Silencing the Doubters: Grades and Analysis from Miami’s 31-24 Victory Over San Diego
The Miami Dolphins continue to surprise. With an opportunistic mindset and several timely plays, they beat the San Diego Chargers 31-24 and extended their win streak to four games. Once again, it was far from a perfect performance, but they found a way to win. At 5-4, they are in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race and have all of the momentum in the world. Before we shift our attention to next week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, let’s take a look at the positional grades for Miami’s most recent, impressive comeback against an undeniably talented Chargers squad.
Ryan Tannehill: A
Say what you want about Ryan Tannehill, but when he plays like he did yesterday, it’s not difficult to understand why Miami saw him as their franchise quarterback at one time. He doesn’t have elite physical attributes or the highest football IQ. However, as we have said all season, when he takes care of the football and makes timely plays as he did in this one, Tannehill can lead this team to victory in any matchup.
He withstood pressure in his face to execute several beautiful (and I mean, really beautiful) throws to keep Miami within striking distance, including this 36-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills:
Tannehill spread the ball around to all three of his wide receivers, and even backup running back Damien Williams, to tally 240 yards and two touchdowns and ultimately keep pace with a very talented San Diego offense. He isn’t putting up huge numbers during this win streak, but he’s doing exactly what Gase needs him to do: stay calm, make good decisions and take advantage of the extremely impressive run game. That’s undoubtedly enough to earn an “A” for this performance.
Running Backs: A
It seems like a weekly script ever since Jay Ajayi’s breakout performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago. He starts out slow, leading to unavoidable questions about whether his past performances were representative of his true talent-level, or if they were simply outliers. Then, he comes out to start the second half, breaks off big run after big run and once again gets us excited about his potential heading into the upcoming week.
Ajayi was great in this one, more than making up for a slow start to the game by continuing his recent second-half dominance. He set up multiple Miami touchdowns with explosive carries through the Chargers’ defensive line and picked up tough yardage after contact to keep the offense moving.
While he wasn’t rewarded with a touchdown in this one, the win should leave the Dolphins’ workhorse happy at the end of the day.
Although Miami’s running back depth chart may have been a mystery at the beginning of the season, Damien Williams now has a firm grasp on the backup running spot. Williams scored a goal line touchdown while lining up as a fullback (a scheme Gase has utilized often this season) and added a pretty 18-yard touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone.
Gase’s offense is powered by the run game and, in turn, Miami will likely go as far as this backfield can take them in 2016.
Wide Receivers: A
The wide receivers had largely been playing second fiddle to Ajayi and the rushing attack in recent weeks, but Gase found a way to get everyone involved yesterday. DeVante Parker flashed “number one receiver” potential in accumulating 103 yards on 5 catches.
Jarvis Landry was a consistent source of yardage as well, even when it seemed like there were none to be gained. Stills obviously had the aforementioned 39-yard touchdown to get the Dolphins on the scoreboard. He’s never going to be a go-to target or possession receiver, but he is a threat to score a touchdown every time he runs a route.
Gase’s offense works best when he is able to establish the run game and take the pressure off of Tannehill and his trio of very talented receivers. That is exactly how it played out today, and it will likely continue to be the game plan going forward. It was nice to see one of Miami’s best position groups come out and make plays in a very competitive matchup.
Tight End: C
We talked about the Dolphins potentially having interest in tight end prospect O.J. Howard this past week, and it is games like these that make the need so glaringly obvious. Now the tight ends didn’t necessarily make mistakes in this one, but they were seemingly a nonfactor in this offense: MarQueis Gray led the group with an underwhelming 2 catches for 18 yards.
They undoubtedly contribute to Miami’s pass and run protection, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, Gase has been lauded as an offensive mastermind of sorts, and failing to have a real weapon at the tight end position limits the potential of the entire offense.
With the way the Dolphins struggle in covering opposing tight ends, they know how valuable a difference maker can be at the position. Look for them to attempt to acquire them at some point in the very near future.
Offensive Line: B
As mentioned earlier, the offensive line did struggle to create holes for Ajayi in the first half. Additionally, Brandon Albert was beat badly on a speed rush by Melvin Ingram for a strip sack of Tannehill (which ended up being recovered by Jermon Bushrod).
That, however, was the only time Tannehill was sacked, and we all know how the run game bounced back in the second half. A healthy offensive line has been an absolute key in Miami’s winning streak, Laremy Tunsil will be a season long x-factor, and they kept up their strong performance against Joey Bosa and the rest of San Diego’s defensive front.
