Just over one year into his pro career, we have seen him take strides in the right direction. Most of those biggest strides took place over the course of the first three games of the season. For all those strides, however, it sure seemed like he took a giant step backward on Monday night against the New Orleans Saints.
One look at his stat line might indicate that it was one of the worst performances of his career, but this can be a constructive performance because a lot of what went wrong for the Dolphins is correctable.
Some of the Dolphins' offensive shortcomings were on Tannehill, and this game showed that there's some work to be done in his decision-making and overall awareness at times. Some of their struggles, however, were due to outside circumstances involving teammates, or simply solid play from the Saints defense.
Here's a look at how Tannehill and the Dolphins can get the offense moving more efficiently in the future.
Ball Security and Decision-Making
Football is schematically complex, but the Dolphins formula for success is simple: When Tannehill takes care of the ball, the Dolphins win. When he doesn't, they lose.
In games where Tannehill throws one interception or more, the Dolphins are 3-7. In games where he does not throw an interception, they are 7-3.
Tannehill's three interceptions are somewhat misleading. Two of them came in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter, with the Dolphins down by 21 points.
His first interception, however, couldn't have come at a worse time.
The Dolphins had the ball on their own 42-yard line on 1st-and-10 with 1:33 left in the first half. All they had to do was safely move the ball downfield into field-goal range—about 20-25 yards away—to draw within eight points heading into the locker room.
Brian Hartline ran an in-breaking route five yards off the line of scrimmage, with fellow wide receiver Brandon Gibson running a go route up the seam to take away the underneath coverage. In theory, the route combination opens up a window over the middle.
Theory, however, didn't account for cornerback Jabari Greer getting a good read on the play before the snap and quickly reacting once Tannehill had the ball in his hands. Greer jumped the route with Tannehill locking into his first read.
There's not a whole lot Tannehill or Hartline could have done differently here. Greer was locked on Tannehill's eyes, and began jumping Hartline's route before Hartline had even entered his break.
If Tannehill had reacted quickly enough to Greer stepping in front of Hartline, Tannehill may have hung onto the ball and looked for an open target. That said, perhaps this was a play designed to go to the first read. That's one of the risks of running such plays.
Tannehill also had a costly fumble in the second quarter when trying to scramble around midfield.
He tucked the ball and took off up the middle of the defense, but didn't tuck the ball away enough.
The decision to scramble wasn't so bad; it looked like his primary receivers were covered. His execution of the scramble, however, could use some work. He had one hand on the ball when linebacker Curtis Lofton reached around from beside Tannehill and ripped the ball out. Had he slid, instead of being a hero and trying to gain as many yards as possible, he could have avoided the fumble.
Get Help From His Receivers, and Know What To Do When He Doesn't
Tannehill's struggles against the Saints were not all his own doing. Some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of receivers who dropped passes and otherwise did not make Tannehill's life a whole lot easier at times.
On the night, Dolphins receivers dropped three passes, with star receiver Mike Wallace accounting for two of those drops.
Down 28-10 in the third quarter, the Dolphins needed to put together a drive to score and keep themselves in the game. On first down, Tannehill threw a short pass to running back Daniel Thomas that gained one yard. On 2nd-and-9, the Dolphins came out in the shotgun with Wallace (circled in yellow) set to run a curl route at the bottom of the screen.
The Saints clearly had a lot of respect for Wallace's long speed, with the cornerback playing 10 yards off his man.
That cushion gave Wallace enough space to run his route and get open past the first-down marker.
Tannehill did a great job of putting the ball in a good spot for a reception, fitting it in over the fingertips of the defensive back in coverage.
The ball was thrown on-target and was sure to move the chains if caught.
One problem: it wasn't caught.
Wallace has long had a problem with drops, and that issue crept up again on Monday night. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Wallace has dropped three of 15 catchable passes this season (16.67 percent), which gives him the fifth-highest drop rate in the NFL.
If the Dolphins are to trust Wallace to be the top target in their offense, they'll need to also trust him to hang onto the ball when it's put in an easy spot for a catch.
Drops were not the only issue that plagued Dolphins receivers on Monday, though. At times, there was some sloppy route-running as well.
The Dolphins went three-and-out on their first two drives of the second half, and might have had an opportunity to convert this 3rd-and-5 on the first of those two drives, had their receivers not run into each other.
Brandon Gibson (circled in yellow) ran an out route just past the first-down marker, with Hartline running a go route down the sideline. The two routes together are supposed to create a window for the quarterback to complete the pass as the receiver nears the boundary.
Unfortunately, Hartline was unable to win his battle off the line of scrimmage, which created some traffic in the area where Tannehill was supposed to throw the pass.
As a result, Gibson stumbled to the ground while tripping over Hartline's feet, and the pass fell incomplete.
Tannehill might have been able to tell that the window would be tighter due to the jam on Hartline, but it's hard to fault him for making this throw.
Timing routes like this are part of the bread-and-butter of the West Coast offense run by head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. It only takes one minor misstep to ruin a play, and it doesn't even have to be one of the players involved in the play. Examples like the one above illustrate why it's up to all the receivers to be on the same page to make sure the play breaks down the way it's supposed to.
Everything In Context
That was no ordinary opponent the Dolphins faced.
That was Saints quarterback Drew Brees playing a symphony on the other side of the ball, along with head coach Sean Payton conducting the orchestra. That was a revamped defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan that has been relentlessly getting after the quarterback in the first four weeks of the season (12 sacks), and generated four sacks on Tannehill.
This was a competitive game through the first half, and the game truly turned on three drives: Tannehill's interception to end the first half, and the two drives where the Dolphins went three-and-out to start the second half. Had any one of those three drives ended differently, who knows how it might have affected the rest of the game.
The Dolphins aren't going to play the Saints in prime time every single week. They walked into a buzzsaw.
There are lessons to be learned in this loss, mainly about the importance of momentum in a game. The Dolphins also learned that you can't give a good team like the Saints too many opportunities to put a game away.
Some of that falls on Tannehill, but some of it also falls on his teammates. With a little improvement from all parties, though, the Dolphins offense could get back on track.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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