It Starts in the Trenches
Whether you're a lifelong diehard football fan or a casual recently introduced to the greatest sport in the world, you've no doubt heard the old adage: the game is won in the trenches. One year after quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick regularly made plays under siege, the 16-year veteran is enjoying more time to throw, taking less hits and losing fewer drives to sacks.
The Dolphins overturned 80 percent of the 2019 offensive line that surrendered a league-high 58 sacks. Right tackle Jesse Davis started 15 games in 2019 and had the lowest pressure-per-snap rate among all Dolphins offensive lineman. He's the lone incumbent.
General Manager Chris Grier and Head Coach Brian Flores put an emphasis on rebuilding the offensive line both through the draft and free agency. Miami sunk three picks (first-, second- and fourth-round selections) into the position as well as a pair of free agent contracts for accomplished interior linemen.
With all five starters – Austin Jackson, Ereck Flowers, Ted Karras, Solomon Kindley, Jesse Davis – on the field for each of Miami's 198 offensive snaps, continuity is developing. And, in the process, the line is producing results.
Last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was under pressure on 40 percent of his drop backs with 18.8 pressures and 4.4 quarterbacks hits per game, according to Pro Football Focus. Through three games in 2020, Fitzpatrick has been pressured an average of 10 times per game and hit only three times each outing. The five sacks surrendered is tied for the eighth-fewest in the NFL and the 1.67 sacks per game is down substantially from 3.63 sacks per game a season ago.
Fitzpatrick addressed the improvement, who he credits with getting this young group to solidify so early, but also acknowledges the room for growth.
"Ted (Karras) gets a lot of the credit there. He's been the leader," Fitzpatrick said.
Karras closed the 2019 season as PFF's No. 2 ranked pass-blocking center; he's allowed only two pressures this season. Rookie left tackle Austin Jackson had a great showing at the Combine with his rare blend of size and athletic traits; he's pitched a goose egg in sacks allowed and permitted only one hit on the quarterback. Rookie right guard Solomon Kindley was dubbed as the best combination blocker (double teams) in the draft by PFF's Mike Renner, but he's getting it done in pass protection as a pro and has yet to surrender a pressure.
Ereck Flowers was one of two guards in the NFL last season with more than 500 pass-blocking reps and four or fewer QB hits allowed (Dallas' four-time All-Pro Zack Martin the other).
"The talent we brought in in the offseason, those guys have come in and meshed very well," Fitzpatrick said. "It's early, though. In this league as soon as you show a crack or something guys can take advantage of they're going to. We have to continue to get better and not just be happy with some of the performances so far.
On the topic of the incumbent – Jesse Davis has not allowed a sack in the first three games of the new season.
In 2019, the Dolphins committed the fourth-fewest penalties for the fourth-fewest total yards in the NFL. Miami is back in familiar territory tied for the fifth-fewest accepted penalties and the sixth-fewest yards assessed via the yellow hankey.
Those rankings are no accident. Brian Flores' attention to detail is well-documented, so it should come as no surprise that the Dolphins drill the rules, fundamentals and technique each week with regards to playing mistake-free football.
It starts in training camp when the zebras arrive to officiate practice in a game-like setting. After the on-field work, the officials meet with the team to explain rules, then this process is continued by Flores and his staff throughout the season.
"Making sure we're disciplined in practice, making sure we understand the rules," Dolphins safety Bobby McCain explained. "You can't get too handsy on the top of the route in this league. We go over the rules each and every week. Having the refs here in training camp helped a lot."
"He details every single rule," Dolphins cornerback Noah Igbinoghene said. "He's brought referees in to explain the rules. He's got us educated about it and I think that's why we're successful in that area of the game."
"In terms of a clean operation and avoiding the pre-snap penalties, that's been a theme," Fitzpatrick said. "The things we do in practice to eliminate some of those bad habits, preaching fundamentals and the small things like penalties we can avoid, just understanding that those things are not acceptable."
"Taking on Coach Flores' philosophy and being a fundamentally sound team that doesn't make mistakes," Dolphins linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. "Mistakes are penalties and we want to limit those as best as possible. We've done a good job of that this year. If they're calling it tight than we have to tighten up and if they're calling it loose we can be more aggressive."
Slowing Down Seattle
The Seahawks come to town Sunday bringing the NFL's second-ranked scoring offense at 37 points per game. Star quarterback Russell Wilson is responsible for a lot of that offensive success – he's thrown 14 touchdown passes without an interception this year. Wilson also averages better than 32 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry in his career.
Van Noy talked Wednesday about the challenges of rushing such an elusive quarterback with a penchant for the big play.
"You have to be conscious of that but you also have to do your job to the best of your ability without over-thinking," Van Noy said. "You want to get pressure on him and do what you need to do to get back there. If we do what we need to do as a team on the coverage and the rush and mirroring those two together, we'll be alright. It's easier said than done though."
Fitzpatrick has nothing to do with slowing down the Seahawks' high-voltage offense; but he is aware of the way Wilson impacts the pace of the game.
"Every possession matters that much more. No lead is safe with a guy like this guy," Fitzpatrick said of the Seattle quarterback. "They've had a really great start to the season, they're putting up a ton of points. In a game like this, your mindset can't be that we sit on a lead and hope things work out."
No defender has played more snaps than Bobby McCain's 181 reps (out of 182 snaps for the Miami defense). The captain and free safety of the Dolphins spoke about his responsibility, as well as the rest of the secondary, to limit deep shots.
"Just doing my job to defend the deep part of the field," McCain said. "Don't allow big plays, don't allow touchdowns. It depends on what coverage we're playing but just defending the deep part of the field is our job in the secondary."
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Van Noy detailed his approach as a versatile player with a chameleon-like role on Flores' and Josh Boyer's defense.
"I just pride myself on being a disruptive player in whatever (they) want me to do," Van Noy said. "That varies week-to-week. Different teams do different things and we want to attack those situations. All 11 of us are playing together to allow those plays, to make that happen."
Fitzpatrick spoke to the confidence level of the team after notching a comfortable primetime win last week, and the growing success of the offense.
"The last few weeks we're in a better rhythm," Fitzpatrick said. "That has to continue this week. This week is very important for us not just to get out to a fast start but put together a full game. We won't be able to get away with a either a slow start or poor second half against this guy and this team."
The Dolphins Wednesday injury report is available.
Did not practice: cornerback Byron Jones (Achilles/groin), quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (illness).
Limited participation: safeties Clayton Fejedelem (pectoral) and Kavon Frazier (shoulder) cornerback Xavien Howard (knee)
Full participation: safety Brandon Jones (back).
Seattle listed 25 players on the Wednesday injury report. That list can be found here..