Ja’Wuan James continues to struggle with penalties, and we have to keep an eye on Albert’s status after he injured his left wrist, but the line remained a bright spot in Week 10.
Defensive Line: A-
This group was dominant, as it has been for much of this season. Cameron Wake has looked like a man possessed during the win streak, and he tallied two more sacks on Sunday. He is never going to be an elite run defender, but defensive coordinator Vance Joseph focuses on the pass rush more than anything, and there have been few better players at pressuring the quarterback than Wake.
Ndamukong Suh was his usual disruptive self, picking up a half sack and clearing some space for his fellow defensive linemen. Andre Branch was also impressive, with a half sack of his own and a tackle for a loss.
Perhaps the biggest storyline, however, was the return of Earl Mitchell. The coaching staff has talked up the importance of Mitchell since he first got injured, and yesterday we saw why. The starting defensive tackle practically lived in the backfield and played a huge role in limiting Melvin Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry. He notched two tackles for a loss, including this ridiculous run stop:
Overall, the defensive line totaled 3 sacks for a loss of 17 yards, and the pressure they supplied led to several mistakes by Phillips Rivers. Joseph’s tenure got off to a rough start earlier in the year, but his aggressive scheme has finally started to pay off.
At this point, we know what this linebacker position group is. They lack depth, miss tackles every once in awhile and can’t cover tight ends for the life of them: that much isn’t going to change.
However, Kiko Alonso has been a welcomed addition to the defense this season and proved his worth yet again in perhaps the biggest moment of the season thus far. With the game tied 24-24, and under 2 minutes left to play, Alonso stepped in front of the pass by Rivers, intercepted it and returned it for a game winning 60-yard touchdown.
With Reshad Jones out for the year, Joseph needs Alonso to step up and take over some of that responsibility, and he seems very capable of doing so.
It should also be pointed out that the linebackers finally found some success against the run, in limiting Gordon to 70 yards on 24 rushes. Gordon entered the game as hot as anyone in the league and seemingly had a grand opportunity to continue his ridiculously high level of play. Fortunately, the linebackers were (for the most part) up to the challenge.
The aspect that keeps this group in the “C” range is their pass coverage. Antonio Gates destroyed Miami no matter the scheme they threw at him. With Jones injured, there isn’t a single player on this roster capable of slowing down tight ends, and receivers consistently exploited holes behind the linebackers in zone coverage.
Nevertheless, the linebackers did enough in this one for the Dolphins to come out with a win.
If this section were reserved for Bobby McCain, it would likely be an “F”. The nickel corner was a disaster, specifically in the first half. He surrendered key first downs to Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates, missed several tackles and was the target of multiple penalty calls. He was called for pass interference and a facemask penalty on the same play in the first half, another pass interference in the end zone that set up a San Diego touchdown and a holding penalty in the second half. It is fair to wonder if McCain would still be starting if Michael Thomas didn’t have to move back to safety due to the injury to Jones.
The rest of the cornerbacks were mostly saved by Tony Lippett’s two interceptions: one in the end zone and another to seal the victory in the fourth quarter.
Lippett and Byron Maxwell are still far from elite talents and each had their own holding issues as well in the second half.
However, they are finally forcing the turnovers that Joseph has so desperately craved since taking over as defensive coordinator. They are far from perfect and will likely continue to “bend,” so to speak. Yet if they can keep making timely plays and helping their team win the turnover battle, the defense will be successful.
Special Teams: D+
For once, the special teams unit didn’t receive a grade this low because of Andrew Franks. In fact, Franks hit a 27-yard field goal and all four of his extra points.
Instead, this comes down to Jakeem Grant. Grant looked uncomfortable fielding kicks/punts over the course of the entire afternoon. In total, he muffed three attempts, including this one at the 5-yard line:
While Lippett’s first interception ultimately bailed him out, and anyone watching could tell he was distraught with his performance, these are the types of mistakes that make it nearly impossible to win week in and week out.
Of course, Grant should have never been out there to field that last punt. Gase has to recognize that it wasn’t Grant’s day yesterday. He looked shaky from the first time he touched the ball. Sending him out onto the field in that situation had all of the potential to be a disaster, and very little potential to be successful. Gase is lucky that these types of special teams blunders didn’t come back to bite them.
Unforced errors continue to be a problem as well. Penalties have the potential to ruin a team, and Miami is more than fortunate that the Chargers made even more mistakes. The execution has to be cleaned up going forward.
Overall, Gase and the rest of the coaching staff had his team inspired on the road, which is an enormous achievement. They played with heart and made plays when they absolutely needed to. If they can continue to get this type of performance out of their players, they’ll have a chance to win in every game for the rest of the season.