The Tank Bowl arrives with little luster
Who: Dolphins (3-11) vs. Bengals (1-13)
When: Sunday December 22, 1:00 East
Where: Hard Rock Stadium — Miami Gardens, FL
Weather: 76 degrees, 90% precipitation, 18 MPH winds, 82% humidity
Vegas Slant: Dolphins -1
In Sunday’s recap column I speculated about the levee breaking for a Dolphins team that has utilized more players (80) than any team in league history. Losing more players to injured reserve than all but one team has ushered in a weekly line-change, of sorts, with regards to the Dolphins roster.
For four straight weeks, Miami have added at least two new players. The total body count for that month-long-period is 11 players (20.1%), a fitting bookend to a season that began with 24.5% overhaul prior to the opener with Baltimore.
Miami were embarrassed in those first two games — and hardly competitive in the next two. Then, after the bye week, the Dolphins were within two scores in six of the next eight games, with three victories to their credit.
Now, on the final leg of a three-game stretch that was supposed to result in a competitive product, one that would flirt with a three-game winning streak (four total when the Philadelphia win in week 13 is included), most are expecting Miami to limp to the finish line and end the season at 3-13.
The upshot, for an otherwise arduous season, is that Miami are essentially assured of a top three pick. They’re almost certainly assured to get a crack at the draft’s best quarterback (injured hip not withstanding), and they showed enough bite in a restructuring season to inspire hope about the coaching staff and direction of the organization.
Sunday brings the NFL’s worst record into the house of the NFL’s worst roster. Something has to give, just as it did last week in New York. Despite Brian Flores and Patrick Graham dialing confusing post-snap rotations to the tune of three Eli Manning interceptions, the Dolphins — and all their newcomers — couldn’t hang with the talented Giants receiving corps.
It’s a game that neither fan base wants to win in what’s supposed to be a soggy Sunday South Florida afternoon. This is one of the more aesthetically pleasing matchups the NFL offers, and some of the parallels these two teams share make the game — dare I say — kind of fascinating?
Let’s break it down.
Zac Taylor is a chip off the old Sean McVay block, and his offense is the best proof of that relationship. McVay’s Rams run 11-personnell at an 84% clip — tied for the most in football. Taylor’s Bengals are the team tied with the Rams for the least amount of variety in the personnel packaging on offense.
The scheme focuses on the same 10-15 plays dressed up with different alignments and pre-snap shifts and motion. The primary option in the offense is often the slot receiver (Cooper Kupp, Tyler Boyd) and both love to run stretch concepts off tackle (precisely where Miami are weakest).
Cincinnati does utilize 12-personnel at a 10% clip, but no other package exceeds 2% (02 the next highest).
The Bengals rank 26th in total offense, 22nd in passing, 27th in rushing, and last in points per game.
If the name Zac Taylor sounds familiar, Lou Anarumo should too. The Bengals vetted multiple candidates for the Defensive Coordinator position and couldn’t give the job away — hence appointing a man that’s been bouncing around positional jobs since the 1980’s.
Anarumo was saddled with a roster that lacks speed and the traits required for modern day football in 2019. He’s a defensive backs coach by trade, but regularly has blown coverages (sound familiar?) and his secondary allows one of the worst separation rates in the league.
The Bengals will create pressure with a stout front-four, but are not resistant to sending an extra rusher. Cincinnati’s 32.9% blitz-rate is just .3% lower than Miami’s, and ranks 10th in football.
Cincinnati are 29th in total defense, 15th in passing, last in rushing, and 24th in scoring defense. Their best trait — the pressure created — ranks 12th in QB knockdown rate, but near the bottom in sack production. That has changed in recent weeks, however, as the Bengals have 13 sacks in the last five games.
Joe Mixon is the engine that drives what little success the Bengals offense has found this year. Of Mixon’s 39 missed tackles forced, 25 of them have come from off-tackle runs. His ability to stretch the defense, identify the hole, hit it and make the first man miss is what makes him special.
Mixon is not only scolding hot right now (282 rushing yards the last two weeks), his best runs come in Miami’s most vulnerable area — off either edge. With 64% of his missed tackles forced coming off the edge, a 5.4 yards per rush average off right end, and 4.8 average off left end, it’s seems inconceivable that Miami can stop the Bengals back.
If the Dolphins are to have success, it comes from the Bengals horrid offensive line. Pro Football Focus has the Bengals as the 31st-graded run blocking offensive line (only better than Miami), and the 28th-graded pass blocking line.
