Falcons vs. Dolphins: Takeaways from Miami's 27-23 Win Against Atlanta
Atlanta sprinted out to a 10-0 lead early in the first quarter, and the Dolphins spent most of the game battling back from the deficit. The Dolphins did not take the lead until only 38 seconds remained in the ballgame, too little time for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to mount a matching comeback drive.
Here we will run through the main takeaways from Miami's encouraging victory.
This win was anything but pretty.
Miami head coach Joe Philbin commonly preaches a fast start and winning the turnover battle as two of the biggest keys to winning a game.
The Dolphins did not start out fast as the Falcons jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, and the team arguably lost the turnover battle.
On the latter point, the Dolphins jumped out to their final lead with only 38 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter while having turned the ball over twice to Atlanta's one turnover to that point.
Quarterback Matt Ryan tied the turnover count by throwing an interception during his attempt at executing a comeback; however, with only 38 seconds remaining in the game and needing a touchdown to succeed, one could easily argue the game already over at that point.
According to the official NFL gamebook (subscription required), the Atlanta Falcons ran the football 30 times for 146 yards. Miami ran 15 times for 90 yards, with 49 of those yards coming on one run during the first quarter.
The Falcons possessed the football 37 minutes and nine seconds, versus the Dolphins possessing the ball for only 22 minutes and 51 seconds.
The Falcons outgained the Dolphins 377 yards to 285 yards, running 68 plays to Miami's 55 plays.
Matt Ryan was not sacked a single time. Ryan Tannehill was sacked five times.
Teams are not supposed to win when they play the way the Miami Dolphins played against the Atlanta Falcons. Though some will take this as a bad sign, we have seen over the years that good teams simply find a way to win even when they are being outplayed.
The resilience the Dolphins showed in this game should bode well for them during a potential playoff run.
The Dolphins entered the game without the services of defensive tackle Paul Soliai and corner Dimitri Patterson.
During the first quarter, defensive end Cameron Wake left the field with an injury and did not return.
The defense also lost linebacker Koa Misi during the game. Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler sat out plays, seemingly hurt.
The injuries seemed to take their toll on the Dolphins' ability to stop the run and cover receivers.
The Falcons ran the football 30 times for 146 yards, and when the defense began to come up with stops against the Falcons late in the football game, it seemed to have a lot more to do with pass-rush pressure than coverage.
The Dolphins will have a long week to recuperate, and they may need it. They can ill afford a banged up secondary against the New Orleans Saints passing attack.
Ryan Tannehill's Clutch Performance
After missing a field goal that would have given the Falcons a 26-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Ryan Tannehill had the perfect opportunity to be a hero.
The Dolphins took over the ball at their own 25-yard line with 4:46 remaining in the fourth quarter. Tannehill completed nine of 12 passes for 69 yards, including the game-winning one-yard touchdown with 38 seconds left in the game.
His accuracy was unerring. His poise was tremendous. His line finally gave him time in the pocket with which he could find his targets, and he repaid them down after down.
He executed the kind of clutch drive in a make-or-break situation that few quarterbacks in the post-Marino era can boast.
Bad Run Defense
Most fans did not expect the Miami Dolphins to show weakness against the run to this point in the season.
Given the team's defensive line talent, aggressive linebacker acquisitions and strong run-supporting safeties, the Dolphins should be able to stifle most ground attacks in the NFL.
Even with defensive tackle Soliai missing the game due to injury, there is no excuse for the Dolphins surrendering 146 yards on 30 carries during Sunday's game. The ground game was a constant source of support for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Much of the problem comes from Miami's players being overaggressive in their pursuit of the football.
Such was the case when the Dolphins surrendered a touchdown to Falcons tailback Jason Snelling in the first quarter. Technically, the play was scored as a pass play. However, the shovel pass to Snelling up the middle of the line functions similar to a counter or cutback run play.
The Dolphins took a chance when they acquired linebackers Ellerbe and Wheeler to replace Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.
The latter pair were proven run defenders and coverage players within Miami's system. The former pair were unfamiliar to Miami's coaches and had never played within Miami's system. There were bound to be growing pains as the two acclimated to the system and their teammates.
Arguably, we are seeing signs of these growing pains as the defense surrenders 326 rushing yards and a 4.7 yards-per-carry average through the first three games of the 2013 season.
Though Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did not take a single sack during the game, the Dolphins were able to apply pressure to Ryan especially late in the game.
