Earlier in the season, when the Dolphins were reeling off victories, complementary football was the norm. The Dolphins, who have now lost back-to-back games after jumping out to a 3-0 start, must find a way to return to that style.
Injuries have undoubtedly affected the Dolphins’ ability to play to their strengths. After all, it’s much tougher to play complementary football when you don’t finish the game with the quarterback who started the game the last two weeks (losses at Cincinnati and the New York Jets), you’re without both of your starting cornerbacks in the fourth quarters the last two weeks, and you’re missing both of your starting offensive tackles for much of the last game.
Dolphins coaches and players, who have a zero tolerance attitude when they don’t get the job done, consider those excuses. I, on the other hand, to some extent, consider them explanations.
Whatever the case, things need to change Sunday when the Dolphins host Minnesota, or the Dolphins will make life much tougher on themselves. Somehow, the Dolphins need to get back to having their three units – offense, defense and special teams – help each other.
Linebacker Jaelan Phillips said there are two ways to play complementary football.
“That’s trusting the guy next to you to do his job, and then you doing your job,” he said. “But then there’s also complementary football between the offense, the defense and special teams, and basically that’s putting everybody in advantageous positions through your own play.”
Here’s how the Dolphins’ all-phases football worked early in the season.
In the opener, an interception in the end zone by safety Jevon Holland, after cornerback Xavien Howard tipped the pass, stopped New England’s initial drive. The Dolphins turned that into a 43-yard field goal by kicker Jason Sanders and a 3-0 lead in a game they’d eventually win, 20-7.
The next week against Baltimore the defense turned in a crucial fourth-down, fourth-quarter stop at the Dolphins’ 41-yard line. Five plays later the offense scored a touchdown to cut their deficit to 35-28 in a game the Dolphins would eventually win 42-38.
Against Buffalo, the infamous “butt punt,” during which punter Thomas Morstead’s kick went off the backside of up-man Trent Sherfield and out of bounds for a safety, provided another example of complementary football. Morstead’s ensuing free kick traveled 74 yards to the Bills’ 6-yard line with 1:33 remaining. It was returned 17 yards to the Buffalo 23-yard line. But the defense held, as the Bills got to the Miami 41, but only as time expired, and the Dolphins won 21-19.
Then, the script flipped.
Against Cincinnati, the Bengals turned the fourth quarter into a complementary football clinic among a 19-yard field goal for a 17-15 lead, followed by a three-and-out, followed by a 57-yard field goal for a 20-15 lead, followed by an interception. The Dolphins lost 27-15.
It was a similar scenario in the fourth quarter of the Jets game as the Dolphins missed a 54-yard field goal, the Jets drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 26-17 lead, followed by a sack and fumble that the Jets recovered and turned into a 5-yard touchdown one play later for a 33-17 lead. The Dolphins lost 40-17.
You get the point. Complementary football can work for you or against you, and either way it’s probably going to be effective. And complementary football isn’t just for scoring plays. It works throughout a game.
“A lot of complementary football is really kind of field position-based,” Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said. “You kick the ball off. If they get a decent return that puts you a little bit behind the 8-ball. Or, if you start on defense and you give up a couple of drives, even if you do get them off the field and they punt, now it’s a plus-50 punt; your offense is backed up.”
Health is the first factor to get the Dolphins back on the complementary football track.
Having guys such as left tackle Terron Armstead (toe), cornerback Xavien Howard (groins), and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (concussion protocol) on the field helps greatly. Even having someone such as safety Clayton Fejedelem, a special teams standout who returned from injury last game, helps in that phase of the game.
“It’s definitely all three phases,” left guard Liam Eichenberg said. “Everything’s complementary. The defense, if you ask them, they’d love to get a turnover every time the offense has the ball. And then for us, we want to score every time so you’ve got to, play by play, keep building, That’s the biggest thing.”
Complementary football doesn’t necessarily have to be pretty, it just has to be consistent from week to week. Keep at it, and it’ll work, as the Dolphins have shown.
“You normally would say, even in our Baltimore win, it didn’t really go the way you would want it to go,” offensive coordinator Frank Smith said, “but it went a good way at the end.”