Wide Receiver Alex Erickson out-reps former 9th-overall draft pick John Ross, and both play a backseat to Tyler Boyd, the Bengals leader in receptions and yards. Cincinnati’s top tight end is C.J. Uzomah (70% player) with Tyler Eifert bumped to second duty from the rash of injuries he has endured through his career.
Geno Atkins is the Bengals lone pro-bowler, but he’s not produced like he did in the past. Atkins’ sack total is the lowest it’s been since 2014, but he’s still a disrupting force that Miami will have to double in order to handle on the interior.
That creates further problems on the outside as neither tackle is equipped to deal with Carlos Dunlap’s get-off or length. Sam Hubbard needs one more sack to top his rookie year total of six, but he’s even more impressive against the run.
It would stand to reason that Miami finds itself behind the chains a lot, but the Dolphins have used tendency breakers to have success. Expect Miami to line up in plenty of 12-personnel, get the Bengals slower groupings onto the field, and go to work through that air from that normally run-heavy package.
Miami should attack Linebacker Nick Vigil with the tight ends and backs, and look to isolate Cornerback B.W. Webb in one-on-one situations with Devante Parker.
Just as Miami took the football away from a turnover prone quarterback last week in New York, Flores should have enough up his sleeve to confuse Andy Dalton, who Joe Goodberry of Locked On Bengals said is having the worst year of his professional career. Cincinnati are thin at wide-out, and are often not on the same page with Dalton, so the opportunities for takeaways exists.
It’s difficult to carve out opportunities for the Dolphins offense. One thing the Miami attack has over the Cincinnati defense is speed. Look for Albert Wilson’s lateral agility and jet sweep activity to influence the way the Bengals defend everything Miami wants to accomplish.
It starts and ends up front with the Bengals pass rush against Miami’s offensive line. Geno Atkins is headed back to the pro-bowl for the eighth time, and there is quite simply no one on this Dolphins roster that can handle future Hall of Fame Defensive Tackle. Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard showed Dolphins fans how capable they are of wrecking a game last season, to boot.
Joe Mixon is quietly one of the best backs in football going up against the NFL’s 31st-ranked run defense. His balance, patience, speed and acceleration to the edge will prove problematic for Miami.
The Projected Outcome:
This is the first game in which Miami have been favored this season, but the 1-point spread tells us that the Bengals are a better football team because of the 3-point advantage given to the home side.
With Dalton back in the fold, a quality running game and pass rush to attack Miami’s two weakest areas, the only thing that will keep this game close is Miami’s coaching advantage.
But even that’s not enough as lug nuts are loose and the wheels are getting wobbly for this Dolphins team.
Turning the Machine in the Right Direction
Nearly a year ago, 11 months to be precise, I wrote this piece for Locked On Dolphins: “Small, Important Steps in the Right Direction”. It was me opining on what I felt like were a series of small steps Miami, specifically Chris Grier and the front office had taken in the right direction just after the Draft. At the time, Miami had accumulated a Draft Pick haul of a: 1st rounder, two 2nd rounders, a 3rd, two 4ths, a 5th, two 6ths, and two 7ths. We know war chest has expanded, and Miami’s sure to put that to effective use in just over a month at the 2020 NFL Draft.
So, where are Miami now?
Well, that’s an interesting question, but I’ll attempt to answer it. With a haul of 11 free agents, counting TE Michael Roberts who was signed before the new League Year, Miami’s managed to fill some of the holes the exited 2019 with. Perhaps most important, despite shelling out big money deals, all of them are structured in smart, team-friendly ways. Kudos to Chris Grier and Brandon Shore for that. It’ll pay dividends down the road.
With the Draft still a month away, at least as things stand with the COVID-19 outbreak right now, Miami’s needs have become clearer. Quarterback was always and still is the top priority for the Draft. Running Back is a need still, and there’s a plethora of top notch backs in this year’s class. Offensive Line, obviously. Miami can use help across the board there. With the defensive free agent signings, I’m not sure edge defenders are a need anymore, but I think Miami will still bargain shop there. Safety, specifically free safety, and a true nose tackle round out the needs list. At lest in my mind.
With 14 picks, and Miami probably won’t use all of them to make actual picks – I think some get used in trade ups and some get pushed to 2021 – Miami will likely be able to fill that remaining chunk of needs, which is a great place to be in. Perhaps Miami still shops around a bit in free agency, maybe for O-line depth or a cheap running back, but I think the focus now narrows to the Draft. Since that’s next month, let’s review the free agent crop.
Free Agent Fits
Our pal Travis Wingfield has done plenty of in-depth reporting on all of Miami’s free agent signings, so I’m going to give you my broad stroke takes on what Miami’s added this past week.
