There’s really only one question to ask as the Patriots get ready for their seventh game of the season on Thursday night: What the heck has gotten into the Dolphins?
The Fins are playing like their pants are on fire since Joe Philbin was fired Oct. 5 and replaced by tight ends coach Dan Campbell, scoring 82 points and gaining more than 900 yards in blowout wins of the Titans and Texans.
The Dolphins have done a complete 180 under Campbell and new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, entering Thursday’s divisional matchup with a suddenly respectable 3-3 record.
We know Campbell, a 10-year NFL tight end who last played in 2008, has used every cliché in the book to change the Dolphins’ attitude. He had the players run the hard-nosed Oklahoma drill during his first practice at interim head coach. He changed the practice schedule and reorganized the locker room. He introduced black jerseys at practice, and told his players, “I would bleed for you” in his postgame victory speech.
But what about X’s and O’s? What are the Dolphins doing so differently over the last two games?
“I think it’s just more of an attitude [adjustment]. It’s nothing new schematically. It’s stuff we’ve had. It’s just a [new] mind-set,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said Tuesday. “Dan’s enthusiasm and passion for the game, his energy, and competitive drive are just contagious, and it transfers over to the team.”
To see for ourselves, we went back and watched the Dolphins’ last three games — their 27-14 loss to the Jets that got Philbin fired, and the two big wins over the Titans (38-10) and Texans (44-26) the past two weeks.
Here’s the lowdown on the Dolphins:
■ It’s true, the Dolphins don’t look that different on offense. They’re still primarily a shotgun, single-back offense. But the most noticeable change has been the Dolphins’ commitment to the running game under Campbell and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
In their first four games, the Dolphins averaged 16 rushes for 69 yards per game and didn’t rush for a touchdown. Some of that had to do with playing from behind against Buffalo and the Jets, but the Dolphins were a pass-heavy team and too one-dimensional.
Under Campbell, the Dolphins rushed 32 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans, and 35 times for 248 yards and a touchdown against the Texans. Now, the Dolphins were able to run the ball so often because they played with big leads, and there’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument to be made. But clearly the Dolphins are making a concerted effort to establish the run.
■ They’ve gone under center a lot more the last two games. Against the Jets, Tannehill ran five of 65 plays from under center (including penalties), but against the Titans it was 22 of 68 plays. The Dolphins never used a fullback under Philbin, but against the Titans they ran seven plays out of the I formation.
Not only did they establish more of a power run game, but Tannehill hit some big play-action passes out of the “I” as well. With no traditional fullback on the roster, they use tight end Dion Sims and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell.
■ The level of competition probably had something to do with the Dolphins’ success. The Texans game you almost have to throw out. The Dolphins scored a few long, fluky touchdowns because the Texans were completely incapable of making a tackle, and just about a minute into the second quarter the score was 35-0.
The Titans game wasn’t a great evaluation either, because Marcus Mariota suffered a knee injury early in the game, completely sapping him of his mobility, which is a big part of his game. The Dolphins deserve credit for pounding it at the Titans, but the Patriots will obviously offer much stiffer competition.
■ That said, the Dolphins are dangerous on offense. They make you account for many different players on each play, as we saw on Lamar Miller’s 54-yard touchdown catch last week.
First you have to account for the traditional run game, which has been revived by Miller and Jonas Gray. You have to account for Tannehill’s athleticism and his ability to make plays with his feet.
You have to account for dynamic slot receiver Jarvis Landry, who has eight carries for 77 yards and a touchdown rushing the ball on end arounds and gadget plays.
And after all that, you see Miller catch a screen pass and have the ability to take it the distance.
■ Tannehill struggles with the deep ball, but he can really rip some nice throws down the middle of the field. He is great at throwing the ball on the run, and he can squeeze it into some very tight spaces. I really like the way he is developing, now in his fourth NFL season.
■ Landry is a very underrated player, and is the engine of the offense. They get him involved in all kinds of ways — quick screens, gadget plays, slants over the middle, and deep routes — and he is phenomenal in the kicking game as well, averaging 13.4 yards per punt return with a touchdown this season.
■ The Dolphins also haven’t been afraid to get a little creative. In addition to the fake end-arounds and using a defensive tackle at fullback, the Dolphins used the Emory and Henry formation against the Texans, with both offensive tackles split out wide with the wide receivers.
■ I expect the Patriots to focus on shutting down Landry and Miller, the same way they focused on the Jets’ Chris Ivory and Brandon Marshall last week. But the Dolphins have better secondary options than the Jets do: Rishard Matthews is a hard-nosed, physical receiver and a tough matchup, Jordan Cameron has good speed for a tight end, and Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings are decent enough on the outside. You also have to keep Tannehill contained in the pocket and not let him beat you with his feet.
■ But the Dolphins are susceptible up front, particularly at both guard spots, with left guard Dallas Thomas and right guard Billy Turner. If the Patriots can slow Miller and force the Dolphins into third-and-long situations, the Patriots might be able to get a lot of pressure on Tannehill and force him into mistakes.
■ Again, the Dolphins faced a wounded Mariota and a struggling Brian Hoyer the last two weeks, so it’s hard to truly evaluate the defense. But one thing is clear: Cameron Wake is finally healthy after struggling with a hamstring injury through the first quarter of the season. Wake had one tackle and no sacks through the first four games, then had four sacks in the first half against the Titans and two more against the Texans. As a team, the Dolphins had one sack in their first four games, and 10 in the last two weeks.
■ But they haven’t changed much on defense — if anything, they just simplified the scheme a bit. The Dolphins’ defense is similar to the Jaguars’, in that they don’t move guys around too much, and they play a lot of zone coverage (Cover 3 and Cover 4). You know that Wake will line up at left defensive end, Ndamukong Suh at left defensive tackle, Mitchell at right defensive tackle and Olivier Vernon at right defensive end, with Derrick Shelby rotating in with the ends.
The Patriots have a potentially terrible matchup with right guard Tre’ Jackson and right tackle Cameron Fleming having to face Suh and Wake. The Patriots might need to give them help with a running back or keep Rob Gronkowski in to block, like they did against the Jets.
■ Linebackers Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins, Kelvin Sheppard, and Spencer Paysinger are fast and active, though a bit undersized, and do blitz from time to time. In the secondary, Brent Grimes will always line up at left cornerback, Brice McCain is the right cornerback, and they’ll play a lot of zone coverage and try to keep everything in front of them. Free safety Reshad Jones is a ball hawk, with a pick six each of the last two weeks, and they love to bring him up into the box and blitz.
■ I’m expecting Tom Brady to throw the ball 75 times again this week, whether Dion Lewis plays or not. The Dolphins’ run defense isn’t as good as the Jets’, but the Patriots are still piecing things together on the offensive line, and have a much better chance of moving the ball with Brady’s quick passes than by attacking Suh and Wake on the ground. The Dolphins’ pass defense is quick, but I don’t see how they’re going to slow Gronkowski or Brandon LaFell, if he can hold onto the ball this week.