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2015 Dolphins Draft Picks
At 7-4, and currently holding onto the 6th seed in the AFC playoff picture, your Miami Dolphins are looking like a relevant team this December. Record-wise this isn't the first time these guys have been in position to advance to the post season. In 2013, Miami won three straight December games against New York, Pittsburgh and New England to reach the 8-6 mark. They only had to win one of their remaining matchups against supposedly inferior opponents in the Bills and Jets. They folded like a lawn chair under the "queasy" leadership of Joe Philbin. In 2014, Miami kicked off December with a win over the Jets to hit 7-5. They lost three of the next four, albeit two of those losses were against playoff teams in Baltimore and New England, to once again come up empty. Joe Philbin lasted all of four games in 2015 as Miami once again played a meaningless end of the season stretch with more questions than answers about the team's direction.
So why should this year be any different? The obvious answer is the duo of Adam Gase and Vance Joseph. Criticize them all you want for strategic mistakes and growing pains that most rookie coaches endure, but you cannot deny they have "reached" their players. The commentary is overwhelming in terms of how they relate to the players, communicate with the players and do not play favorites. Everyone has input, everyone is held accountable. When the final off season product was receiving the finishing touches in late August it could be argue that most of us saw this as a .500 team at best. Reclamation project free agents, a QB few believed in, and plenty of young talent not playing up to their capabilities. When they fell to 1-4 everyone gave up on them (except themselves of course). Would Gase last more than one season? Who would they draft to replace Ryan Tannehill? How much roster churning would be done and would Mike Tannenbaum be the one in charge again? Six straight wins later so much has changed. Gase and Joseph are preparing their guys with a one game at a time mentality and its showing as they find new ways to win every week. One could argue that just about every game in this stretch has been a playoff game because there is very little room for error when you start 1-4.
Ryan Tannehill may not have elite numbers nor resemble the next Brady/Brees/Roethlisberger, but he has been clutch and that is what you want in a QB come playoff time. He has a 104.7 QB rating with a 9:1 TD/Interception ratio over this six game winning streak. He's hitting deep passes, finding tight windows and avoiding sacks at a better rate than any time in his career. He's done this against quality defenses in the Jets, Chargers and Rams. The moment no longer seems too big for him. The best description I've read so far came from Omar Kelly when he tweeted that Gase has successfully removed the fear factor from Tannehill. He's no longer afraid to make a decision and is playing with true confidence that has evaded him for so long.
While Gase and Joseph are the reasons for turning this around at a managerial level it would be hard to argue against Jay Ajayi being the most impactful individual on the field. Opponents fear him. He started off on a record pace but has tailed off a bit as teams have adjusted to Miami's run first approach. Still, he is 7th in the NFL with 843 rushing yards and that is after being minimally used over the first five games. He is tied with Mark Ingram at 5.3 YPC, which is best among all NFL running backs. He also has 9 runs of 20+ yards (2nd best) and 7 TDs. What I like most is that he seems to come up with a big run when Miami needs it most. A 20 yard TD after being consistently stopped by the Jets, a 40 yard run to set up a go ahead TD versus San Diego...I could keep listing the big moments. Miami can feel comfortable feeding him the ball.
The receiving group has certainly improved after a lot criticism regarding route running and separation. Jarvis Landry continues to be the heart and sould of the team with ridiculous effort and timely receptions. Every week he picks up a big first down on a drive. Devante Parker is finally healthy and what a difference he makes for the offense when he is a big factor in the game plan. Kenny Stills had some rough patches early on but is a reliable deep threat and leads the team with five TD catches. Dion Sims finally had a big game versus San Francisco and has the potential for a lot more going forward. Marquies Grey might be the next "acorn" and Dominique Davis has done a great job in the blocking department.
The defense took on an unfair level of burden early in the season and it skewed their statistics/rankings. It is hard to get a read on them because there have been a lot of switches in the starting lineup coupled with critical injuries. Losing Reshad Jones for the season really hurts. Earl Mitchell missed 8 games leaving the team with practice squad quality players in the defensive tackle rotation. Koa Misi's season (maybe career) is over. There are a few consistent guys who bring it every week - Ndomakong Suh, Kiko Alonso, Cameron Wake and Andre Branch. You could also argue Isa Abdul-Quddus has been a positive at safety. Overall the defense has produced clutch plays during the winning streak. They seem to create turnovers at opportune times which shift momentum. Elite teams will limit mistakes so consistency needs to creep its way into the defense's arsenal sooner rather than later. No more big yardage games for opponents.
