Mutualism: Offensive line and the Run game

A mutualistic relationship is when two things work together in harmony, each benefiting from the relationship. For the Dolphins the Offensive Line needs to be better.

The NFL is an ecosystem, in an ecosystem there are predators and bottom feeders.

In short, there are winners and losers every single year in the NFL and the ecosystem changes. For better or worse.

In Terms for the Miami Dolphins, you couldn’t have seen such a turnaround from 2019 to 2021. A team crafted out of street free agents, undrafted players and ageing veterans had the makings for predators to lick their chops.

It was trial by fire to see who could overcome and adapt harsh situation, and at times while trying to cool the flames, they would hinder themselves and the rest of the team.

The Defense struggles at times but found their footing, they went from prey to predator by learning and adapting to the environment.

2019

On the other hand, the offensive line is trying to find a footing to best handle it’s surroundings. At times in 2019 and 2020 there were inconsistencies. Some days the line was meshing well other days, well, they were fresh meat.

In this league you cannot have abysmal trench play, it hampers the running game and QB play. We all have seen how poorly the line played in 2019, the statistics tells a holistic story.

A Historic Rate

There are other metrics to gauge Offensive line play such as PFF’s pass/run block win rate. ESPN’s rate also shows it too.

Michael Dieter, who was a in 2019, finished as the team’s worst offensive linemen. Jesse Davis, who started 15 games, was the only other offensive linemen to make the list.

The team had the worst pass blocking scheme in the NFL. Trench play was absolutely abysmal and there were many instances where Ryan Fitzpatrick could not do anything.

Trickled down Economics

Running backs Kenyan Drake, Marl Walton, Myles Gaskin and Kalen Ballage could not even eclipse anywhere near 100 yards a game.

Fitzpatrick was the leading rusher for the team.

To say the least, the offensive line was a nagging parasite, harmful to the team overall.

Miami’s offense could not score to compete with its opponents, Defense on the field for more than 60+ snaps every week. As a team, the Dolphins could not function properly.

Sort of like eating gas station sushi to fill your hunger on a road trip, it does not end well.

2020

The good news about the offensive line was that it did not get worse. As a result of newly introduced reinforcements into the NFL landscape there were some improvements.

Helpful Vets

Jesse Davis has been the anchor of the offensive line for the Miami Dolphins since he was drafted in the 2017 NFL draft. As a rookie, he has played in 47 of the team’s 48 games. He’s been improving every year.

Ereck Flowers was brougth in as a Free Agent to plug the hole at Left Guard. He was an important piece to help Austin Jackson understand the NFL before going down with a season ending injury.

The Miami Dolphins have been looking for a solid center since Mike Pouncey left in 2018. They got one in Karras, who did a decent job protecting Fitzpatrick and Tua as the quarterbacks.

The Newbies

Some people may think that Jackson was drafted too high despite having played less games than other starters in college. He showed that he can play left tackle in the NFL, but is still very raw.

Kindley was given no reconsideration as a right guard in 2020. His ability to protect Tua’s blind side helped the team establish a running game that finally eclipsed over 100 yards in the final 6 games. Kindley shifted to left guard when Ereck Flowers went down.

Robert Hunt played on the right side as a right tackle alongside Solomon Kindley, protecting Tua’s blindside. Although Hunt was decent, his highest celling as a lineman looks to be a fixture at Right Guard.

Impact

Overall, the play was significantly better compared to 2019; however, it can always improve. Per PFF, the Dolphins offensive line was ranked 28th. A slight improvement over the worst rank in 2019.

Few teams invested more in improving the offensive line than the Dolphins did entering the 2020 season. They spent draft picks on Austin Jackson in the first round, Robert Hunt in the second round and Solomon Kindley in the fourth round — all who played more than 700 snaps in 2019.

An offensive line with three rookies, would struggle early on, but did improve slightly. Robert Hunt looked to be the best out of the bunch as his 76.4 PFF grade from Week 12 through the end of the regular season was 5th out of 37 right tackles.

2021

As Pre-season winds down we see glimpses of what this Dolphins offensive line could be, thus as it factors into offensive philosophy.

Scheme

Contrary to Ben Fennels point (I love ya ben) but the Offense looks to be a pass first offense. In theory, it will open up the run game.

In fundamentals of an RPO-based offense the offensive line has to consist of guards and tackles that can run block well. The top three run blockers on this offensive line consists of Soloman Kindley, Robert Hunt and rookie OL Liam Eichenberg.

