We'll never know for sure whether Ryan Tannehill is the quarterback of the future for the Miami Dolphins, unless the Dolphins stay as balanced on offense as they've been (or tried to be) over the past two weeks.
For the first five games of the season, the Dolphins were about as committed to the running game as Kim Kardashian was committed to Kris Humphries. They turned a corner with a week to settle their differences and are now more committed than Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
They averaged 19 rush attempts per game (31.6 percent of their offensive plays) and 69.6 rushing yards per game. Their ineffectiveness running the ball may have played into the imbalance a bit, as they were averaging just 3.7 yards per carry in that span.
In the two games since the bye, they've run the ball 56 times for 276 yards (4.93 yards per carry), which was just 72 yards shy of their output in the first five games of the season on 95 fewer carries. With an average of 28 carries per game over the past two contests, the Dolphins may finally be finding the balance they so sorely lacked earlier in the season.
As strange as it sounds, running the football may help the offensive line protect Tannehill. It forces a defensive line to play with gap integrity, not getting too far out of position in pursuit, instead of charging hard up the field.
It's no coincidence that in the first half, when the Dolphins ran the ball 22 times for 103 yards, Tannehill was not sacked once.
Whether it was Daniel Thomas or Lamar Miller taking the handoffs, the holes were there for the Dolphins running backs to pick up easy yards.
It's not as if the Dolphins were catching the Patriots off-guard with the running game; this was a 4th-and-1 run that went for 15 yards simply thanks to incredible blocking.
Those short-yardage runs have been tough to convert for the Dolphins this season. On second, third and fourth down with two yards or less to go, the Dolphins have run the ball 16 times, the sixth-fewest in the NFL, and have a 43.8 percent conversion rate, the second-lowest in the NFL.
Against the Patriots, they converted two first downs on four such runs. It's hard to successfully run the ball when the defense knows it's coming, but the Dolphins were able to do it against the Patriots. Only as the game started to slip away in the second half did the Dolphins get away from the running game.
That being said, their lack of commitment to the running game has doomed them in the past.
|Miami Dolphins situational play-calling and production|
|Situation||1st down||2nd down||3rd down|
|Average distance to go (all plays)||9.92||7.85||7.11|
Their balance on first down has been commendable, and it has paid off by putting them in respectable second-down situations (7.85 yards to go is the 12th-lowest average on second down this season), but they have gotten further away from the running game with each down. That's common across the league, but the Dolphins are no less than eight percent above the league average in terms of how often they pass on second and third down.
Over the past two weeks, they've been a bit more balanced on second down (30 passes, 19 rushes), but they're still not really even trying to run on third down (25 passes, five rushes). They have been more committed to the running game, but there's still room for improvement in that respect.
They're also being smarter about catching defenses off-guard with the running game. On this 2nd-and-10 in the first quarter, the Dolphins came out in the 10 personnel (one back, no tight end, four wide receivers) and the Patriots matched that grouping by lining up with just three defensive linemen and two linebackers in the box.
That's as favorable of a front as you'll get when it comes to running the ball.
If they can continue to be successful running the ball when other teams know they're going to do it, their offense could finally start to take off.
|Miami Dolphins play-calling and production by quarter|
Going deeper, the Dolphins have struggled to run the ball in the fourth quarter more than any other quarter. This past week against the Patriots, the Dolphins got away from the running game in the fourth quarter as the lead slipped away, and the Patriots took control of the game.
Against the Bills in Week 7, however, they abandoned the run while leading (albeit by one point), racking up just three rush attempts on their way to scoring zero points in the fourth quarter, a result of punting twice and turning the ball over once on a sack-fumble.
At the same time, the running game needs to reward the coaching staff for its faith when it actually does call those plays. The Dolphins totaled four yards on those three fourth-quarter carries against the Bills, putting the Dolphins in three 2nd-and-long situations.
The Dolphins called five runs on the 16 plays between the Patriots drawing within seven points and taking a 10-point lead. Of those 11 pass plays, five were incomplete passes, one was intercepted, and Tannehill was sacked once.
Considering how successful they had been up to that point running the ball and how solid a complement it had been for their passing game, their sudden abandonment of the ground game came as a surprise.
The Dolphins know they have to be committed to the running game. That's clear simply from the increased focus on running the ball since the bye week. If the Dolphins can stay balanced, and if the offensive line and running backs can reward the coaching staff for its good faith, the Dolphins offense can and will look better than it did even during the team's three-game winning streak to start the season.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.