This finally brings us to the offensive line and I purposely saved them for last. When Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod and Ja'wuan James lined up for the first time against Pittsburgh two things happened - Ajayi had lanes to run through and Tannehill kept his uniform clean. I cannot stress enough how much that went towards building confidence for those two. After a few games together this unit was being touted as perhaps the second best line in the league behind Dallas' brick wall. I'm not betting on the five of them all playing together again the rest of this season, but even at 60% they can hold their own in most cases. I do not believe Miami could have turned this thing around if not for the small window of these guys playing together. From a player standpoint that was the catalyst for this playoff push.
After all of that is there enough evidence to believe Miami is playoff worthy? I'd argue yes and will directly point to the different ways they've won each game. Ajayi has carried them, Tannehill has carried them, the defense has carried them and even the Special Teams Unit (which we haven't discussed) has come up big. This team finds new ways to win every week, even when it appears they are overmatched or shooting themselves in the foot. Penalties and slow starts will need to go away if they want to beat their remaining opponents but I believe those will correct themselves as the intensity turns up. Make no mistake, it is a very rough road ahead starting with a trip to Baltimore. If we are gauging worthiness based on talent, focus and confidence then I believe Miami is up to the task. Of course injuries could derail things but the question centered on worthiness, not what will happen.
Actually making it to the playoffs will probably require ten wins so Miami can't streak in the wrong direction. They'll most likely be battling Denver, Kansas City and Houston/Tennessee for the Wild Card spots which may work in their favor. Denver faces Tennessee, New England, Kansas City and Oakland in four of their final five games. Kansas City has to face Atlanta, Oakland, Tennesee, Denver and San Diego. Houston has five losses already and still must travel to Green Bay and Tennessee in the final stretch. Thankfully their offense has been hot garbage so the expectations are low. Tennesee already has six losses so they must win out and as already noted they play Kansas City, Denver and Houston. These guys could mostly cancel each other out.
Miami goes on the road to Baltimore, hosts Arizon, goes back on the road twice against New York and Buffalo before closing at the season at home versus New England. They will have to win two of those road games and hold serve against Arizona. Last year New England mailed it in for the first half of the final game and it cost them top seed in the playoffs. They'll be going to Davie looking to make a statement so don't bank on an easy contest there. It is a tall order for Miami but I think they have it in them to deliver as a playoff worthy team.
Ryan Tannehill had a big day, throwing for 3 TDs, no picks and 285 yards while completing 66% of his passes. He ended the game with a QB rating of 130.6. It was probably Tannehill's cleanest, most consistent performance of the season. Tannehill was also able to make plays with his legs, rushing for 34 yards and adding some nice throws on the run and some roll outs to extend plays. Considering Pouncey, Albert and Tunsil were out, it was good to see Tannehill have such a good day.
The receivers as a unit also had a good day. 8 different players caught passes and Kenny Stills and Dion Sims had big touchdowns. Additionally, rookie Leonte Carroo had his first TD catch in the NFL.
Kiko Alonso had 12 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. He and Ndamukong Suh also teamed up to make the game saving tackle against Colin Kaepernick. Considering the controversy with Kaepernick and the Fidel Castro shirt, it seemed fitting that someone of Cuban decent negated him the game tying touchdown.
Despite the win, the defense made Kaepernick, a pretty bad quarterback, look pretty good. Aside from not being able to stop his runs, the Dolphins were unable to cover a pedestrian group of receivers and Kaepernick was actually able to keep a horrid 49ers team in the game. QBs with Kaepernick's running ability are rare, but this is something teams will notice and if we have a mobile QB, they will use it against us.
Jakeem Grant clearly has some challenges when it comes to fielding punts and kick offs. It may be time to let Kenyan Drake and Jarvis Landry be the guys on those. Grant is lacking confidence and his sloppy ball handling may cost us a game down the stretch.
The game was ugly. The score looks pretty, but it should not have been this close. The Dolphins were up 31-14 and should have closed out the game, but the 49ers were actually able to get back in it and almost tied the game. It's nice that we're 7-4 and are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, but this game was an opportunity to put together a complete performance and the Dolphins didn't.
Considering where the Dolphins were after 5 games, this has been a remarkable turnaround. All credit goes to Coach Gase for his approach. But based on what I have seen from Gase so far, he isn't going to go into this week patting guys on the back. He knows the Dolphins, especially the defense, played a shaky game that they could have lost.
Against a team like Baltimore, this isn't going to work. The Dolphins will be facing a dangerous pass rush led by Terrell Suggs. Here's hoping Albert, Pouncey and Tunsil can make it to the game, because their replacements today will get destroyed in Baltimore. Here is also hoping the defense can get back to its stingy ways against the run. The last thing we need is to allow Joe Flacco to benefit from a strong running game and the playaction pass.