Exploring the Dolphins’ offensive drop-off, reasons behind it and Miami’s response

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com
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Six weeks ago, the question was whether the Dolphins could become the most prolific offense in NFL single-season history.

Now the question is whether they can muster more than a couple of touchdowns against good teams and stout defenses.

After averaging 37.2 points per game in their first six games, the Dolphins (excluding a defensive touchdown against Philadelphia) are averaging 18.7 in their past four.

And several strong defenses await. Next up: the New York Jets, who are 11th in points permitted but second in generating pressure on the quarterback (27 percent of opposing drop backs). The 7-3 Dolphins and 4-6 Jets meet on Friday in New Jersey (3 p.m., Amazon/CBS-4).

“They’re one of the more talented groups in the league,” Dolphins receiver Jaylen Waddle said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

And beyond two games against the Jets in the next month, other difficult defensive assignments await. Dallas, which visits the Dolphins on Dec. 24, is fifth in points allowed. Baltimore, which hosts the Dolphins on Dec. 31, is third. And Buffalo, which visits the Dolphins in the regular season finale, is fourth.

So here’s a question for coach Mike McDaniel: Do the Dolphins simply need to do what they do better — including eliminating turnovers — or must they add new wrinkles against good defenses?

McDaniel suggested both.

On one hand, he said coaches are giving players “different presentations and that’s something that is part of our job, to give players something… to give them a competitive advantage.”

On the other hand, the recent decline in production “doesn’t mean we have to retool the tool box,” McDaniel said. “What does the [20-13 win against the Raiders] look like if we don’t turn over the ball three times? If we weren’t able to move the ball, I would feel differently.”

The Dolphins mustered just one offensive touchdown against an Eagles defense that ranks 17th in points allowed, two against a Chiefs defense that ranks second and two against a Raiders defense that ranks 13th.

One issue has been short yardage play. Per 3YardsPerCarry, since the start of last season, the Dolphins are 31st in converting third and fourth-and-1 situations into first downs, at 42.9 percent.

Tua Tagovailoa has been above average in the past four games, completing 68 percent of his passes and producing a passer rating of 95.4, down from his 106 rating for the season. (That 106 ranks second in the NFL behind only San Francisco’s Brock Purdy.)

But he has three interceptions and fumbled three times in those four games.

“The common theme” with his eight interceptions “is miscommunication, and that starts with me,” said Tagovailoa, who has 21 touchdown passes. “Maybe I have to talk to the guys and express certain routes to them differently.”

And the running game hasn’t been nearly as effective.

After averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the first six games of the season, Miami has averaged just 3.9 in the past four.

Part of that can be explained by the absence of rookie phenom De’Von Achane, who was averaging 12.1 per carry before a knee injury sidelined him four games and led to his departure after just three snaps (and one carry for one yard) against the Raiders.

McDaniel said Monday that Achane won’t need surgery but the team is still evaluating the injury; Achane was feeling better on Monday.

Part of the yards-per-carry falloff likely can be attributed to injuries on the offensive line. Robert Hunt, one of the top right guards in football this season, missed the past two games with a hamstring injury and he’s questionable for Friday, as are tight end Durham Smythe and receivers Chase Claypool and Braxton Berrios.

Isaiah Wynn, who was playing very well at left guard, hasn’t played since sustaining a significant quadriceps injury in the Philadelphia game.

Tyreek Hill spoke of teams experimenting with creative approaches to try to stop the Dolphins’ offense, which ended September on pace to set several single-season NFL offensive records but is no longer on that pace.

As an example, “the Patriots, with coach Bill Belichick, with the three safety look, is something we’ve never seen before,” receiver Tyreek Hill said. “They had both safeties down, trying to get hands on me and Jaylen. Trying not to allow the ball to get outside of them. So we have been seeing a bunch of unusual things; it’s something that we will adjust” to.

Opposing teams played two deep safeties against Miami 51 percent of the time last season, second most in the league, ”and I don’t think that’s subsided” this year, McDaniel said.

“A lot of our success has come against two deep because we get a lot of it,” the coach added. “That’s the challenge presented to us every game. Teams try to make us earn everything we get because they see on tape we have explosive capabilities. Whatever they’re taking away, [we need to] make them pay for it. Some weeks we do a better job than others. That won’t change what we’re trying to do.”

Playing against two deep safeties “is something we have to get better at,” Waddle said.

But Hill said the Chiefs’ good work against Miami’s offense was a result of execution, not trying anything unusual.

Fullback Alec Ingold said coaches have been hard on themselves when the offense isn’t humming.

“The one thing I would say about our coaching staff is they challenge themselves more than any coaches I’ve been around,” he said. “Before we headed on the bye, they were extremely hard on themselves just like every single player here.”

Are there more wrinkles that the Dolphins haven’t shown offensively but could use in the weeks ahead?

“It’s probably too soon to tell all the adjustments that are going to be made down the stretch,” Ingold said. “There is an infinite number of wrinkles that Mike has proven he has.”