Playing Without Preston
Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores announced Wednesday the team will be placing wide receiver Preston Williams on injured reserve. Williams left the Cardinals game on a cart following his second quarter touchdown reception, his fourth of the year.
"We ran some tests. Preston, he's going to go to IR, so it's a little bit more significant than we initially thought," Flores said.
Injured reserve rules this year require a player to be sidelined for at least three games, though teams are now permitted to bring back any player on IR after that three-game mark.
The announcement comes at the exact juncture of the season in which Williams was lost for the 2019 season with a torn ACL. In his rookie season, Williams was tied for the rookie lead with receptions (32), third in receiving yards (428) and tied for third in touchdowns with four at the time of his Week 9 injury.
This season, also in eight games, Williams caught 18 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns.
"It's a big loss. Preston has made a lot of plays for us over the first half of the season," Flores said.
"It's tough losing someone like Preston," quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "He's kind of been a game changer. It's next man up. Really, it's all the guys that you guys have seen when we played the Cardinals. That's all the guys that need to step up."
Losing a player of Williams' caliber and production is never easy, but Miami's next-man-up mentality has served the team well under Flores. Last week, the team played the fourth quarter without the services of running backs Myles Gaskin and Matt Breida, tight end Durham Smythe, and receivers Williams and Lynn Bowden Jr. That group of skill players accounted for 961 offensive snaps through the first half of the Miami season.
"Jakeem (Grant) stepped in for him last week," Flores said. "Mack Hollins stepped in and had a big play. Kirk Merritt was up last week, played well in the kicking game, played a little bit offensively. And you mentioned Lynn (Bowden Jr.). I think it's kind of how we have to approach this. Someone could be down for COVID, someone could be down due to injury. We need the next person to step in – a player, coach, whatever it may be."
The Dolphins provided an early example for the strength of the roster from top to bottom. After Williams' exit, Miami had five possessions that produced 176 yards and 13 points (not including the final drive that ended in victory formation). The 13 points on five possessions is good for 2.6 points per drive, 0.1 points better than Miami's season average (2.5 points per drive).
Multiple players picked up their performance in the absence of Williams. DeVante Parker pulled in five of his six receptions in the game for 61 yards after the injury. He also drew a 21-yard pass interference penalty. All four of Jakeem Grant's receptions (35 yards) occurred after Williams had to exit and Mack Hollins caught the first pass of his Dolphins career, a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"It's next man up," DeVante Parker said. "That's the mentality we have to have. You never know when you're name will be called so you have to be ready at all times."
Wide receivers Malcolm Perry and Lynn Bowden also factor into the equation. Perry made his NFL debut two weeks ago against the Rams and has played 30 snaps on offense. Fellow rookie Bowden has 23 snaps of offensive playing time after coming over from Las Vegas in a September trade.
Dolphins Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey broke down Bowden's game and the next steps for the rookie receiver back on October 20.
"He has some natural route-running ability," Gailey said. "He has some natural athletic talent. He's just still in the process of learning everything, the nuances of playing at this level. It's not the athletic talent. It's just learning the nuances of being able to compete."
Dolphins Wide Receivers Coach Josh Grizzard commended Perry for his commitment to improve.
"He's just worked so hard since he's gotten here and kept his head down and just keeps improving from week to week," Grizzard said. "You can tell that he's committed to details."
It's not just the wide receivers that will step in to fill the void left by Williams' foot injury. Flores talked about the usage of Perry and Bowden, but how Miami can get creative in their groupings to fill out those reps.
"I think to mix those with the young guys, there are a few different way we can do this, Flores said. "You don't have to just put one grouping in there. We've got some tight ends who can play, we've got some backs who can play. You can only play 11 at a time, so it doesn't have to be three and four wide receivers. I think everyone expects it to show up that way, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. I think we can handle that with the rest of the team."
