The 3 questions that will determine if the Dolphins can clinch a playoff berth
The Dolphins are trying to end a three-game losing streak and secure a playoff spot with three weeks remaining in the regular season. Every defeat offers an opportunity for improvement and a string of late-season defeats has provided plenty of moments for self-reflection.
“I’d say our shortcomings have come from self-infliction, and some things that I feel like we got better at Saturday night [against the Buffalo Bills],” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “The attention to detail, the standard that we want to play. I think we got a really good start of where we want to be Saturday night. Now the thing is, and the challenging part about this league, is consistency. So going out to do it every week, week after week, I think that is the hard part. But us being so young in this system, especially offensively, when you see things work, and it’s exactly how it’s supposed to work, you have to experience it first. All right, that’s exactly what it needs to be and that’s how — so when you get those moments, it carries over.”
Here are three questions that will decide whether the Dolphins can secure a final spot.
Can the offense sustain drives?
The Dolphins rank ninth in the NFL in points per game (24.6), and they’ve primarily achieved that mark by being one of the most explosive teams in the league. Miami ranks first with an explosive play rate of 14.2 percent, defined as the percentage of plays with at least 12 rush yards or 16 receiving yards.
But what has held the Dolphins back from being an offensive juggernaut is their inability to sustain drives. Miami has converted 37.7 percent of third-down opportunities, which ranks 21st. During the three-game losing streak, they’ve only moved the chains on eight of 32 third-down tries. Those problems are even starker in short-yardage situations; Miami is last in the NFL with a conversion rate of 42 percent of third-and-3 or shorter.
Is the run game emergence a blip or a sign of things to come?
The Dolphins’ 188-yard rushing performance against the Buffalo Bills, one of the best run defenses in the NFL, was welcomed by a unit that has often blazed past teams with the speed of wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. After quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the passing offense struggled in recent losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers, the emergence of the ground game provided rare balance for the unit.
With more cold-weather climates remaining in Week 17 against the New England Patriots and likely in the playoffs, Miami could see additional environments that aren’t conducive to throwing the ball. And with opposing teams going to lengths to take away the middle of the field from the passing game, running the ball efficiently remains the key to keeping defenses from solely honing on Hill and Waddle.
Can the defense manufacture pressure without blitzing?
With former coach Brian Flores gone and Josh Boyer remaining as defensive coordinator, the Dolphins haven’t deviated much from their blitz-heavy tactics. From 2019 to 2021, Miami ranked fourth in blitz rate, sending extra rushers on 35.4 percent of opposing dropbacks. This season, the Dolphins rank seventh in blitz rate (34.2 percent).
But teams are having much more success when the Dolphins blitz. From 2019 to 2021, the opponent passer rating when Miami blitzed was 97.2, which ranked 16th in the NFL. This season, opponents have a passer rating of 107.8, the fifth-highest mark in the league.
The acquisition of pass rusher Bradley Chubb in November possibly signaled a shift in philosophy in which Miami would try to pressure quarterbacks without blitzing so often. But there hasn’t been a drastic change in blitz rate — 34.1 percent from Weeks 1 to 8 (pre-Chubb trade) and 34.3 percent from Weeks 9 to 15 (post-Chubb trade). There also hasn’t been much change in the success of their four-man rush. From Weeks 1 to 8, opponents had a passer rating of 93.2 when the Dolphins didn’t blitz, which ranked 20th. Opposing teams still have a 93.2 from Weeks 9 to 15 when Miami doesn’t send extra rushers, which ranks 23rd.
It’s unlikely the Dolphins completely overhaul their identity with just three games left in the regular season. But given the injuries in the secondary, curtailing blitzing — and finding success when doing so — could reduce the strain on a unit that it is not always capable of handling it.