Scratching the Surface: Dolphins Show They’re Not Quite There, But Surely Getting Close

Nobody was surprised by what transpired at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. Somehow, it seemed that those who watched the Dolphins were still not prepared for the team to be dismantled in such a decisive fashion.

The Dolphins’ playoff seeding was all-but certain heading into their Week 17 regular-season finale – barring miraculous finishes in Miami and San Diego (neither of which occurred), it would be off to Pittsburgh for a rematch with the Steelers. Surely a showdown with the Texans would be more favorable, but it’s hard to get picky given the road that Miami has travelled.

The aforementioned road, including a 1-4 start and some truly brutal football, is one that teams rarely travel. With social media and news making its way to players an inevitability, shielding professional athletes from “the noise” is almost impossible. Adam Gase was able to work with his team not to ignore the noise, but to harness it.

Miami played with a chip on their shoulder for two months of the season, racking up wins in close games facing teams considered to be better equipped than them.

During this stretch, Gase showed an ability to walk the tightrope between being a respected leader and being a player’s coach; he found a comfortable place within the locker room due to his age, and he earned recognition through consistently good decision making and faith in his players.

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(David Butler/USA Today Sports)

Showing the Dolphins that they can, and are expected to, compete every single week was a huge point of emphasis throughout 2016, and it explains the full-go approach against the Patriots last Sunday. Despite having very little to play for, the Dolphins never stopped clawing their way back. After cutting the Patriots’ lead to six points coming out of halftime, the Dolphins responded to a Patriots TD by putting themselves in position to score and respond.

Until Damien Williams fumbled the ball deep in Patriots territory, it looked like the Dolphins could be gearing up for another tight finish.

Damien Williams’ fumble, and several other moments in Sunday’s loss, served a necessary purpose at the end of a regular season that’s tough to wrap up into a neat description.

First, it confirmed what most of us already knew about the Dolphins: The team has a long way to go before they’re ready to ascend to the level of the league’s most dangerous squads.

Second, and more importantly, it confirmed that the Dolphins actually are a good football team.

Miami didn’t look helpless welcoming the Brady Bunch into Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins mustered up enough fight to cut it close, engineering solid drives and enough big plays to methodically work their way back into a game that seemed to be getting away from them.

However, it ended up looking like most Patriots wins; New England simply made a few too many plays for the opposition to overcome, while the other side made just a few more mistakes than they could afford.

The silver lining? That’s what good teams look like when they play the Patriots.

Truly elite teams like the Seahawks or 2015 Broncos were able to play New England blow for blow, truly posing a challenge to a legendary assembly of talent in Foxborough. However, teams like the Ravens, Steelers and Colts, who often exist on the periphery of those top-tier franchises in any given year, fall to a similar fate that the Dolphins did.

If at the beginning of 2016 someone told you that by season’s end the Dolphins would be considered a formidable opponent with the potential to rise into a higher position, I guarantee most would take it.

Despite the fact that Adam Gase’s surprise improvements led his team to a coveted spot in “Week 18,” the Dolphins showed that the mistakes most projected they would face at the start of the year would keep them from overcoming a foe like the Patriots.

Early in Sunday’s matchup, a long completion from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman showed just how long of a day it could be.

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Spencer Paysinger isn’t that far out of position, and the Dolphins didn’t completely misunderstand the Patriots’ intentions; it simply came down to the fact that they won the matchup. New England’s talent on offense picked apart Miami’s linebackers for the entire afternoon, realizing that they couldn’t cover enough ground to stop the litany of offensive weapons that the Patriots bring to town.

On a touchdown pass from Brady to Martellus Bennett, Bill Belichick exposed exactly how to take care of a defense like the Dolphins’.

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The Dolphins’ D is successful when they’re able to sell out to make plays. This is possible against teams with fewer weapons. Teams generally try to get the ball to their best player in the red zone or on third downs, which makes predicting where to strike that much easier for a defense that doesn’t have the personnel to account for each weapon on the field. It explains why the Dolphins’ defense is 4th in the NFL in terms of third-down defense (allowing just 35.98% of attempts to be converted) despite failing statistically in so many other categories.