The Dolphins have run four receiver sets just four times this season. They've run the league's most prominent package – 11-personnel with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers – 207 times, the second-fewest in the league. Miami utilizes tight ends and running backs as much as just about any team.
Miami's 117 plays from 12-personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) ranks tied for 11th in the NFL. They've also called 10 plays from 13-personnel (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR). The use of two running backs also rivals some of the more prominent two-back teams in the league.
The Dolphins' 28 plays from 20-personnel (2 RB, 0 TE, 2 WR) is the most in the NFL and the 61 plays from 21-personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR) is the sixth-most. Only 10 teams have called 22-personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) more than Miami's 24 plays from that grouping. The Dolphins are one of five teams to call 23-personnel (no receivers on the field) three times or more and only four teams have called more heavy personnel packages (extra offensive linemen in the game) than Miami.
National networks are becoming increasingly aware of Miami's four-game winning streak and the progress the team has enjoyed under Flores. ESPN's Dan Orlovsky issued a full-fledged apology on ESPN's morning show 'Get Up' for questioning the team's decision to make a quarterback switch two weeks ago.
Flores was asked Wednesday about managing the hype and outside noise.
"The only thing that matters is what's going on in our building," Flores said. "I'm not sure how much anyone outside of our building really actually knows what's going on inside the building, so the way we practice, the way we prepare, how we walk through. The only people who could really tell them the truth about how they played in a game or how they played in practice or how they did in a meeting are the people that are here."
"As a team the way we go about doing things – it's hard to get complacent," Tagovailoa said. "With what Flo says, just keeping your head down, continuing the grind. The feeling of winning is good but the feeling of a loss – it's the opposite, and we don't want to feel that. We know that in order to give us the best chance to be successful, we have to go in and work hard in preparation and in execution."
Cardinals Game Ball Moment
Following Sunday's win in Arizona, NFL Films captured a moment between Flores and Tagovailoa.
Tagovailoa reflected on that moment Wednesday, but also the last 52 weeks. Next Monday will be the one-year anniversary of his injury that knocked him out of the remainder of Alabama's 2019 season.
"I saw Flo, he was waiting and I had the game ball," Tagovailoa explained. "It was just one of those – it was just a thank you for taking a shot on me. A year ago, who would've known? I had a season-ending injury but the Miami Dolphins decided to take a chance on me."
Austin's Back, Back Again
The rookie quarterback put his stamp on the second start of his career with 10 fourth-quarter points to come beat a dangerous Cardinals team. The game was also the first contest back for fellow rookie Austin Jackson. After missing the three games prior, Miami's left tackle talked about his performance on Sunday.
"It was exciting to play in my first game back," Jackson said. "Watching them play for so long, it was fun to come back and be part of the fun."
"I think I played well," Jackson continued. "There's always things you can work on. I got tripped up when I gave up a sack. Learning that spatial awareness where you're moving in the pocket for an offensive lineman is big. Getting back used to that was a challenge. For the most part I feel like I prepared myself to not leave a drop off for the team."
When cornerback Byron Jones returned from an injury that kept him out of two games, he talked about using the down time to sharpen his game from a mental standpoint.
"This is the first time I've had to prepare throughout an entire week knowing that I wasn't going to play," Jones said. "It really does give you that exercise, that mental exercise, that really keeps you sharp. I've probably taken more notes now than I typically do, but I'm just trying to keep my mind and my body fresh."
Jackson was of the same frame of mind when he missed three games.
"I had a chance to look at more film and really study defenses," Jackson said. "Learning defensive movements and defensive alignments. And then the extra hours in the weight room and the training room, those helped too while I was out."
Flores opened his Wednesday press conference with a shoutout for all of those who served.
"I wanted to start by – today is Veterans Day, so I just wanted to shout out Adam LaChance, who's on our strength and conditioning staff," Flores said. "He's a veteran and I wanted to thank him for his service and all the veterans for their service. I just wanted to do that."
On behalf of the entire Miami Dolphins organization, thank you to all who served!