The 5-6-1 Arizona Cardinals came into Miami Gardens, Florida to face the 7-5 Miami Dolphins. The following is my reaction to the game after watching the game live Sunday and then re-watching it in its entirety Monday morning. Slight tweak to the usual line-up. The Narrative throughout the week and closing thoughts sections remain the same, however, instead of a narrative based approach re-living the game chronologically, I have instead gone with just a 'Film Study' section. Go follow me on twitter @TomLikeFootball.
Narrative throughout the week
Coming off the Miami Dolphins loss to the Baltimore Ravens, many were nervous about the next match up against the under performing Arizona Cardinals. Despite being 5-6-1, the Cardinals represented something of a sleeping Giant to me. I saw a stacked roster that simply was not performing and was being held hostage by its Offensive Line. If the Cardinals could get it together upfront then this had the potential to get ugly very quickly. The following are the narratives that emerged throughout the week and building up to the game:
- How would the Miami Dolphins respond to the loss to the Baltimore Ravens? Miami's confidence had been sky high after going on an impressive six game winning streak, however, a poor performance and close game against the abysmal 49ers and a loss to the Ravens had many questioning whether the winning streak was simply a fluke.
- Did the Ravens game lay down a blueprint for how to beat Miami and carve up its zone-heavy Defense? The Dolphins had crates in their zone coverage scheme against Baltimore and I personally feared that with the Cardinals loaded WR unit, we would see a lot of mesh routes as the receivers or TEs would cross the field and sit down in soft spots of zone coverage underneath.
- How will the Miami Dolphins stop David Johnson? The biggest task for Miami's Defense this week would be stopping David Johnson. Despite an Offense that boasts Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, the priority for the 'Fins this week would be shutting down RB David Johnson. Johnson had over 100 yards from scrimmage every game this season. The Dolphins would have to find a way to fix their porous run D and to limit Johnson's production when lined up out wide as a receiver.
- If Kiko Alonso does not play then who among this Linebacking corp is going to make plays? Kiko Alonso has played extremely well at MLB so far this season. Despite normally playing Outside, Alonso has filled in for the 'Fins this season and has been the most productive member of this unit. Without Alonso in the line up, the Dolphins would likely struggle as they would have to rely on the Donald Butler, Neville Hewitt, Mike Hull and Spencer Paysinger who was poor in coverage against the Ravens.
- Can Adam Gase help Ryan Tannehill bounce back from a poor game against the Ravens?
- Please, please, please let the Titans beat the Broncos. It's just that time of year when all eyes are on your respective team and the schedule of the other teams fighting for play off spots. This week Dolphins fans had to cheer on the Titans to beat the Broncos and potentially the Patriots to beat Baltimore (did anyone actually cheer for New England?)
Kenny Stills 28 yard TD reception
The Dolphins scored on their opening possession after a Mike Hull interception gave them the ball with great field position. The Dolphins had previously ran three plays, all of which were with 3 receivers out wide and only 1 additional blocker on the line of scrimmage. Despite this wide formation the Dolphins ran with Jay Ajayi 2/3 times. When the Dolphins loaded up the line of scrimmage on 2nd&11 most would have presumed that they were gearing up for a big run from Ajayi to put them in 3rd and manageable. The play was well drawn up and Kenny Stills was Tannehill's hot route. As soon as Tannehill faked the hand off to Ajayi his eyes moved up field as he was looking to see whether the Safety had left the deep ball open for Stills.
J.J. Nelson's 56 yard end around TD
This trick play should only ever result in 20 yards maximum. An end around should never result in a Touchdown unless something goes seriously wrong. This play is successful because the Dolphins lack speed on Defense, and their starters at Linebacker are not experienced enough to be able to recognize/ diagnose plays quickly enough to react. Miami's Linebackers get caught flat footed which alongside not having the necessary closing speed in the secondary is a recipe for disaster.