Miami added defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah to help set the edge against the run. Kyle Van Noy is an outside linebacker with a sneaky amount of strength and ability to play with heavy hands and good leverage who can help set the edge too. What this means for Miami’s defense is that we’ll likely see more 4-man defensive fronts. Remember, when Brian Flores called the Patriots defense in 2018 his most used for formations were:
4-2-5 (307 snaps)
3-3-5 (226 snaps)*
3-2-6 (132 snaps)
4-3 (97 snaps)
* With the 3-3-5 package, there’s really two versions: The Bear front and the slide front. The Bear front typically included bigger defensive lineman to cover the opponents G-C-G with Hightower and Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy on edges, with Van Noy or Elandon Roberts off-ball. Think of the slide front as really a 4-2 front, but you have an OLB playing as a stand-up DE.
A potential hidden bonus here is that both Lawson and Ogbah have some experience playing in stand-up OLB/DE roles. Shaq Lawson did it some at Clemson and Ogbah had some limited experience in doing so last year with the Chiefs. I think Ogbah was used primarily as a rusher as I haven’t seen snaps of him dropping into coverage from that spot. But he’s been aligned there.
With the additions of Lawson, Ogbah and Van Noy, Miami’s going to try and be able to find analogs similar to Van Noy himself, more on that in a minute; Ogbah compares pretty well in play style to how the Pats used Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise that year; and Lawson’s versatility might lend him to be used in some, and I stress some, of the capacities in which they used Trey Flowers. With Van Noy, in 2019 he was almost an exclusive on-the-LOS edge LB. In 2018, his duties between being an edge player and off-ball linebacker were about 50-50. I don’t know that we’ll see that, but I think Van Noy’s snaps won’t be as an exclusive edge – he’s so versatile in how he can be used.
As much as I love Khalid Kareem and really like guys like K’Lavon Chaisson, Curtis Weaver, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Marlon Davidson I have a difficult time picturing Miami spending a top-level resource on an edge defender. I think they’ll take a stab on a guy that falls or try and find value later on like Trevis Gipson, Jason Strowbridge, Chauncey Rivers, James Smith-Williams, etc.
No Fly Zone Southeast
I’ll admit, I in no way shape or form saw Miami going after someone like Byron Jones. In fact, I wonder if the Patriots franchise tagging Joe Thuney meant that money Miami might’ve offered to him was “freed up” to pursue other options. And man, did Miami get a nice player in Jones. Yes, he doesn’t have a ton of interceptions, but he does have 20 PBUs the past two years, and 44 for his career – nearly nine a year.
I’m a little dumbfounded that so many Dolfans think this signing means that Xavien Howard is on the trade block. Why would he be? Why would you dismantle a CB tandem this good? I get that X had the legal issue, but that was dismissed. I feel like if Miami wanted him gone, he’d have been gone by now.
What it means having a tandem like Byron and X is that you have a pair of corners that excel at press, can play off man, can both play on either side of the formation, and both can travel to the slot. That gives them some really nice flexibility and the opportunity to get creative with coverages. I’ll be really intrigued if they add a FS that allows Bobby McCain to play in the slot more, like he did in 2015-17. Miami could disguise a lot if that becomes an option.
When you combine Jones with the additions of Lawson and Ogbah up front, and Van Noy as someone who can play on the LOS or off-ball, you have to tip your cap to Miami for adding help at all three levels of the defense.
Depth and Special Teams
Miami apparently isn’t bringing back Walt Aikens, who was their best special teamer the past few seasons. Instead, Miami opted to bring in a trio of damn good special teamers, two of whom were captains. The one that wasn’t, Elandon Roberts, figures to get a chance to play in some packages on defense, just as he did with New England, and is a core special teams guy. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ate some of Chandler Cox’s reps as a fullback either. He’ll be fun to watch on whichever unit he’s getting snaps at.
Kamu Grugier-Hill, a fellow 6th round pick mate of the 2016 Patriots Class with Ted Karras and Elandon Roberts, is an intriguing player. While he might have been a better fit for Miami’s previous staff under Gase and Burke, he’s a fantastic special teamer and has shown well as a blitzer and coverage linebacker. His presence probably means guys like Sam Eguavoen and Calvin Munson are in the danger zone.
Clayton Fejedelem is more a like-for-like replacement for Aikens. A hard-hitting safety who’s a demon on special teams. Fejedelem probably won’t get a lot of looks on defense, especially if Miami ends up drafting another safety, but the bonus with Fejedelem, as compared to Aikens, is if you have to call on him to play on defense, he’s going to be better equipped to handle it.
