"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
11 Oct 2006
by Michael David Smith
For the first four weeks of the season, the Miami Dolphins offensive line was lambasted for its inability to protect Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper got sacked 21 times in four games, and the Dolphins' big off-season acquisition looked like a big mistake. But a funny thing happened when the offensive line had a different quarterback to protect: On Sunday against the New England Patriots, that same line allowed only one sack all day. So which Miami offensive line is the real one?
After watching the line on every play of Sunday's 20-10 loss to the Patriots, it appears that the pass protection problems of the first four games were at least as much about Culpepper's habit of holding onto the ball too long as about the protection he got. But if the pass protection is a bit better than advertised, the run blocking is worse. The Dolphins line will prevent running back Ronnie Brown from showing the talents that made him a top-5 pick last year.
The weakest link on Miami's line is left guard Jeno James, a big guy who is so slow out of his stance that he sometimes doesn't even lay a hand on the player across from him. James has been playing through a knee injury, so it's hard to be too critical of him, but if his knee is so bad that he's beaten before he takes his first step, he shouldn't be on the field.
On a third-and-5 pass by Harrington, James either didn't see that Tedy Bruschi was blitzing or couldn't move fast enough to get close to him. Bruschi had a free shot into the Dolphins backfield, but Harrington got his pass off in a hurry and managed a completion. It was the kind of play on which Culpepper would have been sacked. James struggled in pass protection all day. On the second drive Richard Seymour overpowered him and pressured Harrington into passing before Chris Chambers, running a deep route, could get open.
But James was even worse when run blocking. His worst play of the day was one of the worst plays you'll ever see an offensive lineman make: Not only did he get called for holding, but the player he held still managed to tackle Brown in the backfield. It was second-and-3, and Patriots tackle Vince Wilfork got off the ball so much more quickly than James that he was halfway past him before James even got out of his stance. James responded by tackling Wilfork, but he did such a halfhearted job of it that Wilfork still stopped Brown for a loss of a yard. James needs to learn that if you're going to get called for holding, you should at least prevent the guy you hold from tackling your running back. Even when James did get out of his stance, he struggled with blocking. Patriots lineman Jarvis Green pushed past James and stopped Brown for no gain on a draw play on second-and-18.
With left tackle L.J. Shelton next to James, the Dolphins have one of the worst left sides of any line in the league. Shelton made two bad plays that precipitated Harrington's interception in the second quarter. It's not Shelton's fault that Harrington threw a pick, but the Dolphins' early game plan revolved around picking up a few yards on first and second down to avoid putting Harrington in third-and-long situations. It worked well in the first quarter, and Harrington was having an efficient game, but a Shelton false start turned a third-and-5 into a third-and-10, and that led Harrington to take the chance that became the interception.
On that interception New England only rushed three, but Harrington still felt pressure. Shelton and James double-teamed Jarvis Green, but Green used an arm rip and a twist to get between them and put pressure on Harrington. Ty Warren also got pressure on Harrington, lining up at left end but stunting to the inside, where center Rex Hadnot failed to pick him up. Having five blockers against three rushers and still allowing two of them to pressure the quarterback doesn't say much for the offensive line.
Even when Harrington had time to pass, though, the Patriots defensive line generally outclassed the Dolphins offensive line. Richard Seymour overpowered Shelton on one second-and-10 pass, although Harrington threw on a three-step drop and didn't give Seymour time to get to him. In the second half the Patriots routinely had linebacker Rosevelt Colvin rushing against Shelton, and that matchup just wasn't fair. On a third-and-5 in the third quarter, Shelton tried to block Colvin low, but Colvin just stepped aside, got in Harrington's face, and forced a high, inaccurate pass that fell incomplete. On a third-and-8, Colvin ran past Shelton and hit Harrington as he was throwing, forcing an incompletion.
