by Cian Fahey
It would be very easy to blame Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill for his team's loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. Tannehill had two interceptions and lost a fumble in a game that was ultimately decided by just two points. Even though he threw three touchdown passes, the 25-year-old quarterback didn't have enough success on his other throws to overcome his turnovers. As the "other" quarterback from the 2012 rookie class, Tannehill also can't expect to be given any breaks from the national media. Even though Tannehill doesn't have the statistics of other young quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, and he hasn't made the playoffs yet, he does definitely have the raw talent to be on their level as evidenced by his play last week.
Because of his supporting cast, Tannehill's statistics (advanced and standard) don't reflect what he did on the field last year. Head coach Joe Philbin wanted to assemble a more versatile group of receivers in the offseason. While Jeff Ireland may not have given Philbin everything he wanted, Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, Charles Clay and Brian Hartline have given the Dolphins a functional, and dangerous at times, group of receivers this year.
Logic says that Tannehill's statistics should have improved, but they haven't. While giving him a more dynamic group of receivers, the Dolphins failed to keep his offensive line intact. 2012 left tackle Jake Long didn't play like the first overall draft pick he was, but he was a competent player who could be trusted to protect his quarterback's blindside. After he left for St. Louis in free agency, the Dolphins asked second-year player Jonathan Martin to move from right tackle to left tackle. Martin struggled as a rookie on the right side and those struggles have been exacerbated this season.
Martin was a key component in their loss last Sunday and the Dolphins know it. Even though acquiring Bryant McKinnie is like swapping out a picnic basket for a backpack while jumping out of a plane, the Dolphins were forced to make a move. Tannehill has been sacked 26 times in six games this year, compared to 36 his entire rookie season. Martin at left tackle has been a major problem, but so has new right tackle Tyson Clabo. As it has been all season, nearly every pass that Tannehill threw against the Bills on Sunday came when he was under pressure or adjusting in an unclean pocket. While Tannehill had his bad moments in both games, he was the reason those games were close rather than the reason his team ultimately lost.
Tannehill was officially sacked just twice, but his ability was the primary reason why the sack number was so low and why the offense was able to put points on the board. Tannehill, a former wide receiver in college, is quietly a very athletic player who can escape pressure with his feet or throw strikes deep down the field even when throwing from tough body contortions.
The Dolphins' biggest play of the day showed off Tannehill at his very best. The Bills defense shows a single-high safety look before the snap, but that safety is shaded to one side of the field. This leaves Wallace at the bottom of the screen in single coverage against Stephon Gilmore. Although Gilmore is an excellent man cover cornerback, he is still rusty after missing much of the season recovering from injury.
Even though he has a receiver to that side of the field, Tannehill doesn't look directly at his receiver or at the deep safety. Instead he looks towards the sideline on the opposite side which draws the safety slightly over the hash mark. He looks at the safety and back to the sideline twice before looking back to the other direction for Wallace. Meanwhile, Wallace is struggling to get into his route.
Gilmore initially has excellent coverage by jamming Wallace at the line and then turning so that he is in perfect position to run with him down the field. However, at that point Gilmore’s concentration inexplicably seems to go as he drifts infield while eyeing the quarterback too long. That failure by Gilmore combined with Tannehill's manipulation of the deep safety creates a huge window for Wallace to run into.
While Wallace is getting open, Tannehill is unable to step into the throw because of a defender pushing his blocker into the backfield, and then putting his hand in Tannehill's face as he releases the ball, while his blocker knocks into Tannehill’s feet during his throwing motion. Regardless, Wallace is still given a near-perfect pass to run under as he sprints down the sideline. Plays such as this showed off his poise, but also his athleticism, anticipation, velocity and ball placement.
His three touchdown passes on the day were simple throws, but not simple plays. After that pass to Wallace, he dumped the ball off while being hit from behind to Gibson for a 13-yard-touchdown. In the third quarter, the Bills penetrated the pocket with just a three man rush, but Tannehill escaped into the flat before finding Gibson again on the run for a four-yard-touchdown.
On his first touchdown, the Dolphins are setup inside the Bills' 10. Before the snap, Tannehill looks over the defense from left-to-right multiple times. After doing so, he makes the signal to his wide receivers shown above. We know that this is an audible because Gibson, highlighted by the black box, makes exactly the same signal while looking at Wallace a moment after Tannehill does. Only through careful film study could Tannehill have recognized the blitz by the slot corner.
The audible was a screen pass to Clay running into the flat. Tannehill immediately looks to Clay and puts enough height on his pass so it clears the jumping defender. When Clay catches the ball, Wallace and Gibson are in perfect position to engage their blockers for an easy touchdown.
While Tannehill was the reason the Dolphins were competitive in this game, his mistakes can't simply be ignored. Due to his offensive line play the fumble in the fourth quarter that allowed the Bills to seal the game wasn’t really his fault, the interceptions were all on him.
Both plays came on third down and both were very costly. The first was returned for a touchdown, while the other came deep in Bills territory. We'll focus on the more costly turnover.
On the very first drive of the game, the Dolphins are facing a third-and-6. With Tannehill in the shotgun and the field spread out, the Dolphins are obviously trying to get the ball out of their quarterback's hands quickly.