Eichenberg has tried out playing Left Guard at camp but looks to fight Jesse Davis for the starting RT spot. He took first team reps at Right Tackle for the first time against Atlanta and looked consistent opening up holes in the run game.

“Eichenberg is an extremely solid, if unspectacular, tackle prospect. He saw his performance take a massive leap from his first to his second season as a starter. His pass-blocking grade went from 63.5 in 2018 to 85.6 last year and his run blocking grade from 60.8 to 78.8.”

PFF’s Mike Renner on Liam Eichenberg

Recipe for Success

I expect some growing pains on the offensive line to happen against the 3rd pre-season game against the Bengals and early on in the regular season. Furthermore, there has been a noticeable trend from since last year particularly on the right side of the line.

Last season on the right side proved it with the Combo of Hunt/Kindley as the running game was efficient running the ball to the right. Pass protection and the running game worked on Tua’s Blindside.

Thanks to some help from Kyle Crabbs and Sharp Football analysis, rushing YPC produced on the right side of the line.

It’s about fundamentals and execution this pre-season. If the entire line can stay disciplined, stay confident and build upon fundamentals, this OL will be even better.

Not only will it not harm the team but become another strength to push the Dolphins to the top of the NFL ecosystem.

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Miami Dolphins Run Game Woes Continue in First Preseason Action

The Miami Dolphins run game woes showed up once again in their first action of 2021. What was the problem and what still needs to improve?

It’s been a long time coming, but the wait is finally over: NFL football is back!

The Miami Dolphins had their first preseason game on Saturday against the Chicago Bears. Miami fell to the Bears 20-13 in their first action since the 2020 season. The end result is largely irrelevant; what matters is the impressions that were made in this first glimpse of the 2021 squad. That impression was a mixed bag.

One of the biggest areas of concern: The run game.

Before we get into any of this, it’s important to remember: This was just the first preseason game. It’s easy to overreact to everything, both good and bad. Most of the starters only played one quarter, so there isn’t much to go on.

The next game against Atlanta will tell us much more about what we can expect going forward. That being said, it’s hard to ignore just how inefficient and, quite frankly, ugly the Miami Dolphins run game was.

Now, the question becomes: Why was the running game so bad against Chicago, and what can be done to improve it before the season starts?

Starting Duty Shuffle

One of the more interesting things to come out of the Dolphins first preseason game was the division of duty when it came to the running game. The Dolphins opened the game with Malcolm Brown as the starter, despite being second on the depth chart.

Both Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin saw time as the game went on, but it was Brown who saw top billing against the Bears.

After the game was over, I had some strong words about Brown starting on Twitter. I reiterated those feelings on this week’s Around the Block – Miami podcast with Hussam and Rishi.

I’ll echo those sentiments again here: Malcolm Brown should not be the starter for the Dolphins. The Miami Dolphins run game was markedly better with Ahmed and Gaskin at the helm.

I do believe that Brown can be an effective situational back. He should be utilized in the team’s short-yardage game. Brown can also be an effective goal-line running back, though we didn’t see that Saturday against the Bears, either. That said, Brown showed no burst on Saturday, and with a porous offensive line, you need a running back with some explosion and wiggle to help mask those shortcomings.

Offensive Line Woes Continue

To perhaps no one’s surprise, the Miami Dolphins offensive line struggled yet again against the Bears in the preseason debut. The offensive line has been bad in Miami for years, and if Saturday was any indication, those woes will follow Miami into 2021. The left side of the line was particularly troublesome against the Bears. Matt Skura, Robert Hunt, and Jesse Davis performed well in their 2021 debut. The same cannot be said for Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley.

Jackson was beaten badly on a few pass rush reps, getting thrown into quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on one rep in particular. However, it was his performance in his run blocking duties where the holes in his game really showed through. As a rookie, one of the big knocks on Jackson was that he needed to get functionally stronger. That issue seems as though it’s going to persist into the 2021 season. 

His partner on the inside, Solomon Kindley, didn’t perform any better in the run game. These two struggling with run blocking contributed as much to the Miami Dolphins run game woes as Brown did, if not more. According to PFF grades provided by Ryan Smith, Kindley received a 45.7 run-blocking grade, with Jackson getting an abysmal 31.8 grade. PFF grades aren’t the end-all, be all, but it doesn’t paint a pretty picture going forward.

