Winning Ways: How Gase & Co. Found a Role in Which Ryan Tannehill Can Thrive
If a franchise achieves a four game win streak in the NFL, their quarterback must be doing something right. This rings true for the Miami Dolphins and Ryan Tannehill during their current streak as well. Yes, he has had his ups and downs in his first season under quarterback whisperer Adam Gase. And yes, he may not amount to anymore than he has already shown up to this point. However, with the help of Gase, Tannehill is amidst one of the best, and most efficient, stretches of his career. This hasn’t happened by accident. Rather, there have been several factors that have permitted a high level of performance from Tannehill. Let’s take a deeper look at some of those elements, as we attempt to better understand the quarterback’s recent play.
Effective Running Game:
If one was asked to name the single most important factor in the Dolphins’ win streak, it would be Jay Ajayi and the rushing attack. With that being said, it goes far beyond the ridiculous numbers he has managed to post over the past four games.
This past Sunday, Ajayi broke off a 40-yard run on the second play of the third quarter. On the very next play, Miami faced a seven-man box, handed the ball to Ajayi again and Ajayi was ultimately stopped for a mere 3-yard gain. The down after that, however, the box was stacked with seven men once again and the Chargers sent a five-man rush. Tannehill felt the pressure coming through the middle of his line and seemed to almost instinctively roll to his right, locate Jarvis Landry and deliver a strike on the run:
Unlike at the beginning of the season, the running game is now the focal point of opposing defenses’ game plans. That leads to stacked boxes on the consistent basis. Some suggest that bringing pressure on a quarterback makes life easier on young quarterbacks, and the same could go for Tannehill. Facing run blitzes and more defenders in the box clears up his progressions and helps him avoid having to make difficult reads. He ultimately has to buy time in the pocket, escape the pocket (as he does in the play above) or simply deliver under pressure.
After Ajayi’s 21-yard run later in the third, Tannehill once again faced a crowded box and a five-man rush. This time, he stood his ground in the pocket and got the ball out to his best playmaker as the blitz first reached him:
The obvious attention the defense was paying toward stopping Ajayi set up the play action as well. On Tannehill’s 39-yard touchdown toss to Kenny Stills, six defenders in the box bit on the play-fake. He rolled out, realized Stills had the defense beat over the top and executed a beautiful throw to the back of the end zone while absorbing a hit:
The running game has made life easy on Tannehill. It has changed the way defenses are attacking Miami’s offense, and it is helping mask his weaknesses. Defenses are simplifying his reads for him, and it has allowed him to consistently move the chains and avoid costly turnovers. This has likely been the most obvious reason why Tannehill is having so much success.
If the running game was ineffective to start the season, the defense had to be even worse. They were getting gauged on the ground as well as through the air and simply couldn’t secure a turnover. This led to an absolutely abysmal average time of possession. In fact, prior to the Dolphins’ upset win over the Steelers, they ranked dead last in the category.
Since that point, however, Miami has a top ten average time of possession (31:28.) A defensive turnaround has thus led to a more effective offense. The defense was tied for last with only one interception over the first five games of 2016. During their win streak, on the other hand, they have had an unbelievable eight takeaways through the air, and they had four against the Chargers alone.
The point is, Miami’s defensive playmakers are giving Tannehill more possessions and he is thriving because of it. He is better able to get into a rhythm the more he has the ball in his hands and has been more than capable of taking advantage of good field position. During the game against the Steelers, an interception by Isa Abdul-Quddus gave Tannehill the ball at their 48-yard line. This 11-yard pass to DeVante Parker against a Pittsburgh blitz ultimately set up Ajayi’s four-yard touchdown:
During this winning streak, Tannehill has looked relaxed in the pocket for the first time all season. While improved offensive line play surely has something to do with it, you can bet Tannehill is calmed by the fact that his defense finally has his back.
At the beginning of the season, Gase force-fed Jarvis Landry the ball. There is no shame in attempting to get your best offensive player involved as much as possible; however, it became ultimately predictable. He seemed to employ screen passes to Landry practically exclusively as a way to counteract the terrible rushing attack, and many of his other offensive weapons were largely ineffective as a result.
With the newfound effectiveness of Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams, Gase finally seems to be opening up the playbook. He is no longer forced to play if safe, and the stacked boxes have allowed him to let plays develop downfield. While Landry is currently still their best receiver, he is at his best when Tannehill can get him the ball quickly and let him wreak havoc in space. Parker and Stills, on the other hand, are at their best making plays over the top.
When opposing defenses are consistently sending seven and eight-man boxes at Miami’s offense, the receivers obviously have more room to operate in the defensive backfield. A healthy offensive line has given him the time he needs, and Tannehill has excelled in making the easy reads. Take this next play for example:
Damien Williams splits out left, drawing a linebacker in coverage with no safety help deep. Tannehill takes the snap from the shotgun, almost immediately identifies the plus matchup, and lofts a pretty pass to Williams in the corner of the end zone for an 18-yard line touchdown.
Additionally, Gase seems to have given Tannehill the freedom to let plays develop and take the appropriate shots downfield. This next big gain was ultimately negated by a holding penalty against Ja’Wuan James. However, it highlights many of the ways in which Tannehill has found success over the course of the winning streak. He escapes the pressure, keeps his eyes downfield and notices Parker breaking free from coverage. While the ball was evidently slightly underthrown, he put it in a position in which only his receiver had a chance to make a play on the ball:
Gase has finally been able to enforce a balanced offensive game plan, and it is working wonders for Tannehill and the receivers. Although Ajayi has been the major revelation over the past four games, a newly implemented game plan that allows routes to develop downfield has benefited the offense greatly. While Gase will always favor Landry due to his reliability, look for the head coach to continue to find ways to get Parker and Stills involved as well.
Regardless of your overall opinion of Tannehill as a player, you have to admire his leadership and execution during the current stretch of games. He is avoiding turnovers, consistently making the necessary reads and plays, and simply looks comfortable controlling the offense. While the astounding improvements made in the run game and on defense will garner most of the attention, this four game win streak wouldn’t have been possible without Tannehill’s performance either.
Gase has the offense in the perfect place right now. He’s leaning on Ajayi and the rushing attack and forcing defenses to stack the boxes to try and stop him. This gives Tannehill clear reads to progress through and makes it significantly easier for him to pinpoint exploitable matchups. That has permitted him to spread the ball around to his receivers, as opposed to forcing the ball to Landry on nearly every play as he attempted to do earlier in 2016.
It is clear that the current offensive formula is working on a number of levels and Gase will do everything in his power to maintain these game plans in the weeks to come. It seems as if the Miami Dolphins have a scheme that fits Tannehill’s strengths and masks his weaknesses for the first time in his career, and he is thriving because of it.