The pressure ended up being a significant key in the Dolphins' ability to force premature ends to the Atlanta Falcons' drives.
The Falcons averaged nearly 67 yards per drive on their first three offensive drives of the football game. The team's fourth drive, which resulted in a touchdown, only went 12 yards because the Dolphins surrendered the ball deep in their own territory off a turnover.
From that point on, the Falcons had three drives which ended after the offense gained 10 yards or less. Atlanta had two more drives which gained between 60 and 70 yards each; however, the Dolphins defense managed to stop them short of the end zone.
Pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan was an integral part of the Dolphins' success defending against the Falcons on these second-half drives.
Defensive tackle Jared Odrick was particularly effective rushing the passer during these drives, and the Dolphins also succeeded in getting blitz pressure on Ryan.
Linebacker Ellerbe hit Ryan on a 3rd-and-4 pass attempt that fell incomplete, resulting in a missed field goal. Rookie defensive end Dion Jordan hit Matt Ryan's arm on the Falcons' final offensive play of the game, which resulted in an interception.
Poor Pass Protection
From start to finish, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill was assailed in the pocket by a high amount of pressure from the Falcons defense. Tannehill finished the afternoon having been sacked five times, with two of the sacks forcing fumbles.
This is concerning for a number of reasons.
For one, the Dolphins had already surrendered nine sacks in the previous two games. The sacks were distributed evenly, so the Dolphins have yet to have a game where Tannehill was under a reasonable amount of pressure from the opposing team's pass rush.
For another, the Falcons walked into the game having only sacked the quarterback two times in two previous games. That includes a zero-sack performance against the St. Louis Rams despite the Falcons having jumped out to a 24-0 lead early in the game, forcing Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to drop back to pass 57 times in order to try to mount a comeback.
Lastly, Tannehill is not the type of quarterback to take an inordinate number of sacks by holding the football too long.
During his final year at Texas A&M, Tannehill was sacked only nine times versus 531 pass attempts. Combining Tannehill's college and pro careers prior to 2013, he was sacked a combined 59 times versus 1,258 pass attempts, a sack for every 21.3 pass attempts.
Thus far in 2013, Tannehill has been sacked once for every 7.6 pass attempts. The rate at which Tannehill is being sacked is much higher than either his college statistics or his 2012 pro statistics.
Despite the constant badgering of one of the game announcers, Tannehill was not necessarily holding the football too long. Nor was he necessarily guilty of being unable to feel the pass rush on all or most of the sacks, as much of the pass-rush pressure came from Tannehill's blind side.
Lack of Penalties
For the second consecutive week, Miami head coach Joe Philbin made his influence over his team clear when looking at the final tally of the Dolphins' penalties during the game.
One week ago, the Dolphins did not have a single flag go against them.
This week, the Dolphins had only two penalties totaling minus-13 yards.
One of the penalty flags was arguably very damaging, as corner Nolan Carroll was flagged for defensive pass interference while covering Falcons wide receiver Roddy White in the end zone.
The penalty came on a 3rd-and-2, where an incomplete pass would have seen the Falcons settling for a field goal. Instead, the Falcons received a 1st-and-goal on the 1-yard line and Matt Ryan was able to toss a score to backup tight end Levine Toilolo.
The only other penalty on the day was a holding call that went against Miami right guard John Jerry while blocking his brother, defensive tackle Peria Jerry.
The lack of what former head coach Tony Sparano would term "hidden yardage" was a big reason the Dolphins were able to stay in a game that the box score suggests they should not have won.
Tight End Coverage Still Needs Work
The Dolphins made strides in their ability to limit tight end production this week by holding the pair of Tony Gonzalez and Toilolo to only 26 yards on five catches.
However, the defense surrendered yet another touchdown to a tight end this week. This is the third consecutive week having surrendered a score to an opposing tight end.
The trend is even more damaging when taking account of the two touchdown catches by an opposing tight end that were called back by unrelated penalties.
The Dolphins faced a future Hall of Fame player in tight end Gonzalez. Holding him to only 24 yards on four catches was a good step in the right direction. However, three of his catches still converted a fresh set of downs, and two of them came on third down.
Only one of quarterback Matt Ryan's passes intended for Gonzalez actually fell incomplete.
The Miami Dolphins need to take a much bigger step by next week if they intend on limiting New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who has caught 23 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns in only three games this season.