Improving the Ground Game
I’ll admit, with Ereck Flowers being the first reported signing of free agency, I was a little worried the ghosts of Jeff Ireland and Mike Tannenbaum were summoned by the Tequesta. Flowers reputation carries stains, but he played well the second half of 2019 as LG for the Redskins. I hope Miami leaves him there. Ted Karras comes over after playing as center for the Patriots in 2019. He’s a bigger guy than Daniel Kilgore. He’s smart. He’s tough. He struggles a little in space and with power. I do wonder if Michael Deiter gets a shot to compete with him at the C spot with Flowers at LG, where Deiter played last year.
Both Flowers and Karras will get the opportunity to block for newly signed running back Jordan Howard (a favorite of my wife’s as he’s a fellow Indiana Hoosier). Howard’s a bigger back at 225lbs, but he’s more well rounded than he is a power back. He can catch and be a weapon in the pass game. He’s also pretty savvy with inside and outside zone runs. With Chan Gailey and Eric Studesville working on the ground game, Howard’s sure to get plenty of use.
Tight end Michael Roberts has played just 12 games over the past three seasons due to injuries and poor play. He was traded to the Patriots last year but failed a physical cancelling the trade. Detroit waived him and he was claimed by Green Bay but failed a physical there. He battled weight gain, depression and had his left shoulder surgically repaired. More of a blocking TE, he roasted the Dolphins in 2018, naturally, when Detroit came to Miami. If Roberts plays up to his potential, I think he’s got the ability to challenge Durham Smythe for that #2 TE role – being an inline TE.
Prepping for April
While the Draft won’t have the party that Vegas would’ve offered, that’s the next major step for Chris Grier. Miami needs to get the Draft right. We’re talking 2017 Saints right. We’re talking 2019 Raiders right. Miami has the opportunity to inject a lot of talent, in addition to the quarterback, into this team.
Go figure that the year Miami as FINALLY loaded up on picks, the COVID-19 breakout has forced Pro Days and 30 Visits to mostly be cancelled. And unless something drastically changes in the next few weeks, Miami and the rest of the league aren’t going to have as much operating information as they normally do. Miami will have to rely more on scouting than in the past.
The outbreak also likely puts a dent into each team’s offseason program. Teams will have to head into their offseason programs storming to get ready for the season. Let’s hope Miami doesn’t have a truncated offseason like they did in 2011 under Tony Sparano, which lead to an 0-7 start.
For now, with quarantines in place, there’s likely not going to be a lot happening for the Dolphins between now and the Draft. Hunker down. Watch tape (Game Pass is free). Familiarize yourself with Flores’s scheme. Watch “Humble and Hungry” – I highly recommend it! But above all, stay safe. We can get through this together.
You may recall Travis and I made a trip to Miami last year for the Bengals-Dolphins game. We were credentialed for it, meaning we were members of the media for that day. I think one of the most lasting impressions I have from that trip is just how many pieces work to create the “machine” that is each NFL team. Miami have a lot of great people in place.
I’d only ever been to one other Dolphins game in Miami. That was back in 2010. I don’t remember what Hard Rock Stadium was called at the time; it’s had many different iterations since it was Joe Robbie Stadium. But I remember walking around that stadium thinking it was dumpy. And I’d been to some dumpy stadiums – Old RFK Stadium for a Washington Nationals Game, whatever they call the Coliseum where the Raiders played, and the A’s still call home. Riverfront Stadium – the stadium of my youth. These were the stadiums that Hard Rock rivaled in 2010.
What Mr. Ross and Tom Garfinkel have done to the place is INCREDIBLE! I’ve been to Lucas Oil Stadium and the renovated version of Lambeau Field (2010 and 2016). Those two places are crown jewels. Hard Rock Stadium as it stands right now is nicer than both!
Miami’s building a fantastic new team headquarters and training complex. Travis and I stopped by Team HQ in Davie on our trip to pick up a parking pass for the game. The current HQ is nice (I live in Cincinnati and drive by Paul Brown Stadium daily on my way to work – that’s my comparison, but Miami’s is nicer), but it’s small. This new place is going to be world-class.
Brian Flores the Head Coach. While it’s only been a year with him at the helm, just by being in his presence, hearing him speak and listening to what the players said about him – there’s not a man in that building that wouldn’t run to the TNT Wall for him. Miami’s finally got the Head Coach they’ve longed for since Don Shula strode the sidelines.
The Dolphins have added 11 pieces so far, and the have the opportunity to select a new franchise quarterback in a month. If Chris Grier, Marvin Allen, Reggie McKenzie, Brian Flores, the staff, and the scouts get this right Miami’s going to have built one hell of a machine. Just in time for the post-Tom Brady Era in the AFC East.
