Dolphins Dichotomy: Film Review of the Best & Worst Plays from Dolphins vs. Chargers

Not long ago, the Dolphins were sitting at 1-4 with the season all but over. Most had largely given up on the team’s hopes of contention in 2016. 

Oh how much a month can change.

Riding a four-game win streak, extended by the recent win over the Chargers, the Dolphins couldn’t feel better about the current state of the team. After the win in San Diego, the team officially rose above 0.500, reaching 5-4 and placing themselves in the playoff hunt.

How did the Dolphins go from being completely hopeless to one of the league’s dangerous x-factors? 

Well, the Dolphins’ game matchup with the  Chargers provided an encapsulation of the team’s changes, highlighting in different moments not only why they’ve risen above expectations, but why there is still a long way to go. 

Best Plays: 

Ryan Tannehill Drops Dimes to Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker 

Heading into Sunday’s matchup, my biggest concern was Ryan Tannehill’s ability to outduel Philip Rivers. Could Tannehill, a player whose role had been reduced each week as the running game developed, put up enough points to beat Rivers, a quarterback who has willed injury-plagued teams into contention each year?

The answer, to my surprise, was yes.

While Tannehill made plenty of high quality throws, the ones that stood out were delivered under heavy duress, deep down the field.

One of those plays came in the second quarter when Tannehill delivered a perfect pass to Kenny Stills to put Miami on the board.

Great Play - Tannehill TD to Kenny Stills (Q2).gif

This is the type of play that offenses are afforded with a strong rushing attack. Ryan Tannehill faces single-high safety coverage, as the Chargers loaded the box with eight defenders. The Dolphins use a play action to draw in the linebackers, sliding Tannehill to the opposite side to diminish the pass rush.

Great Play - Tannehill TD to Stills (Q2) Angle 2.gif

It’s easy to see how thinly spread the defense is, as Kenny Stills stretches the coverage with each step downfield, as Tannehill delivers a perfect pass despite standing in and taking a hit from a defender.

In the fourth quarter, Ryan Tannehill was able to deliver another huge play while under heavy pressure (both literally and figuratively).

Great Play - Tannehill to DVP 4, 4min left after Tyrell TD.gif

This is an even tougher throw than Tannehill’s dime to Stills. Not only did the pass rush close quicker, but San Diego also had a safety in better position to make a play on the ball.

Tannehill Huge DVP Coaches.gif

Ryan Tannehill throws the ball early in the play, clearly taking a chance with his 6’5” receiver in coverage. DeVante Parker has a step on the cornerback, but Tannehill is forced to consider the safety breaking for the play.

The pass arrives before San Diego’s lone safety could disrupt the pass. It ends up being an incredible play under pressure for Tannehill and the Dolphins offense.

My concerns regarding the Dolphins’ chances of victory were all for naught; Ryan Tannehill showed that he is capable of carrying this team when they need a strong play to lift them in key moments. The important word there is “capable”. Tannehill has not showed a consistent ability to do so during his career. However, he has also never had a better supporting cast or a staff that is willing to work with him in the way his current coaches will.

If all goes well for Adam Gase in his plan to continue improving Miami’s passer, you’ll be seeing much more of Sunday’s Tannehill than the Tannehill of old.

Dolphins Go Back to Williams at FB: 

The Dolphins’ coaching staff figured out a clever wrinkle in their personnel group at running back, realizing that Damien Williams can be lined up as a fullback in goal-line situations. Against the Steelers, they used Williams at the position for the first time, punching it in for a score.

They went back to that same play against the Chargers, finding similar success.

Grea Play - Williams at FB for TD.gif

Had the Dolphins not utilized Williams in this fashion, they’d be transparently preparing to hand the ball off to Ajayi and let him try to plunge in. However, it’s much more difficult for the defense to stop a FB dive in short range.

This is a great example of what Adam Gase and his staff have done to breed success in their recent winning streak. They aren’t simply looking for which players are exceling – they’re evaluating how the success of some players can allow others to follow in their footsteps.

Now, they’re paving the way for Damien Williams to make plays thanks to opponents’ increased focus on Jay Ajayi.

A staff actually working to maximize talent – isn’t it a breath of fresh air?

