happen to struggle against tight ends. As such, taking away Walker would be extremely detrimental to Mariota’s chance of success in this game.
Walker is an undeniably valuable weapon. He improves year in and year out and is simply an extremely reliable and intelligent football player. This leads to him being a focal point of the offense. Walker is on pace for 800 receiving yards despite a slow start and one game missed due to injury.
Reshad Jones is called upon consistently to cover tight ends, including in his annual matchups against Rob Gronkowski, and Walker should be no different. In the Dolphins game against the Titans last season, Jones stepped in front of Mariota’s pass attempt to Walker and took it to the house for a pick-six.
However, Jones is asked to do everything in this defense: run defense, man-to-man coverage, zone coverage as a deep safety, etc. There are going to be plays in which Jones is not the man accounting for Walker, and that is dangerous for Joseph and Miami. The Dolphins surrender 65.5 yards to tight ends per game (eighth worst in the league), including a touchdown catch by Martellus Bennett and a crucial two-point conversion to Gary Barnidge. Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins have long struggled in coverage, and Kiko Alonso is not the same physical specimen that he was before his injury. The Dolphins could be in trouble when Jones isn’t in coverage against Walker.
The Titans’ strengths on offense just match up too perfectly with the Dolphins’ weaknesses on defense: run heavy, power football with an above average tight end. I’d love to think that Miami’s offense could have a breakout game and lead them to a win, but until I see any resemblance of a run game, I can’t trust Tannehill’s decision making and Gase’s play calling. Pouncey’s return will help, but it is impossible to tell exactly how much it will help. It should be close those though, and I’d love to be wrong.
As bad as the Dolphins have looked this season, the Titans have looked worse. I expect Ryan Tannehill will have a bounce back game after a long week stewing in his self inflicted pot of infinite sadness. Additionally, Marcus Mariota has struggled mightily throughout the season, which should be enough for Miami’s beleaguered secondary to take advantage of.