One thing that may give Dolphins fans hope is that 2021 second-round pick Liam Eichenberg did not play on Saturday due to injury. Training camp has been up-and-down for Eichenberg, but inserting him into the lineup should improve the Miami Dolphins run game. Whether Eichenberg winds up at tackle or guard remains to be seen, as he’s seen work at both positions.

A Veteran to the Rescue?

The Miami Dolphins run game woes should come as no surprise to Dolphins fans. One of the biggest complaints fans had about the 2021 NFL Draft was that the team opted against taking a running back until Gerrid Doaks in the seventh round. Fans were clamoring for Najee Harris, Javonte Williams, and just about every other top-flight running back. The team had other ideas for their running back room, however.

Miami was content to enter the season with Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin as the presumed starters at the position. The team brought in Malcolm Brown in free agency to give the group some diversity with a thumper to Ahmed and Gaskin’s speed and athleticism.

However, after watching the first preseason game, the fans are once again bemoaning the state of the room, leading some to ask the question: Should Miami bring in a veteran running back for competition?

When discussing veteran options at the position, the conversation begins and ends with two names: Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley. Both backs have been upper-echelon backs during their careers, but both are at the tail-end of theirs. Gurley has had myriad knee issues, and Peterson would be entering his 15th season at the age of 36. To complicate matters, both would likely have to agree to a veteran-minimum contract to make it work.

For better or worse, the Miami Dolphins run game is going to hinge on the guys in-house. The offensive line is going to have to get much better, and in a hurry. Ahmed and Gaskin are going to have to take control of the room and command the lion’s share of the touches. If those things don’t happen, Dolphins fans are once again going to be clamoring for a running back early come the 2022 NFL Draft.

Follow Chris Spooner on Twitter

Cause for Concern

There’s a lot of optimism riding into Training camp soon. A brand new offense, a better roster with first round talent and a returning top 5 defense even with a holdout of a star defender; however there are some concerns fans and the franchise should be looking out for this upcoming season.

There’s a lot of optimism riding into Training camp soon. A brand new offense, a better roster with first round talent and a returning top 5 defense even with a holdout of a star defender; however there are some concerns fans and the franchise should be looking out for this upcoming season.

The Xavien Howard Situation

News from this weekend started to circle out that Xavien Howard could potentially miss training camp over the pending contract issues. In May of 2019, he signed a 5 year, $75.25 million contract with $39 million total guaranteed. He only played 5 games that season before Miami placed him on the PUP list with another knee issue. After returning to full health in 2020, Howard exploded with 51 tackles, 20 PBU’s, and a league leading 10 interceptions.

A source close to Howard, who turns 28 on Sunday, said he expects Howard to hold out at the start of training camp — if he hasn’t been given a raise by that point — but acknowledged it’s possible he could change his mind,” 

Barry Jackson

While Howard missed mandatory minicamp, the expectation is that Howard does not report to the beginning training camp. According to Barry Jackson there is a possibility Howard comes to training camp in good faith or not at all. The decision is Howards to make.

Rishi Desai detailed the options of what the Miami Dolphins could do to satisfy Howard, and if the organization’s relationship with Howards camp sours a trade may be a possibility.

This situation is one to monitor as Matt Serniak details the situation from a fans perspective:

it’s not like Howard has come out and said that he’s not ever coming back to the Dolphins. But what is painfully apparent is that Howard is not happy with his contract. A contract he signed in the Summer of 2019, which was for five years, $72M with $39M of it being fully guaranteed. You look at that and your first reaction may be to be annoyed that Howard is causing problems when he just signed two years ago. I can’t even tell you you’re wrong to think that. I get why you would

Matt Serniak

If the situation does Sour and Howard is dealt, Miami loses its Interception leader and a former DPOY candidate who has helped Brian Flores and Company win games to push for the playoffs last season. It would be a big task for the rest of the secondary to recoup Howards ability to bait opposing QBs.

The Running Game does not improve

Pro Football Focus graded Miami’s Offensive line 27th of 32 teams last year. There is a new man in the middle with former Raven Matt Skura who was benched last year and didnt earn his job again. Four of the starters are back, so the team is cautiously optimistic and are banking on the extra year of experience to translate into better performances. Notably Sophomore slumps do occur in the NFL.

Miami was 22nd in rushing last season and 29th in YPC. Admittely, a strong ground game would have hugely taken pressure off Tagovailoa last season, and would again. But, on a paper at least, the run offense looks substandard.

