Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Oct 2007
by Michael David Smith
Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown got off to a slow start Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. In the first quarter he touched the ball five times and gained a total of just nine yards. And then in the next three quarters he proceeded to have the best game I've seen from any running back in the NFL this year.
Yes, the Dolphins lost 35-17 to drop to 0-4. But while nothing else the Dolphins did was working, Brown was dominating. He finished the day with 207 combined rushing and receiving yards, nearly 75 percent of the Dolphins' 278 total net yards. Below I review each of Brown's 21 touches Sunday to examine how it is that he's playing so well in an offense where nothing else is working.
First-and-10: With the Dolphins in an I formation, the Raiders put eight in the box. With no hole in the line of scrimmage and nowhere for Brown to go, he just barreled into the line for a gain of a yard. Left tackle Vernon Carey did a particularly bad job on his block. This was the first of many times that Brown was given little or no help from his offensive line.
First-and-10: Again, the Dolphins were in an I formation, and again there was just nowhere for Brown to run at all. The Raiders made it clear from the beginning that their game plan was to dare Dolphins quarterback Trent Green to beat them. Brown picked up two yards, which is all any running back could have done, given the circumstances.
Second-and-8: The Dolphins lined up in an I formation with two tight ends, meaning all of the Raiders' linebackers should have been accounted for, but somehow no one bothered to block linebacker Kirk Morrison, who tackled Brown for a loss of three yards on a pitchout. There may be a few running backs in the NFL elusive enough to have evaded Morrison on the play, but you can't blame Brown for this loss. Again, he got no help.
First-and-10: Green dumped a screen pass to Brown, and again no one blocked Morrison, who brought Brown down for a loss of a yard. At this point in the game it looked like Brown was in for a very long day, but things got better.
Third-and-3: With Green in the shotgun and the Dolphins showing pass, the inside handoff went to Brown, who took it for 10 yards. There was finally a little room for Brown to run, as the Raiders weren't stacking eight in the box, and Brown made the most of it, reading his blockers well and carrying four Raiders the last couple yards of a very impressive run. What really makes Brown an elite running back -- and he is, even though he's never mentioned as one -- is that power he showed at the end of the run, fighting for the last few yards with players on his back.
Third-and-18: With Green in the shotgun, Brown initially looked like he would stay in and block. He did a nice job selling that, and then he swung out to catch a short pass. He then high-stepped over Morrison's attempted ankle-tackle to pick up extra yardage, finally going down after a gain of 15. Brown didn't pick up the first down, but he got the Dolphins enough yardage that they were able to go for it (and convert) on fourth-and-3 on the next play -- a play where the play-action fake to Brown made the Raiders' linebackers bite and free up space for tight end Justin Peelle to turn a short pass into a long gain.
First-and-goal: With the Raiders stacking the line of scrimmage again, Brown got a handoff, sliced through a tiny hole, and took it nine yards for a touchdown, running over Raiders defensive back B.J. Ward as he crossed the goal line. That run showed all of Brown's strengths: The vision to find the hole, the slashing style to get through it, and the power to flatten a defensive back.
First-and-15: With the Dolphins deep in their own territory and the Raiders putting eight in the box yet again, Brown broke his longest run of the game, bursting for 60 yards. On this play, Brown actually got some good blocking, although he had to be patient enough to wait for the hole to open, which isn't easy when you know your team is in long yardage and you're lining up in your own end zone. Brown doesn't have spectacular breakaway speed, and Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha eventually pushed him out of bounds, but it was a tremendous run and one where he easily could have been bottled up for little or no gain.
Fourth-and-2: In a short-yardage situation, everyone in the stadium expected Brown to get it, and everyone was right. The Raiders' front collapsed the right side of the Dolphins' line at the snap, but Brown stutter-stepped to his left, accelerated through the line of scrimmage, and broke through four arm-tackles before finally being reeled in by Warren Sapp after a gain of 11 yards.
The Dolphins only ran one play on this possession, a meaningless five-yard run by Jesse Chatman to end the first half.
First-and-10: On the first play of the second half, Brown was the halfback in the I formation again and fullback Reagan Mauia stumbled at the snap, meaning Brown had one fewer blocker than the play called for. It didn't matter. Showing a great burst through the line, Brown broke into the open field before Raiders safety Stuart Schweigert tackled him after a gain of 15.
