Michael Lombardi: How good are the Miami Dolphins?

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How real are the Miami Dolphins?

With three weeks of the season behind us, many fans and commentators have strong feelings about which two teams will be playing in Las Vegas in February.  Strong feelings are great, but overreacting in September can cause some mistakes.  After three games, there are some indicators you can assess that wouldn’t be considered an overreaction. 

 

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For example, last year, Philadelphia was dominating their opponents in the first three weeks starting hot at 3-0.  The Birds outscored their opponents 86-50 and won the turnover battle 5-1.  Kansas City started 2-1, losing to the Colts on the road and barely beating the Chargers at home.  Their point differential was 88-65 with the bulk coming in their Week 1 victory against the Cards by 23 points.  They looked solid, not great, and after losing to the Colts, many thought they were vulnerable.  And yet, they won the Lombardi Trophy. 

After three weeks, there are only three undefeated teams remaining.  Much like the contestants in the Circa Survivor contest, the chances of staying unbeaten in the NFL are lower than slim. The Eagles, Dolphins and 49ers are still in contention to challenge the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated team in NFL history.  No one would bet that any of those teams will go undefeated. Not because those teams don’t look great, but because it’s so hard to endure the 17-week challenge perfectly. 

There are four team vying for the first pick in the draft, being winless after three weeks, and each of them have a legitimate chance to win the prize.  The Bears, Broncos, Panthers (whose pick goes to the Bears) and Vikings.  My money is on the Bears and Panthers to finish 1-2 in the draft order, which would be a bonanza for the Bears, having a chance to get the best quarterback in what appears to be a potentially quarterback-rich draft.  Okay, enough about the future. Let’s focus on the intent of the column. Which team is worthy of our full non-overreacting attention after three weeks?   

The Miami Dolphins

Coming off a 70-point offensive display might be obvious. However, when you dig deeper, peel back the layers, and closely examine the Dolphins, this isn’t any overreaction.  They are good. Maybe not 50 points better than their opponents, but still good, nonetheless. 

Like Philadelphia last year, Miami has a different feel to their team this season.  Before the start of the year, my concern was could their offensive line protect Tua? Could their offensive line handle a physical game against a solid front?  Could they play from behind with their line required to handle drop-back pass protection?  And so far, because of the changes in their scheme, the answer is yes. 

Now, the rest of the season won’t be as easy as it was last Sunday.  The Broncos were bad—effortless bad—and had zero interest in tackling or being physical.  They blew simple pass coverages. They made mental mistakes on both sides of the ball and played like a team that was on the strip down in South Beach the night before. (I’m not saying they were, only they played like a tired team.). The lack of effort and physical toughness of the Broncos has to worry their new head coach Sean Payton as from the start of the second quarter in Week 2 against Washington, the Broncos look slow on defense. 

Miami is a solid team, but not a 70-point team, nor are they good enough on defense to be invincible.  With their offense and the way receiver Tyreek Hill is playing, scaring the living crap out of every defensive back he faces along with every defensive coordinator, they make moving the ball on offense look easy.  Yes, Tua is playing well, but his receivers are ao wide open, and this year, head coach Mike McDaniels has used his run game expertise to make their run game as explosive as their passing game.  And the run game saves two important parts of their team—Tua’s health and the offensive line’s liabilities. 

So far this year, McDaniels has averaged 31 rushing attempts per game, whereas last season he averaged 22.9.  Miami’s run game is dangerous, because McDaniels forces the defense to set two hard edges on either side, which slows down the rush, and allows space inside for Tua to step up in the pocket and have a clean throwing lane. 

The run design and his willingness to force the defense to defend the width and the length of the field make it a challenge to slow them down.  No one gets in the paint in front of Tua, he has only two balls batted at the line, and he has two throwaways and four bad throws with 101 attempts.  Remember Tua isn’t a big man. He needs a clear lane to see down the field and a clean pocket to drive the ball. So far, this hasn’t been a problem as the Miami passing game looks too easy. 

It’s been hard for any defensive team to hit Tua, to force him to move in the pocket and have to drive the ball.  He is deadly accurate with his throws, and because the ball comes out so fast, leading the league in when the ball is released at 2.34 seconds, it’s been hard to get him to play with any pressure in his face.  

McDaniels has done a wonderful job of altering the scheme, using the run game to offset the weakness in the offensive line, and building a 39-point first-half differential in three games, an average of 13 per game.  It’s hard for the defense to pressure the quarterback when they are playing with the lead.  And because the Fins start fast and control the pace, they are keeping Tua safe from hard hits. 

Last season, against the Bills in three games, one including the playoff game with Skylar Thompson under center, the Fins called 62 run plays, (every game was under three points) and gained 271, with the bulk coming in Week 15, when they gained 188 yards on the ground.  And Hill had 18 catches over those three games for a meager 171 yards.  The Bills stopped the run, contained Hill, and still struggled to win two of the three games. 

The one area I thought the Dolphins would be better is their defense, and so far, they haven’t looked great—good, just not great.  Opponents moved the ball in all three games, yet they are always playing from behind which creates panic for the opposing play caller. One mistake and the game slips away. 

The Dolphins have only allowed seven points in the third quarter all season, which indicates the adjustments are being made during the course of the game, and with Vic Fangio handling the defense, expect the Fins to improve.  Fangio does a great job of making the opponent play left-handed, forcing them to play into their weaknesses, and with them always playing from behind, it’s becoming harder and harder to execute the offense.  Once the game becomes all pass for the opponents, Fangio has enough ways to attack the protections to create a big play for his team.  Remember, playing from behind is hard, and the teams that have the best first-half point differential will be the teams that can play in Las Vegas in February.

The Fins are way better this year, and if they go into Buffalo and win, ending the month of September 4-0, it won’t be an overreaction to believe they can challenge the Chiefs for supremacy in the AFC.