Jarvis Landry – Creator of Yardage: 

Jarvis Landry’s dancing in the backfield can be frustrating at times. Earlier in the season, it even resulted in fumbles and losses of yards. Part of the reason that plays to Landry had a lower success rate early in the season was that Landry was swarmed by defenders instantly upon receiving the ball. Defenses knew where it was going and knew that their best chance for success was to mob Landry behind the line.

Now, with the ball being spread around offensively, Jarvis Landry has an even better opportunity to make plays against defenders.

Here is one example of Landry’s absurd ability to generate extra yards from Sunday:

Great Play - How Does Jarvis Do This?.gif

Jarvis Landry turns a three-yard gain into a 20-yard gain. His motor and relentless fighting through tacklers make him one of the league’s most dynamic options in the slot, rarely willing to go down without pushing through for extra yardage.

Later in the game, Landry did it again.

Great Play - Another How Moment for Jarvis.gif

This play is a better example of how distribution of the ball is leaving more opportunities for Landry. Only one defender, Brandon Flowers, is in Landry’s area. In most cases, the backwards dancing Landry did would result in fewer yards being gained. However, one defender isn’t able to easily bring Landry down.

The Dolphins’ best pass-catcher is able to work his way around Flowers, more than doubling the yardage gained on the play

When the Dolphins offense is spread out, with Stills and Parker getting targets, it creates opportunities for Jarvis Landry to show just how special of a player he is.

Dolphins Use Chargers’ Strategy Against Them:

When Damien Williams scored his touchdown through the air, it was a perfect example of the Dolphins offense attacking a defense in the same way that other teams have attacked Miami’s defense. Thanks to poor play at linebacker, teams have gone directly at players like Jelani Jenkins in coverage.

Against the Chargers, Miami went right at Denzel Perryman’s replacement for a touchdown.

Great Play - Damien Williams TD Pass.gif

Once again, the Chargers play a stacked box against the Dolphins. On 3rd & 2, how could they not? It would make perfect sense to hand it off to Ajayi, who had been money in short-yardage situations. However, the team sees a matchup they like on the outside.

D Will TD Coaches.gif

This was one of the best plays of the season for the Dolphins; Damien Williams shifts outside with a linebacker in man coverage, and all Ryan Tannehill has to do is lob it up to him for the score.

Plays like this on third down help the running game, keep things easy for the quarterback and make life tough for defenses by spreading them out.

Cam Wake Keeps Making Plays:

Cameron Wake has been good.

Nope, that wasn’t right.

Cameron Wake has been great.

The change in defensive snap distribution has led to Wake’s reemergence as a premiere pass rusher. Even at 34-years-old, coming off of a torn Achilles, Wake is terrorizing quarterbacks.

Sunday was another opportunity for Wake to show his unrelenting speed and lightning-fast burst off of the line.

Great Play - Wake Sack (Look How Low He Starts_.gif

Notice how low Wake gets before shooting off to blow by the tackle. He explodes out of his stance, and his bend makes it incredibly difficult to impede his path to the quarterback.

Not only does Wake use his speed to get pressure on this play, but he also leaves his feet to make sure he gets his hands on Philip Rivers.

Great Play - Wake Sack Angle 2.gif

He sacked Philip Rivers IN THE AIR.  Cameron Wake has mastered flight, people. It was only a matter of time.

Wake also laid a mean bull-rush on Joe Barksdale during Sunday’s action.

Great Play - Wake Sack Again (Bull Rush Now).gif

Great Play - Wake Sack Again Angle 2.gif

It isn’t only speed: Wake can get the job done with power as well.

Cameron Wake now has 7.0 sacks on the season despite only receiving substantial playing time since Week 6. The veteran defensive end has placed himself firmly in the conversation for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, showing that he hasn’t lost a step despite suffering a 2015 injury that would have ended the careers of some players at his position.

Maybe Wake will start to look human at 40. Maybe.

Ryan Tannehill Creates with His Legs:

Early in the second half against the Chargers, Adam Gase pulled out a play-call that allowed Ryan Tannehill to extend one of the Dolphins’ drives by making a tough throw on the run to Jarvis Landry.

Great Play - Landry Huge Sideline Grab Q3.gif

This play was made possible by Tannehill’s ability to deliver the ball on the move. Many NFL QBs need to stop and set their feet before sending the ball downfield if they want to maintain accuracy. Not Tannehill. He shows off his impressive ability to drop a pass into coverage without slowing down, creating an opportunity by rolling into an open area of the field.