Tannehill immediately looks at Gibson in the slot. This was a smart decision because Gibson was running a curl route against off-coverage. However, Tannehill has to let the ball go at the point pictured above if he wants to complete the pass because Nickell Robey is breaking forward quickly.
Not throwing the ball quickly wasn't the critical mistake. You can justify not throwing the curl route because the receiver wasn't deep enough for the first down. At this point in the route Tannehill had to lead his receiver towards the sideline if he wants to complete the pass and avoid the interception. Instead, he throws it inside and Robey is able to break on the ball for an easy pick-six.
It's easy to forget that Tannehill is still just a second-year player. Expecting him to be as far along in his development as Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson is unfair, but the reality is that he is not far behind. While he is not yet great, a great player has to be able to compensate for flaws around them. Tannehill is already doing that on a weekly basis behind this offensive line. That is very telling when trying to gauge his long-term potential.
Jordy Nelson Exposes Joe Haden
Joe Haden is routinely celebrated as a shutdown cornerback and one of the very best players playing his position in the NFL. Last season, the All-22 of every single Haden snap revealed him to be an average cornerback with the talent to be a very good one.
Earlier this season, Haden was given credit for shutting down A.J. Green. Further analysis shows this not to be the case. The problem with cornerback analysis is that most only focus on the player when the ball is thrown his way. Of course, that leaves out the majority of the plays that a cornerback makes. Cornerbacks can fail in coverage when the ball isn't thrown their way and they can succeed in coverage when the ball isn't thrown their way. Just because a quarterback doesn't recognize the failed coverage doesn't mean the failed coverage didn't happen. That is what happened to A.J. Green when he faced Joe Haden. Green beat Haden in man coverage nine times of the 20 qualifying plays when they faced off against each other. However, even though Green beat Haden down the field for big plays more than once, Andy Dalton failed to get him the ball. Should Haden be credited with shutting down Green because of the failings of others? Some believe so, but that is a very flawed premise.
With James Jones and Randall Cobb sidelined, Haden was primarily responsible for Jordy Nelson when the Browns played the Green Bay Packers last weekend. Haden had 18 qualifying plays against Nelson in man coverage. He successfully covered him just seven times. That is not a good average, in fact, it's awful when compared to averages for other cornerbacks from last season. While Nelson is a very good wide receiver, but he exposed Haden as a fraud when it comes to being a top cornerback.
One of the major flaws in Haden's play is his inability to play aggressive coverage. He is a mirror cornerback who looks to run with receivers and get in good positions to make plays on the ball, but unlike a Richard Sherman or Gilmore, he doesn't aggressively body receivers with any real success. The best counter to cornerbacks like Sherman or Gilmore are players who can get in and out of breaks very quickly to make sharp turns. Sherman and Gilmore are quick enough and play with enough control to stick with receivers, but Haden has a tendency to float away from receivers.
Nelson took advantage of this on many occasions as he came free on five combined comeback and curl routes. Haden is officially listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. He's not a small cornerback, but in today's league with bigger athletes playing the receiver position and rules that benefit the receivers rather than the defenders, he is at a relative disadvantage. Not every defensive back needs to be as big as Sherman, but even the slender athletes playing cornerback in today's league need to carry more of a presence than Haden does.
While Nelson has the size to bully defensive backs, that's not how he got the better of Haden. Twice he was able to turn Haden around in coverage when the defensive back took himself out of a position to play the ball too easily.
Again, the pair are lined up to the top of the screen as Haden plays left cornerback. Haden is in press coverage against Nelson and he won't get any specific safety help as the Browns keep a single-high with man coverage across the board underneath.
Nelson stutters his steps slightly as he comes out of his route. This shifts Haden's weight and causes him to lose his balance slightly so he turns towards the sideline and loses sight of Nelson for a moment. That is when Nelson breaks infield into space. Haden tries to recover, but he runs an arc to turns whereas Nelson has made a sharp move. This means that Haden is completely out of the play when the ball arrives from Aaron Rodgers.
On the touchdown from Rogers to Nelson, Haden committed a cardinal sin as he gave up the inside in single coverage at the goal-line. Biting too hard on a fade route is a terrible mistake because the slant is much easier for the quarterback to throw. That was the only touchdown Haden gave up by typical analysis methods, but the cornerback was part of a blown assignment in zone coverage earlier in the game that should have resulted in a touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, Nelson lines up in the slot and Haden lines up outside. Nelson runs down the seam, while Haden is in off-coverage over the outside receiver. Haden backs off at the snap, but is late to turn down the sideline. That leaves Nelson running completely uncovered down the seam while two defenders cover the outside receiver. The deep safety is reacting to Aaron Rodgers eyes and focusing on the other side of the field.
Rodgers never finds Nelson because his first read was on the other side of the field before the pressure forced him to run into the flat. This is a perfect example of pressure compensating for poor coverage on the backend. With the caveat that we can’t assign blame for coverage without knowing the playcall, Hayden looks to be at fault here. Maybe Haden is an elite cornerback, but he hasn't played like one in a long time.