No ones stock rose higher than Myles Gaskin after the draft was concluded. His task will be to improve the running game with a new offense installed by co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Gaskin will be a critical cog in the passing game.

“And of all the running backs in the NFL to take 60+ snaps in pass protection (there were 16 of them), none posted a better pass block efficiency rate than Gaskin — who is credited with just 2 hurries in those 71 snaps by Pro Football Focus. Gaskin wasn’t just good ‘for the Dolphins’ in this area, he was one of the best pass protecting backs in all of football last year.”

Kyle Crabbs

While we can look at the roster now and say the addition of Malcolm Brown should help, drafting a bruiser in Gerrid Doaks and the emergence last year of Salvon Ahmed is a good sign as well; however, the Miami Dolphins do not have a feature running back that can carry the load off of Tua’s shoulders.

If the offensive line and running back play stay the same, the Dolphins offense will become one dimensional and stagnant again which would not help second year QB Tua Tagovailoa. Alarms may not be raised on Brian Flores seat yet but there will be more concerns about him not being able to bring in a proven Offensive coordinator to run the offensive side of the ball

Tua Tagovailoa does not take the leap we are expecting

If Tua Tagovailoa does not take the next step into becoming a prolific passer, the Dolphins might have a big issue on their hands.

Tua has to be better than what we saw last year, We saw glimpses of what could be a potential star and we routinely saw what could possibly lead to him being another Miami Dolphins QB.

He has all the tools and skillset to become a great QB along with the team investing along the offensive line to protect a valuable asset like him. With better protection Tua should be able to stand in the pocket a little bit longer and throw to his new offensive weapons.

Devante Parker is an Above Average WR in this context and returning to the team as the “X” WR.

His Weapons include free agent pickup Will Fuller V a fast and reliable pass catcher that has a knack for finding the end zone. Fuller is a proven WR, when healthy. Jaylen Waddle was selected with the 6th overall pick in the NFL draft and already has chemistry with Tua, as both have played together at Alabama.

Will Fuller feasted in Houston with and without George Godsey, if Fuller can provide the same ability in Houston Tua should play better.

NFL Network project Jaylen Waddle will help to increase Tua as a passer and his rise to become the next great QB in Miami.

“Not only will Waddle help Tua Tagovailoa when the second-year signal-caller targets his former college teammate, but the speedy playmaker will also generally command a lot of attention, which will help the whole offense have more space to work with and inherently drive up the unit’s potential to be extremely efficient. Last season, 29.4 percent of Miami’s targets to wide receivers were thrown into tight windows — the highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Over the past two college campaigns, Pro Football Focus ranks Waddle in the top five in yards per route run (3.6, including a robust 4.4 in 2020 alone) and yards after the catch per reception (11.5). My model says his speed when open — i.e., when no defenders are closer than 3 yards — is the fastest in this draft class. And according to PFF, Waddle also had just one drop on 29 catchable passes during his injury-abbreviated 2020 campaign.” 

Cynthia Frelund

Now, I am not one to completely move on from a QB who has not even played a full season in the NFL, barring any unforseen circumstances, if Tua cannot deliver his projections with the increased assets the Dolphins organization has provided to him another offseason of scrutiny will befall on Tua and the Miami Dolphins.

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Stop Worrying About Tua

Tua Tagovailoa took over the starting role after the Dolphins week 7 bye, and helped lead the Dolphins to a 6-3 record. He threw for 1,814 YDs, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, and 64.1$ Completion Percentage. Are those crazy numbers that we should be in love with?

Tua Tagovailoa took over the starting role after the Dolphins Week 7 bye, and helped lead the Dolphins to a 6-3 record. He threw for 1,814 YDs, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, and 64.1$ Completion Percentage. Are those crazy numbers that we should be in love with?

No, not by any stretch; however, in a season where he didn’t have a full off-season, Tua was coming off a potential career-ending injury, had a surrounding cast full of guys who could’ve been PS players on other teams, and an OC who called plays like Miami had a child under center, he played beyond adequately.

Just a week after his first start in which he didn’t need to do much because of a stellar defensive and special teams performance, he lost his WR2 Preston Williams to a season-ending foot injury. The supposed WR1, Devante Parker, missed 2 of 9 games when Tua was starting, and was barely healthy for the other 7. His best performance was when he went for 8 catches and 119 yards versus a Jets team assembled to fail. In weeks 15 and 16, his best WR’s were Mack Hollins and Isaiah Ford. Only 10% of Tua’s passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air were dropped.

