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  Are the Dolphins Lucky or Just Good?
    | Home | News Wire | Roster | Depth Chart | Schedule |  

by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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The opening day victory over the Browns in Cleveland was an ugly affair, unwatchable at times. Rumor has it that the NFL has ordered the first half tape burned for the good of the game.

The win over the Colts, another roadie, was a much cleaner affair. Yet there were still enough mistakes to have easily cost the Dolphins that day. Fortunately, they didn’t. The 24-20 win demonstrated clear progress, a victory over a team the Dolphins lost to the previous season.

And now we have the scintillating comeback in the sold out home opener versus Matt Ryan and the Falcons. The Dolphins did not bring their “A” game to this match. Far from it. The defense was shredded early and often by the Falcons offense (377 yards, 146 on the ground). QB Ryan Tannehill took another batch of hits and sacks (5), and turned the ball over twice more on fumbles. Receivers dropped balls, running backs missed blitz pick-ups, linemen didn’t block the right people, defenders didn’t tackle, and defensive backs struggled to limit WR Julio Jones (9-115).

Yet the defense managed to tighten up just enough in the second half to keep the home team in it, especially when it seemed the affair was slipping away. Then Tannehill and the offense found the endzone in a decisive drive, with rookie TE Dion Sims gathering in a lob pass over his outside shoulder with just his left hand for the winning points.

The big win makes the Dolphins a surprising 3-0, a place few felt they would be after two road games and a home opener against a team that was five points away from a trip to Super Bowl XLVII.

Yes, the Dolphins have been good. But they have also been fortunate. One or two plays here or there, and it’s a disappointing 1-2 record. Easily.

So how do we rationalize this performance, this team? How are they doing this?

Let’s start by understanding that good teams find a way to win even when they don’t have their “A” games. Many of Don Shula’s 347 wins came in games where his team found a way to “get the job done”, especially when things just weren’t going their way. So give credit to the current crew for overcoming mistakes and injuries against quality opponents to earn Ws. This is what winners do.

Let’s also agree that offensive coordinator Mike Sherman appears to be right about Ryan Tannehill; he may be the most improved QB in the NFL. He has not had the benefit of a consistent running game or pass protection, but has found ways to find receivers, complete passes, and score TDs. Through three games, the Dolphins have the most points in the AFC East division and Tannehill’s play is largely responsible for that. He is a difference maker and is starting to make people around him better. Only Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers have a higher QB rating in the AFC.

The Dolphins are also the second least penalized team in terms of yards in the NFL, with only two fouls in the past two games. If not for the ten flags incurred in the season opener, they would easily be the least penalized team in the league (fouls and yards). This tells us they don’t beat themselves, another Shula hallmark over the years.

The Dolphins are winning on third down, which they didn’t do enough of last year. Through three games, they are third in the NFL with an even 50% conversion rate. One key conversion last week by WR Rishard Matthews was vital in sustaining that game-winning drive.

Turnovers generated by the defense have also been a key factor, as have been timely pressures and sacks (top 10 in NFL). So have the number of passes defended, second most in the league…which is extraordinary given the number of injuries in the secondary. These are things good defenses are known for, definite improvements over 2012.

Finally we have the kicking game, where rookie K Caleb Sturgis has yet to miss a field goal and P Brandon Fields boasts top 4 average and net totals which have had a profound effect on field position. Sturgis has been quite an upgrade over the departed Dan Carpenter, and Fields will once again be considered for Pro Bowl honors.

All of these things I’ve just mentioned are signs of a good team. They’re repeatable and consistent behaviors, but not enough yet to say with certainty that the Dolphins have a good team.

On offense, the line and especially the running backs have to do better to move the ball on the ground (currently 28th in the NFL). And can Ryan Tannehill stay healthy for 16 games? He has been sacked more than any other QB in the NFL (14), due to line miscues, RB miscues, bad scheme designs, and Tannehill failing to protect himself. At that rate, it is hard to see how he will stay healthy over the course of the season. Protecting Tannehill is probably the biggest concern on offense, if not the team, at the present time.

Defensively, they’ve struggled to consistently stop the run which is a big surprise. And injuries are starting to become a concern here, with several starters missing significant time such as Cam Wake, Paul Soliai, and Dimitri Patterson.

Some say the win over the Falcons was a statement game that validates the Dolphins as a legit playoff team. I wouldn’t go that far. Not yet. We need to see more proof that this success is sustainable and not just a lucky streak.

A win on Monday Night Football, in the Superdome versus the 3-0 New Orleans Saints will take skill. Win that game, and even the staunchest skeptic will be convinced that the Miami Dolphins are for real.

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