Travis Wingfield Offensive Issues Explained, Areas for Growth
Football is a young man's game, and only two teams (Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Rams) have more youth than the Miami Dolphins. While wins serve as the baseline goal for each team every season, the focus on development and a commitment to the process is the surest path to becoming a team that regularly fills up the win column.
Tuesday, Dolphins Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey talked about growth, development and consistency. He talked about Miami's up and down performances on offense - which can be expected with a young unit. At one point Sunday, Miami had three rookies along the offensive line protecting a first-year quarterback. Rookie wide receiver/running back Malcolm Perry played 51 snaps and rookie running back Salvon Ahmed was in the game for 66 percent of the offense's snaps - youth abound.
So, how does Miami go from a terrific performance in Arizona, to "average" against the Chargers and finally not good enough against Denver to a more even-plane?
"The problem is consistency. We have to be able to move the ball with consistency," Gailey said. "It's been too sporadic. We go to Arizona and play pretty good. Come out the next week and play average then we don't play good at all this last week. We're inconsistent. There are some improvements we can make. We have to do better at keeping people off balance and continue to grow with the people that we have."
Gailey expanded on the areas of improvement for the Dolphins offense.
"It's a combination," Gailey said of Miami's struggles Sunday. "Sometimes it's protection, sometimes it's holding the ball too long, sometimes it's guys not getting open. I have to do a better job of calling plays where he doesn't have to hold it."
Tagovailoa talked about an area he feels he can improve on postgame Sunday; a trait that he sees in veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"Taking completions, it may seem like he's covered but you've just got to get completions," Tagovailoa said. "For me, a lot of the time I see guys who are covered, but they're not necessarily covered."
Gailey expanded on Tagovailoa's comment on Tuesday.
"If a guy's on the back hip of DeVante Parker, then he's not covered," Gailey said. "If they're on the back hip of another receiver they might be covered. I think it depends on the player, on the defensive back, I believe all of this comes with experience to be able to see that his guy is even but he's open, or this guy is even but he's not open."
In last week's win over the Chargers, Miami rushed for the second-highest total this season with 111 yards on the ground. Players and coaches talked about the emphasis on the running game but unfortunately, it didn't carry over to Sunday's loss in Denver. Gailey offered his thoughts on the Dolphins rushing attack.
"Some people just say they're going to put big people in there and not let you run it," he explained. "That's where we have to do a better job of countering that with the passing game. If they want to drop eight every time, they can take away a lot of the passing game. If they want to put big people up front they can take away your running game."
Secondary to None
The Dolphins perimeter cornerbacks as similar as they are different. Byron Jones and Xavien Howard play a physical brand of football with tremendous man-cover skills and premier tackling on the edge - evident by their combined 58.1 completion percentage allowed and four missed tackles on 44 attempts, per Pro Football Focus.
Howard has a league-leading six interceptions whereas Jones is yet to secure his first pick as a Miami Dolphin.
"Coach is always harping on it throughout practice, going up for the ball and looking back," Jones said. "It's something that I haven't done great in my career, but I'm doing a lot better now with the Miami Dolphins. When my opportunity comes, it's just go attack that ball and make sure you come down with it. Like I said, 'X' (Xavien Howard) has enough for everybody in the defense."
Interceptions are tremendous, as Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer says; but it's not the only aspect of a cornerback's job description.
"It's always good when you can turn the ball over," Boyer said. "As a defensive back you look at, when are you giving up completions? Is it third down, two minute, red area? When you're a cover guy and you go through a game without giving up a completion in those areas, you have no mental errors and you make all the tackles you're asked to make, that's a complete game."
Jones and Howard's ability to wrestle both receivers and running backs to the ground has been an added bonus. That, and their man-cover skills, opens up a lot of freedom for the rest of the defense.
"I think you have to have corners that are willing to tackle people," Dolphins Defensive Backs Coach Gerald Alexander said. "Those guys are tough, willing tacklers and they obviously cover well. It gives you a security on defense when you have guys on the perimeter that are willing to get dirty."
The Dolphins play with a takeaway-centric mindset. It started back in training camp when the defensive backs were picked into two teams by Jones and safety Bobby McCain for a turnover-based contest during practices. That emphasis on interceptions, fumbles, scoops and a general focus on the football helped establish a culture of attacking the football. It helped elevate Miami to a tie for the third-most takeaways in the NFL this season with 17.
"That's the mindset and culture that we try to create as a defense," Alexander said. "We talk about disrupting the ball every single week, whether it's guys tackling the quarterback or ball-carriers, and obviously in the secondary with the opportunity to grab the ball in the air. It's about scoring on defense and trying to get the ball back to our offense."
The veterans have led the charge, but the young players are coming along nicely as well, according to Alexander.
"He plays with an incredible amount of play speed," Alexander said of rookie safety Brandon Jones. "He does a good job of diagnosing the play and be disruptive in the backfield. We've always loved that about his game and that's a reason for his increased reps. He has a very quick trigger. He's a guy that really cares. He loves the game. He prepares himself to play at the speed he plays at."
Alexander also offered thoughts on second-year cornerback Nik Needham, who has settled nicely into the nickel role inside. According to Pro Football Focus, 315 of Needham's defensive snaps have come inside, good for 84 percent of his defensive workload. Needham has not allowed a touchdown reception from the slot and is limiting quarterbacks to an 87.4 passer rating when targeting his man.
"Needham is a guy that has developed at the nickel position over the course of the season," Alexander said. "He's starting to get a feel for how to fit in the run game, how to use his leverage, how to zone drop. I think you're starting to see some of that improvement and we're going to need that going forward."
Another Crack for Zach
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is overdue for a spot in Canton. The seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All Pro was a finalist last year, but couldn't get the final push over the goal line (which is ironic consider he made a career out of stopping the opposition from crossing into pay dirt). He's back in the mix for the 2021 class in Canton. Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald has more.
Former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is among the 25 players who are semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021.