Later in the quarter, when Ronnie Brown took a handoff on a sweep around the left side, Shelton and James doubled Colvin, but Colvin stood his ground, forcing Brown to the inside, where Vince Wilfork and Tedy Bruschi tackled him. When you've got two linemen blocking a linebacker and they can't move him, you've got a problem.
Center Rex Hadnot was the key to the Dolphins' success (or lack thereof) running up the middle. On a second-and-7 handoff to Brown, Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork dominated Hadnot at the snap, pushing him straight back and forcing Brown to cut to the outside. When Brown has to dodge his own linemen before he reaches the line of scrimmage, it's hard to make anything happen.
But Hadnot's block on Ty Warren was the key to Brown's two-yard touchdown run up the middle. Brown ran directly behind Hadnot, and no Patriots even touched Brown as he went into the end zone. On a first-and-10 when New England was in a 4-3 front, Hadnot pushed Jarvis Green back and made room for Brown to gain seven yards behind him. Hadnot was inconsistent on Sunday, but that's better than the consistently bad play of Shelton and James.
The right side of the Dolphins line is better than the left. On a toss sweep to Brown on the first series, right guard Damion McIntosh and right tackle Vernon Carey both pulled to the outside and did a nice job of leading the way for Brown, although Rodney Harrison hit Brown and forced a fumble.
McIntosh is a longtime tackle just making the transition to guard. Pass protection is very different at tackle than it is at guard, and McIntosh still looks like a work in progress. On the first play of the second drive, Harrington took a three-step drop and threw immediately, but he still barely had time, as McIntosh did a revolving-door block on Patriots end Ty Warren. On the only sack the Dolphins gave up Sunday, Jarvis Green, lined up at tackle, beat both McIntosh and Hadnot to get to Harrington.
Carey, the Dolphins' 2004 first-round pick, is probably the best of the bunch, although Warren gave him problems a few times. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Carey blocked no one, apparently not seeing that Warren was rushing to his outside. Warren hit Harrington just as he threw. Two plays later, Warren bull-rushed Carey into the backfield, then jumped up and batted down a Harrington pass. But Carey also had some strong run blocks, and he was the only member of the Dolphins line who regularly reached the second level to take on linebackers.
You can't argue with the past success of Dolphins offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who was the coach of a great Dallas Cowboys line from 1993 to 2001. But this year's line doesn't look well-coached. Houck shouldn't receive too much of the blame, though, as the Dolphins have had bad luck with injuries to linemen this season. Miami drafted tackle Joe Toledo in the fourth round this year and thought he had a good chance to earn a spot in the starting lineup, but he was lost for the season with a preseason knee injury. Seth McKinney, a versatile lineman who can play center or guard and started for the Dolphins the last two years, was placed on injured reserve before the season with a neck injury. Guard Bennie Anderson was signed as a free agent this off-season and started the first two games, but he's out for the season with a triceps injury. With better luck on injuries, Houck might be working with a very different offensive line.
And if Houck had been preparing to have his line protect Harrington instead of Culpepper, that would have changed his pass protection schemes. Now that Harrington is first on Nick Saban's depth chart, the Dolphins line won't have to hold its blocks as long on passing plays. If Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is smart, the absence of Culpepper will also lead to the absence of the shotgun. Culpepper played much better in his first four games taking snaps from the shotgun than he did under center -- he averaged 6.1 yards per play out of the shotgun, compared to 2.7 yards per play from under center. But Harrington is just the opposite -- he averaged 4.4 yards per play in the shotgun Sunday but 7.6 yards per play under center.
If the Dolphins have decided to go with Harrington for the long term, the simple change of ditching the shotgun will make Harrington more comfortable in the pocket and therefore make the offensive line's job easier. But that still leaves the problem of the run blocking, and that doesn't look like a problem that will change any time soon. Brown has shown flashes of talent, but until he gets a better line in front of him, he's going to have a lot of 17-carry, 39-yard games like Sunday's. Addressing the offensive line seems like the logical top priority for next year's draft. Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, it looks like they'll pick a lot higher than anyone expected.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
60 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2006, 7:13pm by KLR