Injuries are officially taking their toll on the Dolphins. The hardest hit positions are quarterback, cornerback and offensive tackle, but injuries are noteworthy at a few other positions, and that will make the soft part of the Dolphins schedule a bit harder.
The AFC East standings illustrate how things have flipped the last few weeks with Buffalo (4-1) at the top, followed by the New York Jets (4-2) and then the Dolphins (3-3) and Patriots (3-3).
The Dolphins get quarterback Tua Tagovailoa back this week for the 8:20 p.m. game against Pittsburgh. Hopefully he’ll provide enough of a spark to overcome what will likely be another week of tough injury problems.
In the meantime, the Dolphins will try to revive their once-seen running game, find a way to score touchdowns consistently, get the defense producing turnovers and tighten up their special teams.
Passing game: D
The fourth-quarter Jaylen Waddle fumble and the porous pass protection bring down a command performance by Tyreek Hill (12 receptions, 177 yards) and some otherwise solid play by Waddle. Waddle’s fumble cost the Dolphins a chance to win. The pass protection allowed six sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Oh, and let’s not forget it contributed to rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson being knocked out of his first career start in the second quarter with a right thumb injury. The Dolphins swapped sides for their offensive tackles from a week ago, putting Greg Little on the left side and Brandon Shell on the right side. It didn’t help. They need starting left tackle Terron Armstead (toe) back. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did what he could, but this passing game struggles if Hill, and to a lesser extent, Waddle, doesn’t get it done. Injuries are a factor, but the Dolphins can’t afford to lose fumbles and have starting quarterbacks removed due to injury for three consecutive games. They also had a pass-interference penalty and an ineligible-man-downfield penalty that were costly.
Running game: D
Unfortunately, things are back to what’s become normal. The Dolphins totaled 73 yards rushing on 20 carries, an average of 3.7 yards per carry. Raheem Mostert had 49 yards on 14 carries to lead the way. The ground game didn’t do anything meaningful after a promising first quarter. The Vikings took away primary running lanes as well as cutback lanes. Much of the blame here falls on the blocking. There are no holes. The Dolphins average just 81.2 yards rushing per game. This is a major problem for the offense and the team. Coach Mike McDaniel can’t figure this one out so far, and the answers don’t seem likely to emerge soon. The way things have gone so far, it appears the Dolphins need a power back, someone who can create his own holes, as opposed to the speedy backs on their roster.
Defending the pass: B
The big problem is zero turnovers. Aside from that, good things happened here despite the growing injury concerns that now include cornerbacks Nik Needham (Achilles) and Keion Crossen (knee) and linebacker Trey Flowers (foot). Cornerback Xavier Howard kept Justin Jefferson (six receptions, 107 yards) in check for the most part. A 47-yard reception late in the third quarter was the difference between a good day and so-so day for Howard. Quarterback Kirk Cousins (20 for 30, 175 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 104.2 passer rating) was decent. But the Dolphins kept pressure on him, with three sacks and seven hits. They also had five passes defended. The secondary is about as thin as it can get right now. Penalties such as the roughing the passer against defensive tackle Christian Wilkins are extremely punitive.
Defending the run: B+
Wilkins (four tackles) and linebacker Elandon Roberts (seven tackles) did a nice job leading an effort that held the Vikings to 78 yards, most of it on Dalvin Cook’s 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Cook ended with 77 yards on 13 carries and was kept in check for almost the entire day. The Vikings totaled just 11 first downs, two on the ground. And don’t be fooled by the 4.6 yards per carry. It was all built on Cook’s long run. The Dolphins did very nice work here. This is one of the healthiest units on the team. The only negative is they must create turnovers, and they didn’t. It’s a heavy burden but that’s the way this complementary football thing works.
Special teams: C-
Kicker Jason Sanders, who made a 44-yard field goal, was wide right on a 52-yard attempt. You’d like to get that one, but it’s always a bit dicey on kicks longer than 50 yards. But when you combine that miss with a muffed punt by safety/punt returner Jevon Holland and allowing a 25-yard punt return, well, now things appear shaky. The fake punt with the direct snap to safety Clayton Fejedelem on fourth-and1 from the Dolphins’ 34-yard line was worth a try, but it didn’t work. He was stopped for no gain. Hill had a punt return for minus-2 yards, which isn’t a big deal on its own, but when lumped into the group with other special teams plays, it looks worse. Punter Thomas Morstead continues to be a baller (six punts, 51.2-yard average, two inside the 20). However, the special teams unit continues to struggle overall. The Dolphins need a boost here, and it’s not happening. Injuries are a factor.
Injuries and the quarterback situation make it tough. But you can’t have 10 penalties for 97 yards. And you can’t give away three points in the form of that 34-yard field goal by Minnesota right before halftime. McDaniel was at his own 11-yard line with 28 seconds remaining and trailing 7-3. The Dolphins were getting the second half kickoff. McDaniel got greedy and went for the points, but Bridgewater threw an interception the Vikings converted it into points. McDaniel is trying. He also went for it on fourth-and-5 and converted with a Bridgewater pass to Hill. And we already mentioned the fake punt. Still, the Dolphins must continue to figure ways to manufacture yards. Depth is being tested right now, and the Dolphins are most likely beyond their comfort level. This is where coaches need to wring every ounce of talent out of their roster.
Stock up: Tyreek Hill
This guy continues to prove he’s the team MVP, and the distance gets greater by the game. Hill totaled 177 yards on 12 receptions against the Vikings and displayed great route-running skills, outstanding hands and an almost unmatched ability to get yards after catch. The man is almost impossible to defend. His 701 receiving yards represents 32% of the Dolphins’ offense (2,197 yards). If Hill wasn’t on the team, they’d never score. That’s no disrespect to Waddle, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or anyone else. It’s just obvious that Hill is The Man. He can do it all. It makes you really eager to see how he gets that Ping-Pong table decorated.
Stock down: Pass protection
There’s not much more to say here aside from look at the quarterback situation. We’re not necessarily talking about injuries. Remember, Bridgewater took a big hit due to a scheme error. Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner was unblocked and hit Bridgewater in the ribs, causing the intentional grounding, safety and (wrongful?) entrance into concussion protocol. The bigger picture is Dolphins quarterbacks remain under duress. The pressure is relentless. Pass protection involves tight ends and running backs, so this isn’t solely on the offensive line. But that’s where pass protection starts. Injuries are a factor here, considering tackles Armstead and Austin Jackson are sidelined. But the Dolphins must figure out a way to keep their quarterbacks upright.