The Miami Dolphins have been taking body blows in the gut all season.
Despite the team’s efforts to rebuild the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines this past offseason, Miami has struggled at the line of scrimmage, getting bullied in the trenches most of the season with a few exceptions.
Seven of Miami’s opponents have rushed for more than 100 yards, and the Dolphins were allowing a league-worst 4.7 yards per carry coming into Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos.
The offensive line has struggled to open up running lanes, but the team’s pass protection had been solid right until the sack fest the Broncos delivered in Sunday’s 20-13 win over Miami, which got dominated at the line of scrimmage.
These trench issues have been consistent all season, but Miami’s six wins — and particularly the five-game winning streak — masked the problems.
It put lipstick on a pig that was plump and ready to be slaughtered.
On Sunday the Broncos gutted Miami, owning the line of scrimmage, and exposing that more work in the draft and free agency is needed to fortify the trenches on both sides of the ball.
“We just [have] to come back and get to work. We have to take pride in stopping the run and getting to third down and rushing the passer,” said Dolphins pass rusher Andew Van Ginkel, who finished the game with two tackles and a forced fumble at the 1-yard line on a Melvin Gordon carry that prevented a touchdown. “We were definitely not doing a good job and have to fix it.
“Anytime the backs run like that and get yards and we can’t defend, it puts a lot of stress on our defense.”
The Broncos (4-6) averaged 5.7 yards per carry on Sunday, which means Denver was in favorable down-and-distance situations most of the game. Without success stopping the run on first and second downs Miami’s opponents are in more favorable positions, which makes the Dolphins’ exotic blitzing packages less effective because the opposing quarterback can simply throw a check-down pass.
Miami’s issues running the ball and stopping the run weren’t so glaring previously because the Dolphins (6-4) held substantial early leads in most of their victories this season, so teams leaned more on their passing attack, which played into the Dolphins’ strengths.
But things are about the change because Broncos coach Vic Fangio just created a blueprint on how to beat the 2020 Dolphins by gaining 189 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 33 carries, and by utilizing twists and stunts on Miami’s rebuilt offensive line, which saw a second half change when right guard Solomon Kindley was replaced by Jesse Davis, and Robert Hunt took over the right tackle spot.
With or without Kindley on the field, the Dolphins still gave up the same amount of sacks (three with Kindley, and another three without the rookie).
So to blame Miami’s offensive line struggles on Kindley wouldn’t be fair because everyone of Miami’s offensive linemen were victimized by protection breakdowns.
But like a good teammate, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa fell on the sword for the unit that’s responsible for protecting him.
“I felt like I was holding onto the ball too long,” said Tagovailoa, who got replaced by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter. “I have to get the ball in the hands of the guys to give them a chance to make a play.”
From a defensive standpoint, one aspect of Miami’s issues stopping the run has to do with injuries, which have watered down the defensive front.
Christian Wilkins missed his second straight game because he’s on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list, and the Dolphins have spent the past month playing without Davon Godchaux, a four-year starter, who was placed on injured reserve with a biceps injury.
Their absences forced Zach Sieler and Raekwon Davis, a former Alabama standout the Dolphins drafted in the second round this year, to the forefront of the defense line, and Benito Jones, an undrafted rookie from Mississippi State is their only true backup on the inside of Miami’s defensive front.
It’s clear Sieler and Davis ran out of gas during the game.
But the bigger issue was the fact Denver kept attacking Kyle Van Noy’s side with pulling guards, gaining the majority of their rushing yards from running to the right. Van Noy suffered hip injury last week, and it appeared the hip limited his mobility, which indicates that playing him might not have been a wise decision.
“We have to do a better job fighting pressure with pressure and defeating blocks,” coach Brian Flores said. “We have to do better as a staff and our players have to play better.”
At this point, the Dolphins should expect every opponent the rest of the season to replicate the Broncos’ game plan because Miami has not proven they can take those body blows and keep standing.
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