Dion Sims 7 yard TD catch
Adam Gase calls in a play designed to help his Quarterback out in the Red Zone. Gase has called a pick play (legal if Landry runs it correctly), which should leave TE Dion Sims open in the side of the End Zone, IF the Cardinals are playing man coverage. In order to help his QB identify if the Cardinals are in man (they appear to be as they are lined up off Miami's receivers) or in fact in zone coverage; before the play TE Dion Sims motions inside to the slot position. Sims defender follows him, showing Tannehill that the Cardinals are playing man coverage and if all goes according to plan, Sims should shortly be wide open in the corner of the End Zone. Great play call!
Crucial 3rd down stop: 14-6 with under 4 minutes left till Half Time, Cardinals on Miami's 14
The Dolphins go into the nickel but substitute out a Linebacker for an additional DB. I have been preaching/ praying for this the past few weeks hoping that instead of over complicating it, Defensive Co-ordinator Vance Joseph would leave his 4 best pass rushers out their on critical downs and allow them to get after the QB. This is exactly what happens below and the pass rush gets home so quickly that no Cardinals receivers have a chance to uncover from Miami's heavy zone coverage.
Jarvis Landry's 71 yard catch and run
Play makers make plays. This play was actually executed horribly by Ryan Tannehill as he under threw Jarvis Landry. Landry was 3 yards short of the 1st down marker when he caught the ball, but displayed the tenacity, toughness and athleticism that we have all come to love. This was a huge game changer for Miami as it set up the Damien Williams TD to extend Miami's lead to 21-9 right out of the gate after HT.
Damien Williams 3 yard TD reception
Yet another excellent play design by Adam Gase in the red zone. Gase has 3 WRs lined up to the right, all of whom will run slants inside to draw the Defense towards the middle of the field if they are in zone, or will follow them to the left if they are in man. Meanwhile, following play action Damien Williams will make a B line for the side of the End Zone where if its Zone he will just have to plough over 1 defender, while if it is man then he is in a mismatch with a slow MLB charged with covering him.
Kenny Stills' HUGE 29 yard hook up with Matt Moore
I love the use of motion here to help out Matt Moore in a big spot. 43 seconds to play with only 1 Time Out and the Dolphins need about 8-7 yards to get into Field Goal range. It is the perfect opportunity to dial up a big play to help out your Kicker. Adam Gase is brave enough and knows that his back up QB Matt Moore does not shy away from taking risks down the field. The motion helps establish that the Cardinals are playing Cover 0 with all their Dbs in man coverage and no safety help over the top. Moore also likes that his big play threat, speedster Kenny Stills is lined up 1-on-1 against Justin Bethel (an excellent special teamer who has struggled to transition to Corner Back).
My concluding thoughts from this game are torn by mixed emotions. In one way I am elated by the win over Arizona and the Dolphins getting to 8-5, within touching distance of the franchises first play off appearance since 2008. However, on the other side there is the sense of loss as reports begin to circulate that Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL injury. For those who have doubted Tannehill at some point or another (nearly every Dolphin fan), he has remained that consistent presence under center. He has not necessarily been consistent in his level of performance, but the fact that he is there and has been since Week 1 of the Regular Season in 2012 shows his toughness. Many fans and analysts have doubted his leadership ability, however, if you watch the clip I tweeted out (of Tannehill crying) you will see just how much this game means to Tannehill and how much he means to his team mates as nearly everyone went over and consoled the Dolphins QB.
But life in the NFL must go on. The Dolphins at 8-5 won a truly ugly game against a talented roster that is simply not performing. The Dolphins controlled the line of scrimmage today, something that was crucial against this Cardinals Offense. Carson Palmer looks every bit his age when forced to run around in the back field and Miami's Defensive Line was disruptive all-game. Mike Hull did well filling in for Kiko Alonso while the secondary did not cost Miami the game. The secondary's day was made easier by the amount of pressure Miami's D-Line was dialing up which forced Palmer to throw short and quickly. The only time Palmer had time to throw deep, Maxwell got called for pass interference. The Defense held Carson Palmer to just 18 of 33 for 145 yards, 2 TDs, 2INTs. The Dolphins secondary also held Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald to his lowest receiving output (12 yards) since December 9th, 2012 (2 yards at Seattle).