Great Play - Landry Huge Sideline Grab Q3 Angle 2.gif

Dolphins fans have begged for Ryan Tannehill to use his legs to create opportunities since the season started. He looked chained to the pocket at times earlier in 2016, failing to recognize areas to move into in order to buy more time to throw.

In addition to improving his ability to move out of the pocket and deliver, Tannehill demonstrated his ability to create trouble for defenses as a runner.

Great Play - Ryan Run.gif

This play is a perfect example of what Tannehill’s legs allow him to do. Pressure comes crashing into the pocket as he manages to evade three defenders and find space to his right. While rolling, he considers throwing the ball to Damien Williams, but realizes that the linebacker is locked into coverage. This gives Tannehill a running lane.

Great Play - Ryan Run Angle 2.gif

Tannehill adds two more defenders to the list of those he made look foolish on the play before going down well past the first down marker.

For the first time this season, Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable using his legs to supplement his ability as a pocket passer. While he succeeded on designed runs earlier in 2016, this game saw him demonstrate the ability to feel pressure, get into space and either deliver the ball or run it himself to pick up positive gains for the Dolphins.

Coaches Improve Third-Down Philosophy: 

One of the biggest red flags raised in Week 9 was play-calling on third down. Adam Gase seemed to lack any confidence in Ryan Tannehill, having him drop the ball into predetermined reads behind the line of scrimmage on several key downs. This was particularly alarming given the team’s pending date with the Chargers, who do possess a high-powered attack.

Against San Diego, Gase & Co. showed onlookers that they are fully capable of making adjustments and putting the ball in Ryan Tannehill’s hands during key moments of a game.

Great Play - Much Better Third Down Philosophy 1.gif

On the play above, the Dolphins went back to one of Adam Gase’s favorite routes: the comeback. Kenny Stills’ quickness allows him to create separation in short areas of the field, and he had a step on the defender on this snap. Tannehill stood in the pocket and delivered the ball past the sticks for a big conversion.

Later in the game the Dolphins once again had a play sent in that afforded Tannehill an opportunity to deliver the ball past the markers.

Great Play - Third Down Philosophy 2.gif

Sending Jarvis Landry short of the first down doesn’t make much sense if you’re a Dolphins coach; the team should be looking to get Tannehill’s most trusted weapon north of the targeted area in third down situations. Against the Chargers they were able to do so.

Even though some plays didn’t pan out, you could see a shift in third-down ideology taking place within the team.

Good Play - Comes Up Short, But Great Execution (Q1).gif

Ryan Tannehill stood in and took a hit on this play, zipping the ball out to Jarvis Landry. While Landry came up just short of the first down, it shows that they’re willing to allow Ryan Tannehill to press in situations in which a screen obviously won’t get the job done.

If the Dolphins offense is going to continue growing, they’ll need to keep giving Tannehill chances to get comfortable handling the ball in key third-and-long situations. After Week 10, there is reason to believe that they could help get him closer to where he needs to be by season’s end.

Kiko Alonso’s Pick 6: 

No play better epitomizes the Dolphins’ recent turnaround than Kiko Alonso’s game-winning pick six against the Chargers. In the biggest moment, with the game on the line, Miami found a way to win rather than somehow finding a way to lose.

It could be a culture change; there is plenty to be said for the belief that winners simply win, and losers simply lose. Even if it isn’t about that, it surely is about accountability. Kiko Alonso’s clear preparation, film study and consistent growth set the stage for other members of the defense to rise to the occasion as well.

Alonso’s work towards improvement paid off fully in the waning moments of Miami’s San Diego showdown.

Great Play - Kiko Pick 6.gif

When the ball is snapped, Alonso drops back into coverage. Before Rivers can deliver the ball, Alonso clearly sees where he wants to go. The play is diagnosed by Miami’s defender at the same time that it is by San Diego’s quarterback.

Great Play - Kiko Pick 6 Angle 2.gif

It’s easy to see how Alonso has found ways to improve within Miami’s defense. As his physical gifts have been diminished after a series of knee injuries, Alonso has changed his style to rely more on preparation and film study to make plays. By putting himself in a position through knowledge of where the ball is heading, he doesn’t have to rely on his speed to get to the ball carrier. He’s already in position.

Great Play - Kiko Pick 6 Angle 3.gif

On this play, Alonso put himself in the perfect spot to make the play. He jumps the route, comes up with the interception and takes it to the house.

