The Miami Dolphins are at the quarter pole of the 2014 NFL season and are sitting at 2-2, with a pair of comfortable victories bookending two ugly losses. While the Dolphins have not displayed much consistency during the first four games of the season, there have been plenty of occasions where the team has looked like one that can not only make the playoffs, but make some noise while doing so.
Coming off of their bye, the Dolphins will be tested with some very tough games on the schedule in the coming weeks. As the NFL is entering the middle months of the season, Miami cannot afford to be tripped up by the lack of execution that has kept them from being one of the top teams in the AFC. If they can avoid making the small mistakes that have piled up during the team’s losses, Dolphins fans could be in store for a very enjoyable remainder of the season.
Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise so far this season has been the Dolphins success while running the football. Miami ranks 5th in the NFL averaging 142.2 rushing yards per game, which is a stark contrast from the 26th ranked 90.0 average from a season ago. Lamar Miller has been much improved in 2014, ranking 6th in the league with 5.7 yards per carry for running backs with at least 20 attempts. His decision making and ability to make people miss, both areas that he struggled with last season, have allowed him to consistently get to the second level and gain yards in chunks. Knowshon Moreno isn’t far behind Miller, ranking 9th in the league with 5.5 yards per carry despite missing almost three full games. Moreno looked great before his elbow injury and if he and Miller can continue playing at this level, Miami could have the best 1-2 punch of running backs in the entire league.
After giving up a franchise record 58 sacks last year, the Dolphins knew that the offensive line was in need of a makeover. Well that’s what they got, entering the season with five new starters. That kind of turnover would grant some understanding if the line struggled out of the gate, but that hasn’t been the case. They’ve done a great job with the zone blocking scheme, creating holes for the running backs and giving quarterback Ryan Tannehill time to throw. In the Dolphins two losses, Tannehill was sacked four times each game. A lot of those sacks came from the quarterback stepping right into defensive lineman instead of trying to scramble out of the pocket, but Miami was attempting to come from behind in those games and the young Tannehill was trying to make things happen within the parameters of the play call instead of rolling out and giving his receivers a chance to get open. As Tannehill continues evolving, so will his pocket presence, which will help cut back on those interior sacks. The o-line will also receive a big boost as Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey is expected to return for Miami’s next game.
Improved linebacker play
Last season a big problem on the Dolphins defense was the play of the linebackers. Struggling both with tackling and in coverage, opposing teams knew where they could attack Miami’s defense and have success moving the ball. That hasn’t been the case so far this season as the linebackers have done a great job cutting back on the mistakes. That’s all the more surprising as they’ve been without two starters for almost the entire season. Dannell Ellerbe was lost for the year after suffering a hip injury during Week 1 and Koa Misi has missed the last three games after injuring his ankle, also in Week 1. Philip Wheeler missed the first game of the season with a thumb injury but came back to play the following week, albeit with a cast on his thumb. With Misi and Wheeler both healthy and the great play that Miami has gotten from guys like Jelani Jenkins, Jason Trusnik and Jonathan Freeny, it appears that the linebacker issues are a thing of the past.
Bill Lazor’s new offense
We have yet to see it put together for a few consecutive weeks but it certainly appears that Bill Lazor is on to something with the offensive scheme that be brought down to Miami this season. The biggest issue that has kept Miami from having that consistency is a lack of execution. Through three games the Dolphins led the league in dropped passes but for at least one week they cleaned it up, dropping just one during the win over Oakland. Aside from the drops, it’s clearly taking a little longer than expected for Tannehill to run the offense the way it needs to be run. This scheme is all about quick decision making and timing. When the game starts slowing down for Tannehill and he’s able to run the offense as it’s intended to be, the sky is the limit for what this offense can do, especially considering how many playmakers the Dolphins have.
Dolphins getting back to full strength
For much of the season the Dolphins have been missing some of their key players due to injuries and suspensions, but the team is finally getting the majority of those players back. The offensive line should get a shot in the arm with the return of Mike Pouncey to the starting lineup. Running back Knowshon Moreno is also very close to returning after resuming practice this week for the first time since being injured during Week 2. On the defensive side of the ball, middle linebacker Koa Misi is expected to be on the field against Green Bay this Sunday, as is safety Reshad Jones. Jones missed the first four games of the season after being suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing drugs.
AFC East appears to be wide open
During the past couple decades the New England Patriots have had a strangle hold on the AFC East, winning the division crown in 11 of the past 13 seasons. The Patriots have been extremely inconsistent so far this season and may not run away with the division the way they have in years past. Then there is Buffalo, who has had the Dolphins number the past couple years but don’t appear to be any more than an 8-9 win team, at best. The Bills have already made a change at starting quarterback, benching second-year starter E.J. Manuel for veteran Kyle Orton. Whether Orton can be the Bills answer at QB for the rest of the season remains to be seen.
Then there’s the New York Jets, who have struggled mightily in several areas and like the Bills, are dealing with issues at QB. Sophomore Gino Smith has battled turnover and accuracy issues throughout his brief career and was benched at halftime of the Jets last game. Veteran Michael Vick replaced Smith and didn’t fare any better, leaving New York in a very unfavorable position moving forward. With the rest of the division still searching for answers, there is plenty of opportunity for Miami to swoop in and win the AFC East.
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