Perhaps no area on the Dolphins has improved more over the last few months than the red zone offense. It is a large reason why the past five games have produced three victories and if more victories are to come, beginning Sunday against the Jets, it should have plenty to do with it as well
Consider how far the Dolphins have come. Over the first four games the Dolphins had a 16.7 success rate in the red zone, which ranked dead last in the league. But since returning from their bye in week six, the Dolphins have converted 80 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, and that ranks first in the league.
You can point to a lot of factors for this unexpected red zone turnaround, but clearly the most obvious reason has been the emergence of wide receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Mike Gesicki. They have the size to create mismatches and they have the hands to make the most difficult of catches. The Dolphins have had 15 touchdown catches this season, Parker and Gesicki combining for eight of them.
No game has produced better red zone numbers than the most recent one against the Eagles, the Dolphins scoring on all four of their possessions inside the 20-yard line. This has clearly evolved into one of the strengths of this team, which is somewhat remarkable considering the struggles with the running game.
It starts with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick making smart decisions and that includes his ability to take off and run, which has proven to be a surprising bonus near the goal line. It also has a lot to do with aggressive play calling from Offensive Coordinator Chad O'Shea.
"I think it's a mentality when we get the ball in the red zone," said O'Shea. "We want to be aggressive. And Fitz has a lot to do with that."
How many years have we seen the Dolphins struggle in the red zone? How many times have we seen them drive the length of the field only to see it fall apart close to the goal line? But it hasn't been the case with this team, certainly not over the last month or so.
"We've had a heightened focus," said Fitzpatrick of the red zone success. "The difference between seven points and three is huge and we want to take advantage of that. We've actually run the ball pretty well near the goal line. But give the coaches credit for getting us in the right position."
The challenge now is to keep it going, to keep feeding off the energy and execution of Fitzpatrick, to keep firing away at big targets like Parker and Gesicki and to keep producing touchdowns instead of field goals.
That'll be a tough assignment against a very good Jets' defense. You just know we're going to see the best of the Jets on Sunday, certainly after they lost to a then winless Dolphins team in an early November matchup. They won three straight after that loss before losing to an also winless Cincinnati team last Sunday. Now they are returning home, obviously not satisfied with a 4-8 record, and clearly determined to right things against the Dolphins.
And with that, my five keys to the game:
- It's got to start with slowing down Le'Veon Bell: There is no great secret to it. For the Jets to have success, Bell must produce. He is the focal point of the offense and he'll probably get at least 20 to 25 carries in Sunday's game. The Dolphins have, by and large, not excelled at stopping the run this season though they did an excellent on Bell in the first meeting, holding him to 66 yards on 17 carries. That's the type of performance they will need again in order to hope for a similar result.
- Don't let Sam Darnold get comfortable: The former first round pick is so much like other young quarterbacks. Give him time in the pocket, let him survey the field, and he's dangerous. But get in his face, force him to scramble a little, knock him to the ground a few times and he's a different player. He has been sacked 27 times this season. Somehow the Dolphins, despite season long struggles getting to the quarterback, must find a way to change that against Darnold. Just an extra moment of in-decision would probably work fine.
- Make sure Ryan Fitzpatrick gets comfortable: You keep Fitzpatrick upright and he's going to produce. The first dozen games certainly proved that. The offensive line has remained the same for a few games now and the hope is that repetition will translate into efficiency. The line did a good job protecting Fitzpatrick in the second half of the Eagles game and that needs to carry over against the Jets. Fitzpatrick doesn't need a whole lot of time before his internal clock starts screaming "get out of there." But give him the time he needs and there's no reason why he shouldn't exploit a Jets' secondary that could be without its best player in safety Jamal Adams (ankle).
- Something special again on special teams: What could Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman possibly have up his coaching sleeve after pulling off one of the great trick plays of all time on that fake field goal against the Eagles? Guess we'll find out Sunday. What is clear, though, is that the formula for this Dolphins' team to win games has to include some edge in special teams. It's been there in each one of the three victories and that's no coincidence.
- Forget about second half comebacks, get going early: In other words, follow a similar blueprint as the first meeting when three Fitzpatrick touchdown passes in the second quarter proved enough to get the victory. You don't want to fall behind 28-14 as they did against the Eagles, certainly not on the road against a team searching for a spark. So come out with a sense of urgency, get an early lead and let the Jets be the ones fighting to get back into the game.