Just don’t blame Ryan Tannehill for everything that went wrong in 2015
1. Everyone seems to have forgotten that Ryan Tannehill had shown steady annual improvements until last season, when Miami’s offense crumbled around him. Tannehill’s inconsistent ball placement and decision-making deserves some of the blame, but some of the instability had to do with the coaching staff, O-line and receivers. The O-line is all but guaranteed to improve now that Ja’Wuan James is back healthy at right tackle (Jason Fox was a major liability). Also, first-rounder Laremy Tunsil at least injects talent into the problematic left guard position. Also consider: new head coach Adam Gase’s system is predicated on three- and five-step timing, which naturally nullifies a pass rush. That helps the receivers, as well as Tannehill.
2. Two specific ploys Gase features to help a quarterback: receiver screens and unbalanced receiver distribution. The screens are a way to get a passer in rhythm and help him stay ahead in the down-and-distance. The unbalanced receiver distribution refers to formations that feature only tight ends on one side and only wideouts on the other. Doing this forces the defense to reveal whether it’s man or zone coverage. (If a safety or linebacker lines up over the tight end, it’s man. If a corner lines up over the tight end, it’s zone.) Once this information is obtained, the quarterback knows where his reads begin. He can also adjust the play accordingly.
3. Miami has beneficial depth at running back, especially if veteran pickup Arian Foster can indeed become the regular starter. Foster, 30 and coming off an Achilles injury, offers fluidity as a runner and receiver. Sharing his load would be second-year back Jay Ajayi, an upright 229-pounder with lively feet for his build. If Ajayi doesn’t perform, third-round rookie Kenyan Drake will see more opportunities. And lastly, don’t forget Damien Williams. The unsung third-year pro is a swift, multifaceted pass catcher who can help on third downs.
4. In Miami, Gase has a different type of receiver to build his route combinations around than he had in Chicago or Denver. Instead of a big-bodied X-iso type target like Alshon Jeffery or Demaryius Thomas, it’s a shifty, five-tool shallow and intermediate weapon, Jarvis Landry. The previous regime frequently used Landry in motion and on shifts, including the backfield. Presnap movement is not a defining characteristic of Gase’s system. However, a defining characteristic of Gase himself is humility and adaptability. It’d be surprising if he didn’t construct an extensive movement-based package for his new third-year star receiver.
5. Last year’s first-round receiver DeVante Parker has a lot of work to do as a route runner. His tempo and attention to detail were poor as a rookie. Maybe his foot injuries were a factor. With Rishard Matthews now in Tennessee, Parker is the only Dolphins wideout with plus-size. He must elevate his game.
6. Dolphins defenders are purportedly excited about new coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme. It’s expected to be more aggressive on passing downs. But in order to blitz on third down, you must win on first and second down. The most important guy in that equation is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He’ll play the Geno Atkins three-technique role. If Joseph does what the Bengals have long done with Atkins, Suh will align on the strong side, where he’ll be counted on to fight double-teams against the run. That plays well to Suh’s strength. Literally. Suh’s physical strength seems to grow as a play develops.
7. Defensive end is an area of concern. Not an area of weakness, just concern. The concern is that newcomer Mario Williams is a downgrade from departed free agent Olivier Vernon. Williams can set the edge in run D the way Vernon often did so well, but the 31-year-old Williams is not quite the edge rusher that Vernon was. Opposite Williams, what can be expected from Cameron Wake? He’s 34 and playing on an Achilles that he tore late last October.
8. Cornerback Byron Maxwell had a disappointing 2015 season in Philadelphia, where he often had to play man coverage. Maxwell struggled at the intermediate levels and against in-breaking routes. Still, there aren’t many guys with his arm length and physicality, which is why the Dolphins are counting on him to headline an otherwise unsettling cornerback group. Joseph’s scheme will likely feature more of the help-coverage principles that Maxwell did so well with in Seattle.
9. Included in the Maxwell trade from Philadelphia was linebacker Kiko Alonso. After missing his 2014 sophomore NFL season in Buffalo with a knee injury, Alonso took most of 2015 to regain his form. Overall, he never played well enough to eliminate doubts about his potential for 2016. (Hence Philly’s decision to trade him.) If Alonso can become what he was in Buffalo, the Dolphins will have a fast and fluid linebacker patrolling the middle alongside up-and-coming fourth-year pro Jelani Jenkins. If Alonso is more like what he was in Philly, the Dolphins will have real concerns, not just in nickel, where most of Alonso’s snaps will come, but also in their base 4-3, where the scheme demands that linebackers stack and shed blocks inside.
10. Whether it’s attacking in the run box, bringing a blitz or jumping routes in coverage, Reshad Jones is one of the NFL’s most aggressive safeties. Naturally, that comes with ups and downs. Joseph can’t rely on Jones becoming a more judicious player—that’s not Jones’s game—and so it’s on the defensive play-caller to cater his approach to fit Jones’s style. A lot will depend on how reliable the corners can be. When at his best, Jones is as dynamic as almost any defensive back.
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