This was a moment of change for the team. Those who did not believe in Miami’s turnaround have taken notice, realizing that a new pattern has taken over, at least for now, with the Dolphins. Players are rising above their abilities and overachieving instead of underachieving.

Players aren’t just overachieving – they’re doing so in the biggest moments. 

Worst Plays: 

Bobby McCain Will Want to Forget This One: 

Bobby McCain’s performance against the Chargers was as poor as that of any Dolphins defensive back in recent memory. While McCain is a young player who has showed promise at times, he’ll have to study the film from Sunday diligently to learn sufficiently from his missteps.

His holding calls ended up costing the Dolphins in several big moments.

Bad Play - Bobby McCain Hold.gif

Bad Play - Bobby McCain Hold Angle 2.gif

On the play above, McCain commits an obvious penalty. The hold gives the Chargers a free conversion on a tough 3rd & 12; against high-quality NFL offenses, it’s tough to win when giving up free first downs.

A later holding call was more debatable as to whether or not it really was a penalty, but the play still could have been avoided.

Bad Play - Holding on McCain (Wouldve Been Sack) Angle 2.gif

McCain has to be aware of the refs’ decision to call a tight game, which should lead to reduced risks in terms of contact in coverage.

Later, McCain made another mistake, tripping up Dontrell Inman coming through the back of the end zone.

Bad Play - Bobby Called for PI .gif

This is another debatable call. It would’ve been easy for the refs to move past this as a no-call, deeming that the players got tangled up or that the ball was out of Inman’s reach. However, that wasn’t the approach taken in this game.

Bad Play - Bobby Called for PI Angle 2.gif

Had this same penalty occurred in the Dolphins’ end zone against a large receiver like DeVante Parker, fans of the team would have expected the same call given to the Chargers to be granted for Miami. Once again, it falls on Bobby McCain’s shoulders.

McCain also demonstrated an inability to stick with man coverage on Sunday, with one play against Tyrell Williams highlighting his struggles particularly well.

Bad Play - Bobby McCain Shredded.gif

How did Williams manage to get that wide-open against man coverage from Bobby McCain?

Bad Play - Bobby McCain Shredded Angle 2.gif

Well…that’ll do it.

Bobby McCain has struggled in coverage throughout 2016 thus far, and this could be the worst example. He falls for Williams’ fake and stumbles while trying to close ground. Had the ball not been thrown poorly by Rivers, it could’ve been an even bigger gain for the Chargers.

These don’t highlight all of the poor plays by McCain on the day, but they do show the core of his struggles against the Chargers as Week 10 highlighted some of the areas that could prevent McCain from developing into a high-level NFL corner. At the end of the day, the best case scenario is that McCain learns from his poor play against San Diego and learns from those mistakes going forward.

Byron Maxwell Holds in the End Zone: 

This was another example of a player making a poor decision based on the referees obvious desire to call the game stringently.

Bad Play - Holding Byron.gif

Byron Maxwell commits an obvious holding penalty against Tyrell Williams. While it might have ended up paying off for the Dolphins (on the extra downs, Philip Rivers ended up throwing a pick to Tony Lippett), it still doesn’t bode well for the Dolphins defensive backs’ ability to avoid mistakes.

Bad Play - Byron Holding 2.gif

In those key moments, with knowledge of how the refs are officiating the game, penalties of this nature leading to a new set of downs on the goal line can’t be committed. Errors in that category would have proved disastrous for the Dolphins had they not faced Rivers on one of the worst days of his career.

The Refs: 

Now that we have discussed holding calls that went against the Dolphins, it’s worth noting that a few should have been flagged in Miami’s favor against the Chargers.

Bad Play - Officiating 1.gif

Even if the play above wasn’t pass interference, it was clear defensive holding. This would have given the Dolphins a new set of downs even closer to the goal line.

A missed call later in the game was far more egregious.

Bad Play - Officiating 2.gif

One could make the argument that this play didn’t warrant a call based on the first view. However, upon second viewing…

Bad Play - Officiating 2 Angle 2.gif


The refs clearly missed a holding penalty against DeVante Parker on a key goal line possession.

Had the Dolphins not won this game, much more would be made of the referees’ inconsistent officiating throughout Miami’s Week 10 matchup.