Second-and-8: Brown ran to the middle of the field and was well covered by both Morrison and Thomas Howard. He was so well-covered that I'm surprised Green threw to him, but Brown still caught the pass for a gain of five. Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan must have a lot of respect for Brown's role in the Dolphins' passing game, because Brown almost always had at least one and sometimes two linebackers draped on him when he ran a route. He still managed to catch six of the eight passes thrown to him.
First-and-10: Brown got the handoff and sprinted around the left end of the line. No one blocked Howard (it seemed like at least one of the Raiders' linebackers was unblocked on every play), and he pushed Brown out of bounds after a gain of five. Brown showed good speed and an ability to turn the corner, but a block on Howard might have allowed Brown to pick up a huge gain.
Third-and-5: Brown ran a deep pass route, and when the protection broke down for Green, Brown did a great job of just running around in the secondary to get open. Green avoided the pass rush and launched a deep ball to Brown, who caught the pass for 17 yards. Brown has good hands and a knack for getting open downfield, and if he weren't so valuable as a running back, he could play wide receiver.
First-and-10: I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses for him every time he fails to break a big play, but it really was incredible how often Brown had just absolutely no room to run at all. The Raiders had eight in the box, and when wide receiver Marty Booker motioned in from the sideline, Asomugha essentially became the ninth in the box. Then Brown got the handoff and the Raiders' defensive line pushed the Dolphins' offensive line directly back and into the backfield. Brown had to dance around a little bit just to manage a gain of two. It was a very impressive gain of two, considering what he was up against.
The Dolphins ran four plays on this drive, and Brown got no touches, although he was the target of an incomplete pass on first-and-10.
First-and-10: Again in the I formation, Brown took what he could get with a fairly modest hole and picked up three yards. I couldn't help but think as I watched these runs that Brown would be better off if Dolphins coach Cam Cameron would spread the field more often. The Raiders played the run on nearly every play, and perhaps if Cameron would use more sets in which a third receiver (like, say, Ted Ginn, who was a Top 10 pick but is invisible in the Dolphins' offense) replaced the fullback, that would force opposing defenses to cease loading up to stop Brown.
Second-and-7: After faking a handoff to Brown, Green swung a pass out to him, and this is where Brown shows such incredible field vision: After getting the ball in the open field, most running backs would have turned it up toward the sideline. Brown, however, saw that Howard was to his outside, so he cut back to the inside and picked up 14 yards.
(It must be said that Raiders rookie defensive end Jay Richardson did an outstanding job on this play of tracking Brown down and tackling him before he got an even bigger gain. The Raiders have some great athletes on their defense, and Richardson, a 280-pounder who can move, might be the best of them.)
First-and-10: The Dolphins were in the I formation again, and this time Brown actually got a good block from Mauia. Brown exploded through the hole for a gain of six and would have had more had it not been for an excellent move by Raiders defensive tackle Gerard Warren, who stuck his arm out just in time to trip Brown up.
Second-and-4: In the I formation, Brown took the handoff, took three steps to his left, made a quick cut to the inside, slashed through the line and got the first down. The next play was a touchdown on a play-action pass, and it was set up because the entire Raiders defense followed the play-fake to Brown. It was incredible the extent to which the Raiders were keying on Brown, and it says something about how far Green has fallen as a quarterback that this touchdown pass was one of the few times all day that he was able to take advantage.
First-and-10: Brown got the handoff, broke it to the outside, and had an amazing broken tackle on the unblocked (yes, again) Morrison. Morrison squared Brown up perfectly and wrapped his arms around him, and then Brown just pushed him down and stepped over him to turn what should have been a two-yard gain into a seven-yard gain.
Second-and-3: With nowhere to run, Brown lost a yard. Again, just no push at all from the Dolphins' offensive line.
First-and-10: It was a meaningless play -- the last play of the game -- and Brown picked up 23 receiving yards. If you want to disregard meaningless plays, feel free to ignore this one.
So what can we learn from this Brown play-by-play? Basically, that he's an outstanding talent -- definitely worth the No. 2 overall pick that the Dolphins spent on him in 2005 -- but that neither he nor any running back can do it all by himself. People have often asked why Football Outsiders has been so positive about Brown even though he barely comes out as replacement level in our numbers. Games like this show why numbers can't be judged in a vacuum. Brown is 25 years old, meaning he has four or five more years to get to play behind a good offensive line and with a passing game that takes some pressure off him. Let's hope he gets that opportunity. Otherwise, this will be a tremendous waste of talent.
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.
38 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2007, 4:58pm by Lou