While that appears to be an incredible display by the Dolphins, the conditions factor into this. It was mostly monsoon rain all afternoon, meaning the Cardinals were more likely to rely on the run game (especially with David Johnson in the backfield). Johnson ended up with 80 yards off 20 carry's (4.0 average) with 0 TDs and a longest run of 19 yards. However, the Dolphins were unable to contain an end around which J. J. Nelson took 56 yards to the house, while RB Kerwynn Williams had 3 carry's for 34 yards. The Dolphins ended the day giving up 175 yards off 27 rushing attempts (6.5 average) and again seem unable to stop opponents run games. This is something Miami will have to seriously address as it prepares to face Matt Forte and the Jets, LeSean McCoy and the Bills and finally LeGarrette Blount, James White or whoever Bill Belichick decides to stick in the backfield (remember Jonas Gray?).
No matter how Vance Joseph may want to script it, the Miami Dolphins Defense lives and dies by its Defensive Line. If the Line is not getting pressure they lack athletic Linebackers (outside of Alonso) who can cover in space and are suspect in the secondary. The Dolphins picked on a poor Offensive Line today and will need to continue to dominate upfront over the next 3 games against the Jets, Bills and Patriots. The Defense was disruptive and it was the performance of Miami's Defensive Line which ultimately won the game for Miami as they were able to disrupt everything Arizona tried to do Offensively and forced the Cardinals into repeated three and outs.
On Offense I thought Miami played above average today. Not great, but enough to win the game. Ryan Tannehill was a competitor as usual standing tall as the pocket collapsed around him, making important plays when it counted. Jay Ajayi was forced to break multiple tackles and the majority of any yardage he got was after contact as the Dolphins O-Line failed to generate a push upfront and left him without any holes to attack. Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills were exceptional for Miami. Of Miami's 231 passing yards, Stills and Landry accounted for 86.5% with Stills have 97 yards and Landry 103 yards receiving. Kenny Stills caught another TD and now has 6 on the season which leads the team and is a career best for Stills. Landry set up Damien Williams' 3 yard pass by through his 71 yard catch and run. Like I said above, some plays you just cannot draw up and there are times when play makers just simply make plays. Jarvis Landry is Miami's best play maker alongside Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins will need to look at his contract situation this off season if they hope to keep him in South Florida. The offensive line was OK this game. They were above average in pass protection but yet again struggled in run blocking. The team is missing Center Mike Pouncey as he seems to elevate the play of the rest of the Line.
It looks likely that long-time back up Quarterback Matt Moore will be lining up under Center and attempting to lead the 'Fins into the promised land of the NFL play offs. Head Coach Adam Gase was extremely conservative in his play calling Sunday while Moore was under Center. However, Moore twice on the crucial drive identified the favorable match up of Kenny Stills lined up against Justin Bethel and found the big play threat down the field. On the games most crucial throw he threw on time and in stride to Stills as the Cardinals brought 7 players. Matt Moore has been a classy professional the past five years in Miami and his support for Tannehill in the QB room is something that has won him respect in the locker room. Matt Moore loves to take risks, we all know that. If Gase can script a game plan which allows Moore to go deep a few times to keep Defenses true and with Jay Ajayi in the back field, teams should allow Moore 1-on-1 match ups on the outside which if his play makers can get open should help the back up QB earn a chunk of change this off season through a new contract. The Dolphins playing these last three games with their back-up QB is far from ideal, however, Matt Moore right now is a much safer option than a rookie QB playing for the first time. Moore has played in the NFL and is used to calling plays in the huddle. He has worked closely with Gase and Tannehill this season and although he may not be a starting caliber Quarterback in the NFL, he is an able back up who should not throw away crucial games for Miami. Miami's playmakers in the skill positions will need to play at an elite level the next few weeks if Miami want to make the play offs, however, Ajayi has shown previously that he can be the guy in the backfield while the Dolphins will need to get the most out of Landry, Stills and Parker to help QB Matt Moore. Jets, Bills and Patriots? Bring it on.
On to New York!