Defense Lets Up a Huge Score to Tyrell Williams: 

It was evident heading into this game that the Chargers would try to isolate wide receivers inside against the Dolphins’ linebackers, who struggle to hold coverage for any reasonable period of time.

Late in the game, they were able to take advantage of the Dolphins in this area.

Bad Play - Huge Tyrell Williams TD.gif

Jelani Jenkins on Tyrell Williams…not really a matchup that the Dolphins will win.

Bad Play - Huge Tyrell TD Angle 2.gif

Jelani Jenkins is attacked almost instantly off the snap; unable to keep up after a double move, he falls behind Williams. After Williams gets a step on Jenkins, Rivers delivers the ball over the middle. Jelani Jenkins makes a futile attempt to leap backwards and disrupt the pass in mid-air, eliminating any chance that he’d be able to just tackle Williams.

Tyrell Williams then shows his speed, blowing past Isa Abdul-Quddus and entering the end zone to give the Chargers a three-point lead late in the fourth.

Rivers’ interceptions would later end up sinking San Diego’s efforts, but this play provided a glimpse as to how teams will continue to look to attack Miami’s defense: If you isolate enough players in coverage, personnel deficiencies will take over and someone will fail in their assignment.

Vance Joseph has done a spectacular job with Miami’s defense in recent weeks; there aren’t many coaches in the league who could turn this unit into anything more than a bend-but-don’t-break unit. The Dolphins will just have to work to continue masking their deficiencies to avoid having these moments become even more familiar down the stretch.

Jakeem Grant Muffs the Punt:

Early on against the Chargers, Jakeem Grant muffed two kicks. One muffed punt was recovered by the Dolphins, not causing any damage. A later kick was downed in the end zone after being dropped, still not causing any harm.

Third time’s the charm.

Bad Play - Jakeem Grant Fumble.gif

Bad Play - Jakeem Grant Fumble Angle 2.gif

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said – Jakeem Grant can’t be making these mistakes down the stretch in big games. Luckily it did not impact the game’s end result.

The Dolphins did handle Jakeem Grant’ struggles correctly in this situation. When the team benched Byron Maxwell or cut Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, they were disciplining veteran players who have NFL experience. Not only is Jakeem Grant an incredibly young player, but he is also a potential contributor who could be big for the Dolphins down the road.

Hopefully Jakeem Grant will be able to rebound from the experience going forward. His development would be a major boost for the Dolphins’ special teams well-beyond 2016.

Ryan Tannehill Gets Bailed Out:

During Sunday’s game, Ryan Tannehill was largely mistake-free. He made incredible throws under pressure, leading his team in big moments.

However, there are always areas to clean up.

Bad Play - RT Cant Throw This.gif

Bad Play - RT Cant Throw This Angle 2.gif

This is a throw Tannehill has struggled with throughout his career. It isn’t an inability to deliver the ball; Miami’s quarterback simply fails to recognize players ready to jump the route at times.

Here’s an example of Tannehill not seeing the corner getting in position to jump an out-breaking route from 2015:


While the play vs. San Diego was largely inconsequential, it felt worth noting that there will be areas for Ryan Tannehill to look towards for improvement even after this game. That is a huge part of Adam Gase’s recent success. The Dolphins are not simply settling for their current level of play; they’re focusing on even the smallest details, looking to improve their performance each and every week.

The Skinny:

While it is clear that the Miami Dolphins have come further in 2016 than any thought they would, especially after a dismal start, it cannot be ignored that the team has a long way to go.

The Dolphins’ aspirations are no longer simply to finish 0.500. For this coaching staff, it won’t be enough just to beat a few projections. In Davie, all eyes are on the postseason. With teams rising high in the AFC West and competitors emerging from other divisions within the conference, the Dolphins will need to treat every game like it’s a playoff matchup going forward.

The next few weeks will prove to be an interesting test. Can the coaching staff keep the pressure on, despite upcoming matchups with two of the league’s least intimidating teams? If they are able to keep Miami trending in the right direction, not only by winning, but also by improving each week, then the Dolphins could sniff January football for the first time in nearly a decade.

But, there’s a reason that coaches around the NFL have exhausted the “one week at a time” cliché. The Dolphins will need to focus on the Rams and make sure that areas of their Week 10 performance are cleaned up before they take the field again.

If the improvements keep coming for the Dolphins, this coaching staff could pull off one of the most impressive single-season turnarounds in recent memory.

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