According to PFF, the Dolphins WR core dropped 14 passes which would have equated to about 25.3 points. In week 17 vs Buffalo in a do-or-die game, there were at least 12 catchable balls dropped, plenty off the hands of Devante Parker.

The WR corps ranks last in the league in creating separation and yards after catch. One pass catcher who solidified himself as top-10 at his position was TE Mike Gesicki, but in today’s league, one good TE is not enough to entirely change an entire offense. Simply put, the WR room did not do enough, and was not built, to help a rookie quarterback coming off a major injury.

Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa working out with the boys | CAPTION THIS!  - The Phinsider

Fortunately for Tua and the offense, they’ve added some serious help to the WR room. In free agency, they signed WR Will Fuller V. He brings serious speed and brilliant hands to the receiver room, and everyone knows the latter was necessary. Last season in just 11 games, he was able to put up 880 yards and 8 TD’s. If he can stay healthy for all 16 games (suspended week 1), he can do some serious damage and help make the WR corps really fun to watch.

A little over a month after that, the Dolphins drafted Jaylen Waddle with the 6th pick. Tua and Waddle had a remarkable connection during their time together in Alabama, and combining Waddle with Fuller and Parker should be lethal. Many are comparing Waddle to Tyreek Hill. Preston Williams is still a question mark, although he has shown serious potential over the last two years.

Miami also has Lynn Bowden Jr., Jakeem Grant, Malcom Perry, and Albert Wilson. I’d expect Grant to be cut by September, but the other 3 have the ability to provide crucial depth and speed for this group. If these guys can stay healthy, I’d expect Tua to have a field day throwing the ball to them.

In the RB room, the Dolphins had Matt Breida, Salvon Ahmed, Myles Gaskin, and Patrick Laird. Matt Breida didn’t do anything in a Dolphins uniform to live up to the hype. Patrick Laird was an undrafted free-agent who would get minimal playing time. Ahmed and Gaskin showed signs of potential often busting out for quick 10-15 yard carries and nifty moves, but neither had the experience or true bell cow ability you’d like to give your new franchise QB. To the dismay of many fans, the Fins FO didn’t do much to add to the RB room.

In FA, they signed Malcolm Brown, a 7th year man who spent his first 6 years as a Ram. He’s shown he can play, but was never given a chance to be the true number one guy, but I wouldn’t expect him to be first in line here either. In the 7th-round of the draft, Grier & co. drafted Gerrid Doaks, a power back from Cincinnati. According to many people who followed his career, he’s a heavy power back who runs hard. Adding depth and experience to the RB room should help all of them feed off each other and improve. A better RB group will ultimately help Tua become a better passer.

When OC Chan Gailey was questioned on why the playbook was a lot more diverse with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB, he cited the situations in which Fitzpatrick was brought in. Although that is true to an extent (when he came in, Miami was forced to move the ball down field to have a chance), there was a clear difference in play calling for Tua and Fitzpatrick.

In the week 16 game in Las Vegas, all 22 of Tua’s passes were considered “short throws.” A lot of times a QB isn’t seeing the field and is checking it down quickly, but when every throw in one game is short, you start to question beyond the QB’s ability. Yes, Tua recently said his grasp of the playbook wasn’t as perfect as you’d want it to be, but he also won 6 games with that knowledge, and mentioned the playbook was a little simple when he was in. If that last part was a simple fact, or a shot at Gailey, we may never know. However, Gailey “retired” and co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville have designed an offense around the strengths of Tua. Having a year of experience and a playbook that is fit for him will significantly help.

There was also the notion that Tua couldn’t throw the deep ball, obviously anyone who knows football knows that isn’t true. He threw a plethora of beautiful deep balls, plenty of which were dropped as mentioned above. On his deep balls last season, he had 260 yards and 2 touchdowns, which was better than Burrow, Darnold, Garropollo, and Goff. He has plenty of ability to throw deep balls and move the offense down field, people just need to open their eyes and watch.

Does a new WR room, help at RB, and better OC’s mean he’s going to be a baller right away? No, but we can sure hope so. According to many in attendance at practice, Tua clearly “has more zip on the ball.” When you combine those improvements with huge strides in the weight room, extra time with his WR’s, and a full year of being healthy, it’s not bold to expect a big leap from Tua Tagovailoa.

Follow Rishi Desai on twitter.