Power Shortage: Why the Dolphins Appear Primed to Fall Short Against the Chargers
Philip Rivers steps to the line. He drops back. He looks downfield.
For the QBs Miami has faced thus far this season, the answer would be obvious. Ben Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown. Russell Wilson has Doug Baldwin. Ryan Fitzpatrick has Brandon Marshall.
Philip Rivers has everyone.
Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry and Tyrell Williams are all options that Rivers is equally comfortable hitting in any area of the field. If they aren’t feeling a pass, simply hand the ball off to Melvin Gordon, who happens to go well over 1,000 yards and punch in north of 12 TDs (entering Week 10 with 768 yards and 9 rushing scores).
The closest thing that the Miami Dolphins have faced to the attack that they’ll have to stop at Qualcomm Stadium is the offense they faced earlier this year in New England. In Week 2, the Dolphins fell by a score of 31-24 at Gillette Stadium. The final score is deceiving; the Patriots opened the game by scoring three unanswered TDs, earning a 21-0 lead.
The Chargers offense has a similar makeup at this time. Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates are both highly viable targets in the short game and as deep mismatches. Tyrell Williams is actually a more dangerous deep threat than New England has at the receiver position. Melvin Gordon is not the same type of player that LeGarrette Blount is, but he can play a similar role in facing Miami: when the defense spreads out in the Wide-9, hand it off to the runner.
(Obviously, a key difference is that the Chargers just aren’t as good as the Patriots. Shocker.)
The Chargers are a much better team than their record indicates. The team surrendered to fourth-quarter comebacks in multiple games early in the season and has since posted impressive wins on the way to 4-5. Even their losses have been impressive.
The Chargers do not possess a scary defense. Had Jason Verrett been healthy, that would be a different story. However, their offense will intimidate anyone they are going up against.
I think of the Chargers as a watered down version of the Saints. San Diego’s offense is not as explosive as the Saints’, but they are surely a better team defensively. The Saints’ problem is often that they can score 35 points, but the opponent somehow notches 42.
The Chargers have better balance. They’re liable to allow 24-30 in any given week, but they won’t break a sweat if you ask them to best that with five touchdowns of their own.
So, why do they have a 4-5 record? Because they’ve had bad luck.
The Dolphins are a perfect example of a team that has gotten some lucky breaks at times this season. In addition to only having one major injury to a starting player in the last month (Reshad Jones), the Dolphins have been able to face opponents that are not at full strength. Ben Roethlisberger was injured early in the game. LeSean McCoy entered at 50% (generously). Jimmy Garoppolo was knocked out of Miami’s contest with the Patriots. Russell Wilson wasn’t even at 100% after he suffered an ankle injury during their Week 1 showdown.
The Chargers haven’t gotten any such breaks. They have lost two of their top three players to season-ending injuries in Jason Verrett and Keenan Allen, and lost major pieces such as Danny Woodhead and Manti Teo as well.
Think about where the Dolphins would be if in addition to the season-ending injury to Reshad Jones, they were without Ndamukong Suh (their best player defensively), Jarvis Landry (their best receiver), and several other contributors.
The Chargers are actually 4-4 in spite of luck.
I am not saying that the Dolphins’ three-game winning streak is thanks to luck. The team has completely turned around their play at the line of scrimmage, pressuring opposing QBs defensively and generating enough push offensively to spark a team-altering rushing attack.
Miami had thorough wins over the Bills and Steelers. The team performed in a way that drew few complaints from even the harshest critics. Against the Jets, it was another story.
It wasn’t one specific area of failure by the Dolphins that has caused concern to mount ahead of the trip to San Diego – it’s the potential danger that lurks in missed opportunities.
Against the Jets, the Dolphins missed several opportunities to score, representing points that they won’t be able to leave on the board against a Philip Rivers-led Chargers team.
Not only did they leave points on the board offensively, but they also benefitted from errors by the Jets that you can bet Philip Rivers won’t make.
Here is one example of a play that netted the Jets nothing, but would certainly by six for the Chargers:
Ryan Fitzpatrick has a seam to deliver the ball to Brandon Marshall in the red zone. However, Fitzpatrick misses on an opportunity that otherwise would have been six points.
It becomes obvious that Isa Abdul-Quddus isn’t aware of what’s going on behind him on the play, sliding even though the only receiver is going to be Marshall on the slant. In addition to only having one option, Fitzpatrick stares down his receiver the entire way. It should have been an easy play for Abdul-Quddus to prevent.
