Pass Catching Is Contagious Among Miami’s Receivers

Posted Sep 26, 2013

Wallace, Hartline, Gibson and Matthews are all thriving on offense.

Back in mid-May, just before the Miami Dolphins hit the field for their first set of OTAs, fifth-year wide receiver Brian Hartline boldly proclaimed on NFL Network that his receiving corps was “absolutely” the best in the AFC East. Through three regular-season games, it’s hard to argue that point.

Miami ranks fifth in the AFC in total receiving yards (827) and average receiving yards per game (275.7), ahead of the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills. That includes passes caught by the tight ends and running backs, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s top three receivers – Hartline, Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson – have combined for 44 receptions for 527 yards and three of Tannehill’s four touchdowns. Second-year receiver Rishard Matthews broke out last Sunday against Atlanta with four catches for 42 yards to give Tannehill a legitimate fourth option among the wideouts.

“He came in at a critical time and made a big third-down catch for us on the right sideline, I believe in the third quarter,” Tannehill said. “Then on the last drive he came in and made some big catches for us. To be able to have him be a part of our offense, kind of integrate him a little bit, is huge and he’s making plays.”

New York’s top three receivers – Stephen Hill, Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley, have combined for 27 receptions for 521 yards and two touchdowns. Tom Brady’s top three receivers in terms of yardage – Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Tomkins – have 46 catches for 439 yards and five touchdowns among them, with Danny Amendola adding 10 catches for 104 yards. Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and T.J. Graham have combined for 28 receptions for 370 yards and three touchdowns.

When Hartline made that statement on television he was including veteran tight end Dustin Keller in the group based on Keller’s stellar production over the years with the New York Jets. Keller was lost for the season to a knee injury in the third preseason game at Houston, but third-year tight end Charles Clay has stepped in to catch 14 passes for 203 yards, second behind only Hartline’s 18 catches for 238 yards. Still, it’s the foursome that is the driving force behind the type of production Tannehill has shown in the passing game and they lean on each other.

“We’re a unit. We try to just be there for each other and help when it’s needed,” said Gibson, who also has 14 receptions for 137 yards. “All of us can play each position so we just make sure that we communicate and make sure we do the right thing on the field.”

Hartline was Tannehill’s favorite target last year during the quarterback’s rookie season and caught 74 passes for 1,083 yards and a touchdown. He’s already doubled his touchdown numbers and has seen the benefit that having a speed threat like Wallace on the outside brings in terms of opening things up for him and the other receivers.

There already is a sense of camaraderie among the receivers to the point where they feel comfortable making jokes at the other’s expense. Hartline had a little fun the days leading up to the Monday night game at New Orleans pretending that all of them fit the diva receiver stereotype and don’t get along, saying each of them wants the ball and each of them likes to talk about themselves. Wallace played along.

“We’re cool. I don’t really like them that much. They’re all right. They can’t really come too close to me though,” he said with a smile. “No, I love those guys. They’re great players. We all work hard. We’re going to clown around but at the same time once we get on the field we’re all going to work as hard as we can to get better. We’re going to help each other out.

“Whatever I can do to help them I’m going to do it, whatever they can do to help me they’ll do it, so we’re out here for each other. We want to see each other rise to the occasion every single time, make the best catches, run the best routes, make the best plays and we want success for each other. I think as long as we have that, nobody’s being selfish and you just want the best for you’re brother, we’ll do well.”

Now that Tannehill has spread the ball around to nine different receivers, including running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas and the other two tight ends, Michael Egnew and Dion Sims, it forces opposing defenses to choose their options. The Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons opted to keep a safety high on whichever side Wallace lined up to take away his deep route, holding him to three receptions for 22 yards in those two games. The Colts tried to take away Hartline and Gibson and paid the price, as Wallace caught a career-high nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown and Clay added a career-high 109 receiving yards on five catches.

It was Hartline and Gibson that were the beneficiaries against the Browns and the Falcons, combining for 27 receptions for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Hartline could not single out one particular play when he saw the field open for up him thanks to Wallace drawing extra coverage and he thinks that’s because it’s not just Wallace influencing the defensive calls.

“I don’t think anyone’s getting double covered because you can’t game plan for one person,” Hartline said. “The hardest person to double cover is probably Brandon because Brandon is in the slot, so he might get some in-and-out coverage, but if you’re doing that then you leave someone else open.”

What has been most encouraging so far is the trust Tannehill has shown in the entire offense and how he has not locked on to just one or two receivers. He surveys the field and isn’t afraid to pick his second or third option rather than force a throw into tight coverage. Considering how new Wallace and Gibson are to the team, that’s a credit to their work in practice and in the meeting room.

“I think the familiarity that our quarterback has with the receivers and the receivers with him at this point is higher than it was a year ago possibly,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.

Matthews came on strong at the end of last season as a seventh-round draft choice and started to develop a rapport with Tannehill over the last month. He finished with 11 catches for 151 yards and earned the fourth and last wide receiver spot on the roster this year in training camp.

Everybody from Gibson, Wallace, Hartline, Tannehill and Head Coach Joe Philbin describe Matthews the same way, as a tough player who is very competitive, has sure hands and is not afraid to go across the middle and absorb contact. His two clutch catches on the final scoring drive against Atlanta both were made in the middle of the field for a combined 16 yards and a first down and he points to the other three veteran receivers as the reason for his progression.

“I’m learning from Hartline, Wallace and Gibson at the same time and they’re doing a good job at letting me know what I need to do, what I need to work on and what I need to study,” Matthews said. “Mike, he’s just speed so I definitely learn speed from him. Brandon, he’s real technical with his routes, so I’m learning that and watching him on film and him letting me know what I need to do coming in and out of my breaks faster. Hartline, he’s like another coach out there, so learning a lot from all of them is really helping me out.”

With Matthews’ continued development and the different strengths all of the other three receivers bring to the offense, it has expanded the options not only for Tannehill but also for Sherman and Philbin. It has also allowed the group to stay effective for four quarters.

“These guys play fast. They play a lot of snaps. They play hard,” said Philbin, who made use of a variety of receivers in Green Bay when he was the Packers’ offensive coordinator. “We ask a lot of these guys, and the more guys you have to keep guys fresher we think is great.”

It’s the opposing defensive coordinators that don’t think it’s that great.
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