When you’re facing a team like the Bills or Jets, it’s easy to sell out and defend LeSean McCoy or Brandon Marshall. However, against a team like the Patriots (or conveniently the Steelers) it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go with the ball.

The Patriots’ fake was designed to exploit the tendency of Miami’s D to sell out to make plays, with Brady eventually coming back on the misdirection to find a wide open Martellus Bennett in the back of the end zone.

Trying to stop the Patriots in the Patriots on an early third-quarter drive, the Dolphins demonstrated exactly why the defense has struggled so much this season, giving up a TD purely due to adopting a tactic frequently used by teams across the league.

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The Dolphins brought an extra man on the blitz, which left Julian Edelman open for just a second. However, Tom Brady knows that Kiko Alonso isn’t able to cover the ground quickly enough to reach the intended target. Brady gets the ball to his receiver, who gets by a Dolphins defensive back that slipped attempting a tackle. These two failures lead Tony Lippett into a one-man chase with Edelman, which ends with Lippett getting leveled by Michael Floyd.

This additional blitzer is something that 32 teams have in their playbook as a strategy, but the Dolphins’ defensive personnel render them unable to try the tactic. Vance Joseph knows he’s handcuffed, but gives it a go anyway.

Later, LeGarrette Blount provided a play that encapsulates the Dolphins’ entire 2016 campaign.

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Initially, this play looked like it would be ugly. Blount gets a head of steam and, much like the rest of the NFL staring at Miami in Weeks 1-5, was ready to roll right through the Dolphins’ defense.

Despite having a group of players that show themselves to be overmatched physically on the play, the defense is able to stop Blount as a unit. One fewer player in that pile and Blount could have easily toppled into the end zone.

The Dolphins existed on the edge of failure and managed to overcome a dismal looking situation to scrape by and make a play.

(Hopefully for the Dolphins, Blount’s touchdown just two plays later isn’t symbolic of next week’s matchup with the Steelers.)

Issues didn’t just pop up on the defensive side of the ball; Miami also gave plenty of evidence as to where the offense needs to grow for the team to take the next step.

On an attempt to escape, Matt Moore provided another “close but no cigar” play to the running list from Sunday.

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In this situation, Matt Moore has to know that despite the adrenaline of his escape, the best play is to throw the ball away. He’s a gunslinger, but throwing the ball into coverage like he did isn’t going to help anyone’s cause.

Later, a disconnect between Moore and Kenny Stills cost the Dolphins a third-down conversion.

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Kenny Stills does a good job of improvising on this play, settling into a soft spot in the defense. Matt Moore finds him and is able to get the pass off. That’s where the issues arise.

In this situation, Moore clearly needs to throw a more accurate pass. Ryan Tannehill has delivered on this play before, but being a backup QB isn’t a valid reason to miss that type of throw. At the same time, Kenny Stills does stop moving early and fails to haul in a pass that he theoretically could’ve caught.

Once again, they fell just inches short in an opportunity that cannot be squandered against such a formidable foe.

Finally, Damien Williams’ fumble ended up sealing the Dolphins’ fate in a game it looked like they could end up keeping interesting late.

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Against one of the NFL’s best teams, the Dolphins fell short late. There isn’t any shame in that; a team that was supposed to finish the year in the league’s basement did hang with the Patriots for a good portion, showing determination and fight in a relatively meaningless game.

While it isn’t a damnation of the Dolphins as a team, it is a lesson in where progress can be made. For Miami, the future is a matter of small improvements in every area. It isn’t a large scale issue as they have faced over the last decade. In the past they’ve had to change the coaching staff, find a QB, rebuild the offensive line, make blockbuster signings and establish new cornerstones for the team.

In the 2017 offseason, the Dolphins will be able to focus on what matters: details.

If Adam Gase can instill small improvements in several areas, the team will end up turning 2016’s three-point wins into seven-point wins and maybe even the seven-point wins into 14-point wins. They won’t let bad teams hang around, and it won’t take as much good fortune to take down the good ones.

If all of this comes true and progress is made incrementally in Miami, with a strong core established in the wake of Adam Gase’s sensational rookie season as head coach, the Dolphins could find themselves competing with, or even among, the league’s elite pantheon of contenders very soon.

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