If NFL offenses were measured only by yards and number of chunk plays, the Dolphins would be considered among the league’s best statistically this season.
But in the most important offensive indicator — points per game — the offensively augmented Dolphins are below the league average and barely any better than last year’s team.
After punting five times and going scoreless in the second half of Sunday’s 16-10 win against Pittsburgh, the Dolphins are 19th in the NFL in points per game at 21.0, barely ahead of last year’s 20.1 average, which ranked 22nd.
“We should be scoring more points than we are,” coach Mike McDaniel said. “I think everybody on the team would agree with that. There’s been times we haven’t got it in the red zone enough, because we are scoring when we’re there.”
The Dolphins (4-3) have scored touchdowns on 65 percent of their red zone trips, fifth best in the league. But they’re not getting there enough.
The Dolphins erupted for 28 points in the fourth quarter of their 42-38 win at Baltimore in Week 2, evidence that this can be an explosive bunch, led by two of the NFL’s top four players in receiving yards (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle).
But the Dolphins scored 20 (against New England), 21 (against Buffalo) and 16 (against Pittsburgh) in games started and finished by Tua Tagovailoa, and scored just 15 (Cincinnati), 17 (Jets) and 16 (Vikings) in games finished by their backup quarterbacks (all losses).
They’re sixth in the league in yards per play at 6.1, compared with 4.8 last season.
They’re 10th in yards per game at 367, well above their 307 average last season.
They’re tied for second in the league with seven plays of 40 yards or more.
They’re also tied for second in the league with 26 plays of 20 yards or more.
But they’re below average in the most important barometer of offensive play: points.
“There were key mistakes, whether it was a bad play call or it was a guy [not] making a play here or there,” McDaniel said of Sunday’s second half in which the Dolphins managed 126 yards and failed to do anything with their seven possessions (excluding the final victory formation one).
“We lacked that rhythm and especially after… that first drive that we went for it [unsuccessfully] on fourth-and-3,” McDaniel said.
After that Chase Edmonds fourth-down run came up short in the third quarter, it “felt like right after that we kind of hit a lull,” McDaniel said. “It was like we got punched in the stomach or something. The Steelers adjusted, and we didn’t make the further adjustment.”
The night began so promisingly for Tagovailoa, with a near-flawless touchdown drive. It went downhill from there.
He cited “miscues with ball placement, communication with a route that this receiver thought was this look and I thought it was that look. We just couldn’t find our rhythm again…. It starts with me.”
In the first quarter, Tagovaila completed 7 of 9 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown and led two scoring drives and the Dolphins had 10 first downs. During the final three quarters, he completed 14 of 26 passes for 168 yards, and Miami produced just seven first downs.
He acknowledged that the fact he hadn’t played in 25 days because of a concussion had an impact.
“Not being able to play two games does have an effect on my performance in a way that I haven’t seen full-speed reps in practice where guys are coming to hit me, tackle me,” Tagovailoa said.
“Getting used to that, and really just being able to help our O-line out, trying to get the ball out faster, trying to make quicker decisions, just so the defensive line doesn’t get comfortable with their rush patterns. You don’t get some of those looks in practice.”
Pittsburgh dropped at least three interceptions, potentially four.
“The Dolphins caught theirs and we didn’t catch ours,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said of the interceptions, with Miami securing three and Pittsburgh none. “That’s probably the difference in the game.”
The positive for Tagovailoa: He continues to be a winner. Miami is 4-0 in games he has finished this season and 17-6 in games he has finished in his career, excluding his NFL debut when he played the final series of a 24-0 win against the Jets. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in yards per passing attempt at 8.64.
The offensive line was very good, not permitting a sack — a byproduct, in part, of Terron Armstead returning from a toe injury and Brandon Shell playing well in his second start at right tackle.
And Raheem Mostert has become a reliable lead back; he’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry over the past four games, with 60 rushes for 310 yards.
But closing out games remains a challenge for this offense. The Dolphins did the last thing you want to do - stop the clock - when Tagovailoa’s pass to Hill was nearly intercepted on third and three at the Pittsburgh 42 with 2:43 left.
They needed to stop the Bills twice defensively in the final two minutes of their Week 3 win.
So closing games offensively remains an issue.
So does scoring more points. As perspective, last season, only 13 teams averaged fewer points than the Dolphins are scoring this season (21 per game). And only one of those 13 teams, Pittsburgh, made the playoffs before being quickly eliminated by Kansas City.
The upcoming schedule is soft - at Detroit, at Chicago, home to Cleveland, home to Houston after a bye - but Miami’s playoff chances diminish considerably if they continue scoring in the teens or very low 20s.
“We’ll all settle down now that we have Tua back and sustain more drives,” receiver Trent Sherfield said.