Another early lead they couldn't hold, another game they couldn't win. The Dolphins keep improving, we see it every week, but they just can't sustain those things they do well. That in a nutshell is summing up this season and it's certainly summed up what happened Monday night in a 27-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins led 14-0 after one quarter. They were doing everything right. The fans at Heinz Field were getting restless. It was much like the week before at New Era Field when the Dolphins at one point held a 14-9 lead. And much like the game in Buffalo, this one in Pittsburgh began turning on an interception.
But the one play that stood out most was a defensive breakdown on a third-and-20 late in the first half. The Dolphins gambled with an all-out blitz, the Steelers caught the secondary out of position, Mason Rudolph hitting Diontae Johnson on a 45-yard touchdown pass just 17 seconds before halftime. That closed the Dolphins lead to 14-10 and you sensed right then the course of the game had been altered.
The Steelers followed that score with two more second half touchdowns and a field goal while the Dolphins never moved on from those 14 points. Three second half turnovers had as much to do with a lack of offense as anything.
The big takeaway from this game is much like what we have seen over the past month or so. The Dolphins aren't far away. They are competitive. They have put together some impressive stretches on both sides of the ball. But they need more than that. They need consistency and they need more second half production. They need to finish what they start.
With that, some additional thoughts and observations:
- The Dolphins could not have gotten off to a quicker start. An interception by Xavien Howard. A touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Albert Wilson. A 7-0 lead just over four minutes into the game. Now that was encouraging.
- Returning after a two-game injury absence, Howard was vintage Howard on that interception. Read the quarterback's eyes. Made his move. Beat JuJu Smith-Schuster to the ball. Unfortunately his appearance Monday night was short-lived, Howard missing the second half with a knee injury. We got a glimpse of what he means, and then he was gone. A tough loss within a tough loss.
- The touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Wilson was an excellent call, Wilson in motion to his left, the pass perfectly thrown as he made his break. Kudos to offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea on that one.
- It became 14-0 before the quarter was out on another Fitzpatrick touchdown pass, this time to Allen Hurns who carried a couple of defenders with him over the goal line with 1:34 left in the quarter. After what Hurns has been through this season, with that scary concussion in Dallas, the moment must have been special.
- Fitzpatrick was his usual calm, cool and very effective self on that drive that took 11 plays and covered 63 yards, perhaps the key moment a third-and-14 completion to DeVante Parker for a crucial first down. There are times with this offense when it looks so easy. Other times when one or two breakdowns change everything.
- But it wasn't only Fitzpatrick's passing. Did you see him take off on a fourth and one run late in the third quarter? How he dove for the first down? OK, he was ruled inches short, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a unique man with an enormous amount of confidence who must deep down believe he's 26 years old, not 36. That's the only way I can make sense of the way he tosses his body around. All told, Fitzpatrick took off and ran five times and gained 17 hard-earned yards.
- But for every positive there seems to be a question. What about a consistent running game? Why so many breakdowns in the secondary? And in the rushing defense? Why can't they build on early leads? Where are the difference-making plays? These are the issues that must be addressed.
- The rebuild of this roster continued Monday with the trade of running back Kenyan Drake to Arizona for a conditional 2020 draft choice. The move is understandable. Drake had lost his starting job to Mark Walton, his contract was due to expire after this season, and it was clear he wanted an opportunity elsewhere. It has been widely reported that the Dolphins will receive either a fifth or sixth round pick. That's a decent return for the former third-round pick out of Alabama who never became an elite player here, but his starring role in the Miami Miracle will forever leave his name etched in Dolphins history. As for the 2020 draft, the Dolphins are now assured, counting compensatory picks, of at least 13 selections. That's how you get better in a hurry.
- The Dolphins activated defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche off the physically unable to perform list prior to Monday night's game and he saw some playing time. This is a player with an intriguing upside, a former No. 1 pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 who has been recovering from knee surgery. He played in 27 games, with six starts, over three seasons with the Cardinals and is now determined to regain the dominating form he exhibited in college at Ole Miss. "I've never stopped believing," he recently said. "I'm ready to go out and there and start making plays."
- And now we move forward, challenged by a short work week to prepare for the Jets next Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium, and pushed by the urgency of the moment, a team in so many ways still trying to find itself.