It’s a wonderful time to be a Dolfan! All is certainly not right in the world. Not by a longshot. But in these trying times where we all need to cling to some form of solace, the Dolphins are providing one. It’s a small part of my everyday life, but it’s one of my favorite parts. Always has been. Always will be. FinsUp!
Free agency opens; Reshad Jones, Mike Hull lead Miami Dolphins cuts
MIAMI (Locked On Dolphins) – While the two-day legal tampering period has already been underway, free agency officially opened on Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Since many of the heavy-hitting signs and trades have already been announced, the start of the new league year will be more about ratifying all those moves.
The Miami Dolphins, at the time of writing, have announced 10 free agency moves.
And with that, there has been the consequential announcement of cutdowns to counterbalance the roster spots of incoming players.
Reshad Jones leads the list and is also the only technical release, but the Dolphins had already announced that.
Jones was going into his 11th season and spent the first 10 with the Dolphins.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jones sign with a new team in the coming days of free agency.
Nearly half a dozen players were also waived: wide receiver T.J. Rahming, cornerback Rashard Causey, tackle Chidi Okeke, interior offensive lineman Evan Brown, defensive lineman Kendrick Norton, and linebacker Mike Hull.
Rahming, Causey, and Okeke spent the 2019 season as practice squad members.
Brown saw playing time late in the 2019 season but had been plucked off the Giants practice squad.
Hull might be the most interesting name on the list. He had been a scrappy ‘backer presence for the Dolphins after signing with the team as a UDFA in 2015.
Hull re-signed with the Dolphins last spring.
But he spent the 2019 season on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a knee injury and didn’t play.
Norton was also kept on the team during the 2019 season by way of the Non-Football Injury list after a car accident last summer.
Miami Dolphins Bring On Another Ex-Patriot, Sign LB Elandon Roberts
The Miami Dolphins are loading up on leadership. If there’s one thing the Dolphins have made a priority this offseason, it’s adding smart, determined football players to their team. Under Brian Flores‘ stewardship, I doubt we ever see a broken locker room again.
According to Cameron Wolfe of ESPN, the Miami Dolphins are signing linebacker Elandon Roberts to a contract. Financial details are currently unknown.
Dolphins agreed to a deal with former Patriots LB Elandon Roberts, per source.
— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) March 18, 2020
Roberts is yet another ex-New England Patriot to leave Boston this offseason for warmer pastures down south, following fellow-linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and the recent addition of (center) Ted Karras earlier today.
Originally drafted as a 6th-round pick by the New England Patriots in 2016, Roberts has primarily served as a special teams ace, while also serving as depth at linebacker.
If you were impressed by Biegel’s production last season, you will be pleased with the type of versatility Roberts brings. Over the past four seasons, Roberts has been active for 60 games (starting 33 of them), and has accumulated 4 sacks, 6 passes defended, 206 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss and 14 QB Hits.
Roberts is stout against the run, something the Dolphins have lacked over the past couple of seasons.
Run-stuffing LB/FB Elandon Roberts, a team captain in 2019, reunites with Brian Flores. The Patriots have Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley as top ILBs. https://t.co/yvYxvVgMV4
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 18, 2020
If you were curious what all the additions at linebacker meant for Vince Biegel, this doesn’t make things any clearer. Biegel is tendered at a “cheap” rate next season, so there’s no need to trade him or let him walk, but with the additions of Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill so far this offseason, it seems snap counts are becoming sparser.
Right now, the Dolphins currently have the following linebackers on their roster for 2020:
- Chase Allen
- Jerome Baker
- Vince Biegel
- Jake Carlock
- James Crawford
- Jamal Davis II
- Sam Eguavoen
- Terrill Hanks
- Trent Harris
- Mike Hull
- Deon Lacy
- Raekwon McMillan
- Calvin Munson
- Andrew Van Ginkel
They recently added:
- Kyle Van Noy
- Elandon Roberts
- Kamu Grugier-Hill
Sam Eguavoen was a budding linebacker and special teams player for the Dolphins last season, but it looks like he’ll need to have an excellent training camp to remain on the team. It’ll also be interesting to see what this means for last year’s 5th-round pick, Andrew Van Ginkel.
- Turning the Machine in the Right Direction March 22, 2020
- Free agency opens; Reshad Jones, Mike Hull lead Miami Dolphins cuts March 18, 2020
- Miami Dolphins Bring On Another Ex-Patriot, Sign LB Elandon Roberts March 18, 2020
- Miami Dolphins sign center Ted Karras March 18, 2020
- Miami Dolphins Bolster Their Running Backs, Sign Jordan Howard March 17, 2020