By any measure, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been running for his life through the first four games of the 2013 season.
Week 5 poses perhaps their biggest challenge thus far: a Baltimore Ravens defensive front that knows how to create pressure on the opposing quarterback.
For the Dolphins, the strategy is simple: keep Tannehill clean, and greatly improve your chance to win the game; get burned by the Ravens defense, and watch your chance to win go up in smoke.
The execution of that strategy, however, is not so simple.
On the season, the Dolphins have given up 18 sacks, which is tied for the most out of any team besides the Cleveland Browns (22 sacks allowed), who already played their fifth game. That torrid pace through four games gives the Dolphins the chance to yield 72 sacks, which would be the fourth-most sacks allowed in a season in league history.
"If we give up 72 sacks, I mean, everybody should be fired; I think the whole offensive line," guard Richie Incognito said via the Palm Beach Post. "That’s atrocious."
"Atrocious" is certainly one way to describe their pass protection against the New Orleans Saints.
At a certain point in the game, up by 18 points—and then 25 points—a defensive line starts to pin its ears back. That gets helped a bit when the offense begins spreading things out, going to the 10, 01 or 00 personnel packages—formations with four or five receivers that have minimal protection for the quarterback.
Saints defensive end Junior Gallette got Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin one-on-one in pass protection in the third quarter, with the Saints leading 28-10. Neither of the two backs were helping in protection, but they weren't supposed to, with just four rushers from the Saints defensive line.
Gallette exploded out of a four-point stance off the line of scrimmage and began by heading toward Martin's inside shoulder. Instead of taking the shortest path to the quarterback, Gallette crossed Martin's face and went around the backside. He eventually chased Tannehill down from behind and logged the sack.
Martin struggled at times in the preseason, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has yielded four sacks this season on his own. The left tackle position has come into focus because the Dolphins allowed former starter Jake Long to walk in free agency.
Truth be told, neither Long nor Martin is performing all that well this year (Martin has yielded a combined 13 pressures, while Long has allowed 16), but the blame wouldn't have fallen all on Martin either way. In fact, based on what the Ravens bring to the table, right tackle Tyson Clabo may want to step his game up if he hopes to keep the defense away from his quarterback.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, Clabo allowed three hurries and two sacks of Tannehill, mostly while trying (feebly) to block outside linebacker Robert Mathis off the edge. The savvy veteran briefly faked an inside move and then continued his path around the backside. This fake gave him just enough room to get around Clabo and avoid the long reach of the right tackle.
In Clabo's defense, Mathis is having a great season and is among the best pass-rushers to ever do it, as evidenced by his 99 career sacks, which is just 8.5 sacks short of the Colts' all-time record held by Dwight Freeney.
Clabo did not do well against the Saints, either, allowing four hurries, two hits and a sack on the game.
"There comes a point in time as a competitor where you say, 'This is enough,'" Incognito said of the offensive line's struggles. "And I think we're getting to that breaking point. We’re sick of hearing about it. We're sick of talking about it every week."
This would be a good week for the Dolphins to shake the monkey off their back.
Their task won't get any easier this week, as they're up against a Ravens defense that features outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Through four games, Suggs has logged four sacks—one in each game—which is tied for seventh in the league. Dumervil adds two of his own. According to Pro Football Focus, Suggs and Dumervil rank fifth and sixth respectively in pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers.
"[Suggs] is a kind of a guy that can lull you to sleep," Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said, "and he has got a variety of kind of tricks in his bag so to speak, he is going to be a real challenge for us from a protection standpoint."
Suggs may be 30 years old, but he is still a huge threat off the edge using a variety of moves. Here, he put a spin move on Houston Texans right tackle Derek Newton, quickly getting through the B-gap for the sack of quarterback Matt Schaub.
We've already seen quickness create problems for Clabo this season, so he should be ready for those moves whether it's Suggs or Dumervil lining up across from him.
Pressure wasn't as much of a problem for Tannehill last year—not because he wasn't pressured, but because he simply performed better while under pressure.
Last year, it almost didn't seem to matter if Tannehill was being pressured. This year, however, he ranks 19th in accuracy percentage while under pressure (passes that were either caught or dropped) and has been pressured on 33.5 percent of his dropbacks.
He's been pressured on a higher percentage of his throws this year, which has magnified the issue.
However, there are some who think Tannehill needs to take some of the blame for his pocket awareness—or lack thereof.
Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus points out that while Tannehill has been sacked a lot, he hasn't been pressured very often comparatively speaking. Tannehill's sacks mainly come when he holds onto the ball too long, even though he's not holding it too long all the time.
To lessen the blows Tannehill takes in any given game and to limit the amount of pressure he faces in the pocket, it's going to take a team effort. Better blocks from the offensive tackles are a good place to start, but Tannehill also needs to know when the rush is coming so that he can get the ball out quickly.
It's not as if he's hanging onto the ball for absurd lengths of time. He averages 2.49 seconds in the pocket and 2.29 seconds to attempt a pass, which are both very quick numbers. However, he's sacked within 3.62 seconds of the snap, which is one of the seven fastest average times to be sacked for any quarterback.
With better pocket awareness from Tannehill and better blocks from the offensive line, the Dolphins can get back to the efficient offense we saw from them the first three weeks of the season. Heck, they can probably get back to it without those things.
Against the Ravens, though, it will be a tough test, and the Dolphins had better bring their A-game.
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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