With Philip Rivers in the pocket and Tyrell Williams in the end zone, it would have been a touchdown for Miami’s opponent.
There were other misses by Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 9 that the Chargers’ offense will gladly capitalize on.
Philip Rivers doesn’t miss this throw. The Dolphins defense is clearly vulnerable when coverage is stretched it. In all honesty, it’s a miracle that they’ve even achieved the level of success they have on that side of the ball; the unit is relatively talentless in coverage. When plays end up thinning out coverage, Philip Rivers will have an easy time making the most of his windows.
Mental errors will also need to be fixed defensively if the Dolphins want to have a remote chance to keep things tight in Southern California.
This horse-collar tackle by Andre Branch is a perfect example of a shot in the arm that you can’t afford to give an opponent like the Chargers. When pressure comes crashing in on third and long and somehow the offense is able to pick up a first down thanks to an opponent’s mental error, it provides confidence for that unit.
Even worse, it keeps drives alive.
Against the Jets, it didn’t matter (give Fitzpatrick six extra plays, he still probably won’t lead them down the field). Against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, it most certainly will matter.
Extending drives will be a huge issue if Miami can’t clean up penalties; the Dolphins won’t win if Rivers is throwing deep, meaning they’ll need to limit Melvin Gordon’s impact. If Melvin Gordon gets going early, the Chargers will be able to claim time of possession. If the Chargers are going on long, sustained drives, the Dolphins’ defense will be victimized all afternoon.
Speaking of the ground game, the Dolphins will need to clean up mental errors in their rushing defense as well. After the game, Adam Gase attributed two long Matt Forte runs to “technique breakdowns” defensively.
Matt Forte is not the running back he once was physically. Melvin Gordon, on the other hand, is still at his peak. He wouldn’t even need opportunities this gracious to make the defense pay.
The aforementioned defensive issues will be the main concern going up against the Chargers. The Dolphins’ offense could be capable of creating problems for themselves in their own right.
This is a missed opportunity that you can’t have if you’re the Dolphins. You rarely get opportunities to deliver a dagger like that down the field, and it is imperative that you capitalize. It becomes especially important against an offense as potent as San Diego’s.
The Dolphins also have to clean up on third down errors if they want to keep things tight against the Chargers.
While third down drops haven’t been a recurring issue for the Dolphins, they cannot be an issue at all if Miami wants to emerge as the victors in Week 10. San Diego is too effective when they have possession to miss opportunities to keep their offense off of the field and extend drives of your own.
The third down playcalls against the Jets also tell a story about why this will be such a tough matchup for Miami.
In key third down situations, the Dolphins’ coaching staff called several screens and quick passes behind the line of scrimmage.
The lack of confidence in Ryan Tannehill’s ability was obvious. It didn’t seem like Adam Gase wanted Tannehill sitting back in the pocket, holding onto the ball. Obviously, comfort is at an all-time high in the run game. But the Dolphins’ inability to rely on their quarterback to make plays and gain chunk yardage down the field is an alarming sight.
Philip Rivers will make spectacular plays in this game for the Chargers. He’s usually good for a few very impressive throws per game. That being said, it will come down to the Dolphins’ ability to put the ball in their own quarterback’s hands – can Ryan Tannehill make enough plays? At this point, it doesn’t seem like the coaching staff has much conviction.
The Dolphins’ win streak has been enough to salvage hope out of the season. The once 1-4 team has gone from top-five pick discussion to the fringes of the playoff picture. However, the Dolphins appear primed to suffer their first loss of the month against the Chargers.
This won’t be a damning defeat for Miami’s hopes – the team has favorable matchups on the horizon with the Rams, 49ers and Ravens. Winning streaks don’t last forever, as every team will eventually run into an opponent equipped perfectly to strike an area of weakness.
A strong argument can be made that the Chargers are the toughest personnel matchup that the Dolphins will face until their Week 17 meeting with the Patriots.
The showdown this weekend at Qualcomm Stadium will serve as an interesting measurement for the Dolphins. How far has the team really come, and can they beat the odds against a favored opponent?
While the Dolphins are a much better team than they were a month ago, it doesn’t seem likely that they are ready to go on a cross-country trip and take on an offense that has them outgunned at several key positions.
But, Adam Gase has led this team to outcomes that have surprised me before. Let’s see if he, and more importantly Ryan Tannehill, can do it this Sunday.