DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Even in the Dan Marino era, when running backs were mostly decoys, the Miami Dolphins relied on their ground game more than this year’s team.
The Dolphins have run the ball less than 22 times per game, their lowest average since 1988, and the third-lowest average in the NFL. They had only 12 rushing attempts in Sunday’s 19-0 loss at Buffalo, renewing debate about the team’s run-pass balance — or imbalance.
Rediscovering an effective ratio this week will be essential if the Dolphins (8-7) are to make the playoffs. To clinch the final AFC wild-card spot, they need a victory Sunday over the Jets, along with a loss by the Ravens or a win by the Chargers.
The Dolphins are in the postseason hunt despite a running attack that has been almost nonexistent at times, including at Buffalo. They rushed for 2 yards against Tampa Bay, 14 against the Bills, 20 against Cleveland and 22 against Baltimore.
“It comes down to our ability or our inability to execute,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.
A patchwork line, thinned by the team’s bullying scandal, finds it difficult to create holes. The backs seldom break tackles, and the coaches often seem reluctant to run.
At Buffalo, the Dolphins ran the ball nine times in the first half and three in the second. They tried 40 pass plays, and Miami never advanced inside the Bills 30-yard line.
When the plays don’t work, the play-caller gets grief. Sherman acknowledged he lost faith in the run game.
“Of those 12 carries, our longest run was 3 yards,” he said. “A lack of productivity in the run game caused me to veer off into another direction.”
Coach Joe Philbin said he would prefer to see more handoffs.
“I’d like to have run the ball more than 12 times the other day,” he said. “I’d also like to have a longer run than 3 yards.”
The absence of a run threat has allowed defenses to tee off with their pass rush, and Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 58 times, a franchise record and the NFL high. At Buffalo he endured seven sacks, including one that sent him briefly to the sideline with a left knee injury. Afterward Tannehill said he was fine, and he took part in practice Tuesday.
Tackle Bryant McKinnie said the Dolphins’ inability to run made them so predictable that the Bills’ pass rushers got into a rhythm anticipating the snap, making them even tougher to block. McKinnie, a 12-year veteran, said he suggested to his position coach changing the cadences to keep defenders from getting too much of a jump.
“There are always ways to counter that,” McKinnie said Tuesday. “I suggested some things that I did on other teams with the snap count that helped us. It’ll work. It will keep the defenses honest.”
Even with such tweaks, jumping-starting the ground game against the Jets won’t be easy. Their run defense has allowed only 3.3 yards per carry, lowest in the NFL.
But Miami ran for 125 yards — and the offense totaled a season-best 453 — in a 23-3 victory over the Jets in Week 14.
“We want to run the ball,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. “We’ve been our best when the run game has been successful.”
The Dolphins have won the past four games when they rush for more than 100 yards. But they’re averaging only 90 per game, which ranks 26th in the league.
Miami’s two leading rushers, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, are averaging less than 4 yards a carry. The last time that happened with the Dolphins was in 1999 — Marino’s final season.
Miller has two touchdowns, which would be the lowest total since 1980 for a player leading the Dolphins in rushing. He ranks 28th in rushing yards with 636, and Thomas ranks 50th with 406.
The Dolphins have called run plays just 35 percent of the time, a rate that doesn’t reflect a robust offense. The only teams running less often are Cleveland and Atlanta, both 4-11. The Denver Broncos run the ball 40 percent of the time, even though they have a guy who has thrown 51 touchdown passes
“We should mix it up and be able to do both,” Sherman said, “and I think we have the ability to.”
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