At roughly the midway point of the 17-game season the Miami Dolphins are facing the possibility of being in first place in the AFC East after this week’s games, something few would have expected at this stage.
If the Dolphins (6-3) defeat Cleveland (3-5), and Buffalo (6-2) loses to Minnesota (7-1), the division lead belongs to the Dolphins because the New York Jets (6-3) have a bye and New England (5-4) is a game behind.
Considering the Dolphins have a rookie head coach in Mike McDaniel, their status in the division, the AFC and the NFL could be considered a bit of a surprise.
On the other hand, they have quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, left tackle Terron Armstead, cornerback Xavien Howard, and they just acquired edge rusher Bradley Chubb and running back Jeff Wilson Jr., so perhaps their status shouldn’t be such a surprise.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve seen from the Dolphins to this point of the season:
Pass game: A
Tagovailoa (1,980 yards passing, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, 115.9 passer rating) has been really good. Yeah, early in the season he had that concussion issue, some pass protection issues, and some decision-making issues, but since then he’s been electric. Hill (76 receptions, 1,104 yards, three touchdowns) has been even better. He could threaten NFL single-season records in receptions and receiving yards. Waddle (47 receptions, 812 yards, six touchdowns) has also been really good. Pass protection is improving. We’ll see if it can find consistency. That’s possibly the biggest key to the passing game’s success at this point because everything else seems to be working. Tagovailoa has been accurate and McDaniel’s scheme has created open spaces for Hill, Waddle, tight end Mike Gesicki (22 receptions, 238 yards, four touchdowns) and everyone else. No problems here if Tagoavailoa stays upright.
Run game: D
This is a concern. The Dolphins are 29th in the league at 86.9 yards per game. They rushed for 77 yards last Sunday in Wilson’s debut at Chicago. Still, Wilson, acquired in a trade deadline deal with Denver, should join Raheem Mostert (110 carries, 478 yards, two touchdowns) to provide a balanced ground game. Wilson (nine carries, 51 yards vs. the Bears) provides a physical presence that complements Mostert’s speed. The blocking could be better. But the offensive line, anchored Armstead, center Connor Williams and right guard Robert Hunt, has sustained some injury losses at times this season. That’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation. The Dolphins might or might not need the run game for cold-weather regular-season games because they’ll only play at two cold-weather locales — Buffalo in December and New England in January. However, if they’re required to travel to cold weather locales in the playoffs the run game might be more of a requirement. We’ll see.
Pass defense: B-
This has been puzzling on a couple of levels. But the pass defense has managed to make plays, highlighted by the fourth-quarter, game-winning interceptions against Pittsburgh by safety Jevon Holland and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, and a strip-sack touchdown by linebacker Melvin Ingram against New England. So they’re figuring out ways to survive, which is a good thing. We’ll see if Chubb makes a major difference going forward. The pass rush hasn’t been consistent up front (17 sacks, tied for 20th in the NFL), and the pass coverage (23rd at allowing 245.9 yards per game) hasn’t been consistent on the back end. The Dolphins’ four interceptions are tied for 23rd in the league. Howard has been up and down due to injuries, but he’s still the best defensive back on the team. Surely not having cornerback Byron Jones (Achilles surgery in March) has been a factor, as have the regular-season losses of safety Brandon Jones (knee) and cornerback Nik Needham (Achilles). But you’d like to see the Dolphins combine an effective pass rush with an effective pass coverage to generate more sacks and interceptions. If the pass defense improves, it’ll provide a huge overall boost to the team. Still, it’s tough to ignore their ability to make plays on occasion.
Run defense: C+
The Dolphins are doing OK here, not great and not terrible. They’re ranked 15th at 117.4 yards allowed per game. There’s a recency bias because Chicago quarterback Justin Fields just rushed for 178 yards, an NFL regular-season record for a quarterback. Oh, and Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson rushed for 119 yards. Guys such as defensive tackle Christian Wilkins have shown to be tough run defenders at times. But at other times the run defense disappears. It’s almost been feast or famine with the run defense. Four teams have rushed for more than 100 yards, and four teams have been held to 82 or fewer yards rushing. The Dolphins have faced four of the top-10 rushing teams, including the top two (Chicago and Baltimore). So, things aren’t bad, but things aren’t good, either. By the way, the Dolphins face the No. 3 rushing team, Cleveland, this Sunday. And don’t discount losing Brandon Jones, who was the team’s leading tackler largely because of his run support. Keep an eye on this category.
Special teams: C
Punter Thomas Morstead has been good with his knack for flipping the field. He’s 24th in punting average at 45.7 yards per punt, but he’s 11th with 14 punts placed inside opponent’s 20-yard line. Of course, there was the infamous butt punt against Buffalo. Kicker Jason Sanders is 11 of 15 on field goal attempts, including the 29-yard attempt he pulled wide left at Chicago. It’s the only attempt he missed inside of 50 yards. He’s also missed an extra point and had a field goal attempt blocked. It hasn’t been a good season for him. The Dolphins haven’t done anything special in the return game. But they just blocked a punt (linebacker Jaelan Phillips) and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown (linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel) at Chicago. Injuries have been a factor here, but that’s the story for every team. The Dolphins must tighten up on special teams.
McDaniel, the first-time head coach, has been good at both the on-field stuff and the off-field stuff. His offense is creative and his play-calling, which he’s doing for the first time, is strong. There have been hiccups such as occasionally taking a long time to get a play call to Tagovailoa, but overall things have been good. The assistant coaches have also managed things well, including offensive coordinator Frank Smith and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer. Yes, things could be better. The defense is hitting a rough patch right now, and the offense wasn’t scoring touchdowns consistently before playing Detroit and Chicago, two of the league’s worst teams. So we’ll see what lies ahead. Penalties have been a problem at times. The Dolphins are minus-3 in turnover margin, and while the offense has 10 turnovers (tied for 19th worst), the defense’s seven takeaways are tied for second-fewest in the league. Keep an eye on that. But as far as the first half of the season, the coaching staff did a great job.
This team has a fighting spirit and it finds ways to win. Those things matter. The individual pieces don’t always fit together well each week but somehow the Dolphins manage to make enough plays to win. Beyond that, they have a winning road record at 6-3, which is important. But when you consider the quarterback injury issues, the concussion concerns and their potential for distraction, adjusting to the absence of Byron Jones, and giving an elevated role to undrafted rookie cornerback Kader Kohou and the overall locker room attitude, things are looking good.
Stock up: Tua Tagovailoa
The third-year quarterback has fought through concussion issues and perception issues to produce a successful first half of the season. He’s thrown the deep ball better than his previous two seasons and made better decisions. Yes, having Hill and Waddle helps, as does having McDaniel’s support and play-calling. But Tagovailoa has been a baller.
Stock down: Defense
They’ve done enough to keep this team in the playoff picture, so you can’t really complain. But the defense has been inconsistent, especially recently in victories at Detroit and Chicago in which it allowed 27 and 32 points, respectively, to a couple of the NFL’s lower-tier teams. The defense has managed to make key plays, but it needs to be more consistent.