If the Miami Dolphins are losing patience with big-ticket free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, they shouldn't be. They may have overpaid a bit, but that's the price of business on the NFL free-agent market.
Aside from an egregious number of drops, he's been about as good as should have been expected—both in the context of his previous years and in the context of being ripped from one offense, one in which he had developed rapport with a veteran quarterback, to a new offense with a young quarterback.
In fact, right now, Wallace is on pace for a season that looks remarkably similar to his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
|Mike Wallace, career numbers by year|
|2013 (on-pace stats)||144||72||50||960||13.3||2||16|
|Pro-Football-Reference.com; Pro Football Focus|
The volume of drops is rather alarming, but given the drop rate over the course of his career, it could be an aberration. Compound his history of drops and remember that his head is swimming in a sea of new knowledge with a new playbook, and it's easy to see where his overall concentration might be suffering right now.
Such was the case on this drop, all too easy a reception for any NFL receiver.
On 3rd-and-6 against the Baltimore Ravens, the Dolphins came out in the 11 personnel grouping—one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers—and the Ravens matched with the nickel defense, giving the illusion of a full-on blitz before the snap.
The dig route always comes open at some point, and against the Ravens defense on this play, that point was right in between the linebackers.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill fired the pass right over the two 'backers, but he threw it slightly behind Wallace.
The receiver was unable to adjust on the ball, but that was a catch he absolutely had to make. Still, the fact that he dropped an easy one should come as no surprise given his reputation for doing so.
There are holes in his game, but Wallace's strong suit is his long speed. The more often the Dolphins use it, the better use they'll be making of his talent.
In fact, only three of Wallace's 32 receptions have come on a true north-south vertical route this season so far, yielding 129 yards.
However, the Dolphins offensive line hasn't done a great job of blocking for Tannehill to buy him the time in the pocket he needs in order to find Wallace on those deep strikes. He's been sacked a league-leading 35 times through eight games.
The Dolphins coaching staff will have to scheme Wallace open. It can do this either with formations (stack or bunch formation, lining up Wallace behind another receiver, allowing a free release), route combinations (rub routes that cause traffic for a defensive secondary), screen plays or, as it did on this play, use of play-action.
The Dolphins lined up with the 13 personnel package—one running back, three tight ends (Michael Egnew lined up at fullback) and Wallace as the lone receiver on the outside.
The Cincinnati Bengals responded to the run-heavy look by loading the box with 10 defenders, all of whom bit on the play-action fake.
The above screen grab is where Tannehill reaches the top of his drop after having executed the fake. Two defenders have the job of covering one receiver. The safety covers the deep half, the cornerback stays stride for stride with Wallace in man coverage, assuming he's going long.
The problem—for the Bengals—was that no one was available to cover a throw over the middle, which happened to be exactly where Wallace was headed. This was likely an option route for him, where he could either run deep or capitalize on a lack of coverage over the middle if the deep throw was taken away.
Wallace turned around, causing the cornerback to stumble, and as he came back to the football, the defender fell to his knees. He then turned upfield and picked up an extra 15 yards or so after the catch.
If the Dolphins continue to use Wallace to his strengths, they'll be pleased with the results.
One other thing: There's a stark difference for Tannehill when he throws deep to his left (5-of-9) as opposed to deep to his right (3-of-14), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It's hard to tell why exactly that is, but it's baffling that Wallace hasn't been targeted once this season on a throw deep to the left.
It's not a surprise, however, that the Dolphins have tried to use him more on underneath routes. Not only have the Dolphins been unable to protect Tannehill long enough to allow those deep routes to develop consistently, but defensive backs have been playing far off the line of scrimmage, giving Wallace anywhere from seven to 10 yards of cushion.
By my tabulation, Wallace was only jammed on one of his 32 receptions this year so far—and that ended up being a 46-yard completion over Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore made initial contact with Wallace about four yards past the line of scrimmage. Wallace was able to fight through the contact and continued running vertically. With no deep help over the top, Gilmore was stranded on an island with Wallace, who got him to bite hard when he faked an in-cut. At that point, Gilmore was helpless to do anything against Wallace's speed.
The extra cushion Wallace has been getting at the line of scrimmage has forced the Dolphins to find different ways to use him instead of simply sending him deep on a go route every time he hits the field.
Miami has used Wallace on six screen plays, picking up 62 yards in the process, including a 25-yarder on 3rd-and-23 against the New England Patriots.
The Dolphins came out in the 11 personnel grouping and had center Mike Pouncey and right tackle Jonathan Martin pull out in front of the play to block downfield. The Patriots matched with their 4-2-5 nickel defense, and cornerback Marquice Cole lined up 10 yards off Wallace at the line of scrimmage.
Once Wallace caught the pass, all he had to do was turn upfield to find a trio of blockers in front of him. He simply followed his blocks, cutting in between Martin and Pouncey to pick up extra yards. Only when safety Steve Gregory chased down the play from the other side of the field was Wallace finally stopped.
The best and most efficient way to attack that kind of coverage is to have Wallace quickly cut underneath and catch a short pass. The problem with that line of thinking is it doesn't help statistically justify spending that much money on the player. That being said, his impact is being felt even though it's not manifesting in the form of a constant stream of big plays.
The Dolphins are trying to make use of Wallace's full skill set, but there's improvement to be done on everyone's part. Wallace needs to catch the easy passes, and the Dolphins need to find ways to better protect Tannehill so those long routes can develop. If the two sides can meet in the middle on both aspects, the relationship could still prove to be a fruitful one.
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.