The Dolphins offense has been on the field for 31 drives this season. On seven of those possessions, the defense was not the only factor for Miami to contend with. The secondary opponent on those seven series -- the clock.
Miami scored on five of those seven with a sixth that produced a missed field from 48 yards, certainly within Jason Sanders' range. The other 24 offensive starts have produced just three scores (all touchdowns, both opening drives of either half against New England and a 34-yard drive after a Las Vegas turnover on downs).
So what's the difference?
The most significant contrast comes via average depth of target in the passing game. It's hardly rocket science; contending with the clock changes the offensive approach, typically removing the running game, increased attempts to the perimeter and the requirement for chunks of yardage opposed to a clock-eating march.
On the seven drives up against the clock, Miami's average depth of target is 11.1 The other 24 possessions have produced an average depth of target of 4.9 yards. Tua Tagovailoa was the quarterback on just one of these seven possessions and his aDOT jumped to 13.6 on his lone end-of-half possession up from 7.0 on all other Tagovailoa-led drives.
For Jacoby Brissett, and a much larger sample size, he averages 10.8 air yards per pass on the six possessions where pace was a necessity.
Those drives include the end of the first half against Buffalo, end of the first half against Las Vegas, and the four possessions spanning the fourth quarter and overtime following the Raiders' touchdown that stretched the lead to 11 points with just over 13 minutes to play in regulation.
Now, context is always required to support numbers. The context in this case deals with how the defense defends Miami. Game situations such as score, down-and-distance and clock will dictate the calls of the offense. Per Sports Info Solutions, opposing defenses have played two-high structures (two deep safeties) on 62.8 percent of Miami's snaps.
One upshot of that deployment, which was over 90 percent in Las Vegas, was Miami's season-high in rushing with 133 yards on the ground including an 8.0 average in the first quarter that saw Miami race out to a 14-0 lead.
Brissett touched on the distinction for Miami between those late, successful drives compared to the struggles early in games.
"Going against Gus (Bradley)... it's like a sin for the defense to get the ball pushed behind them," Brissett said. "Early on, we had to understand and take what they gave us. Over time, they would get tired of it and we would have our chances down the field. As you see, we did have chances down the field towards the end. We just didn't make the plays and I think we will down the line. It was good to see how we would react in those situations."
Co-Offensive Coordinator Eric Studesville touched on the topic at his Tuesday media availability.
"We're talking a lot about that, trying to find explosive plays and ways to get explosive plays," Studesville said. "We did take some shots the other day in that game in Las Vegas, but we're always trying to find explosive plays. We're constantly talking about it, we're trying to put them in, we're trying to get them. But we're limited at times because of what the defense gives us. So, we have to call them at the right time, we have to be prepared and we have to dial those up when we think we have the best chance to execute those."
The Dolphins defense also believes limiting big plays and forcing the opposing offense to piece together lengthy drives. Defensive Backs Coach Gerald Alexander preaches the fact that big plays occur via breakdowns on the back end, a shared tenant of Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer.
Last summer, when legendary Dolphins Defensive Coordinator Bill Arnsparger was named the Dr. Z Award winner for a lifetime achievement as an NFL assistant, Boyer detailed his appreciation for the history of the game and how quickly he got his hands on and digested the lone football book authored by Arnsparger.
Miami's current defensive coordinator is a master not just of modern defense, but of the profiles of those that paved the way before him.
"I was really excited about and in fact it just so happened that Bill Arnsparger was awarded the Dr. Z Award this year, which I think he's more than deserving," Boyer said. "Arnsparger's book is one of those – if you have a pretty good knowledge, you'd think it's a pretty good book. If you're a little bit novice in it, it could be a tough read. I think there's things that you can pull from everything."
Naturally, we had to ask Coach Boyer to weigh in on his memory of the NFL's all-time winningest head coach, who wrote the foreword in 'Arnsparger's Coaching Defensive Football.'
"Coach Shula's ability to maintain winning seasons -- I believe in his coaching career he only had two losing seasons -- he was very successful with the Colts and obviously here in Miami, he spent about 50 years in the Miami organization" Boyer said. "I think it's awesome they would celebrate his life. His legacy to pro football, his legacy to the Miami Dolphins, there's obviously not enough good things you can say about him. It's kind of an interesting fact that my introduction to him was my sister having the same birthday (as Coach Shula)."
Boyer's full answer (which came in just under three minutes at 2:57) can be seen in the video below.
Come celebrate the life of Don Shula Saturday at 4:30 at Hard Rock Stadium. The free event is open to the public and will feature remarks from the Shula family with panel discussions from several Dolphins alumni. Attending fans will also receive a special commemorative Don Shula 347 patch. Registration is now open at Dolphins.com/don-shula.