It's called the money down for a reason. Third down outcomes have a bigger swing in win probability than any other play in football sans turnovers and scoring plays. And with roughly 30 third-down snaps per game on average, it's a 60-minute collection of mini-battles to determine the ultimate victor.
Thus, the money down -- where players and coaches earn their salt; where complementary football is magnified.
Miami's third down production on offense has increased exponentially over the last two weeks -- from 35.4 percent through the first five games up to 57.1 percent in Weeks 6 and 7 combined.
"I hope it's the increased emphasis in it, which we are talking about all the time," Co-Offensive Coordinator Eric Studesville said. "We constantly talk about that. (Brian Flores) talks about it, he addresses it and we spend a lot of time on third down talking about what we want to execute, how we want to do things on third down. I think then it becomes a credit to the players where they are studying and buying in and they are executing when we call those things. I think it's a whole philosophy that starts with 'Flo' all the way down to everybody that we understand the importance of that third down situation and we have to be better, to stay on the field and get more plays to continue drives."
That conversion rate leads the NFL over that two-week span (among teams who've played two games).
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been especially sharp on the money down. He's completed 15-of-22 third down passes for 160 yards, a touchdown and 13 total conversions (two on the ground) since returning from the injured reserve. The average distance to gain on those third downs has been 7.2 yards.
The volatility of third down production is one of the key factors that contributes to the ups and downs of an NFL season for any team. The Tennessee Titans, for instance, lost a game three weeks ago to the now 1-6 New York Jets, only to rattle off back-to-back victories over last year's AFC Championship Game representatives (Kansas City and Buffalo). The biggest difference -- third down production. Tennessee was 12-for-22 (55 percent) on third downs in the two wins and just 5-for-19 (26 percent) in the loss.
Response to Adversity
Considering the perception of the Titans in the eyes of the fans and media after that Week 5 loss, the only way to flip the script was to perform against adversity, which they accomplished. That's where the tangent brings us back to the Dolphins, who have endured plenty of in-game affliction, but responded to give the team an opportunity to snatch victory.
The road block for Miami these last two weeks has been untimely turnovers. To stretch it further, including the Week 1 interception, Tagovailoa has thrown three second-half interceptions on the season. Head Coach Brian Flores likes the way his quarterback (and in this particular question, also his tight end Durham Smythe) responded to the turnover Sunday against Atlanta.
"I think it's one that Tua wishes he had back, Durham wishes he had back and something we have to learn from," Flores said. "When you look at it that way, there's some other places we could have went with it. What I liked most about that was Tua's response, Durham's response and being able to turn it around and create some positive plays after that mishap."
Following those three second-half interceptions, Tagovailoa has completed 21-of-24 passes for 246 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 149.
While the team's resiliency hasn't shown up in the win column, it's a positive sign moving forward and something they'll need to flip the script to finish on the winning side of these close matchups.
Wilkins Showing Growth
On the other side of the ball, there are more signs of progress, like the trajectory of Christian Wilkins' career. A dependable, versatile defensive lineman who plays as hard as anyone and creates chances for his teammates, Wilkins' stats are starting to jump off the page.
"I think Christian has always played with great effort," Dolphins Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer said. "I think it starts with that and I think he's doing a good job of working on his fundamentals and his techniques to put himself in a position to make plays and then when he does and when he has opportunities, he's been able to make those plays. I think that's a byproduct of him knowing and understanding the system a little bit better, him knowing and understanding his techniques and fundamentals a little bit better and also, when you know those things, you know when you can take chances that are probably going to be in your favor and I think he's done that very well."
That effort was evident on a first quarter play Sunday. Screen passes are said to be a defensive end's play -- it measures their motor to get up field and chase the quarterback, only to retrace back outside and flag down the receiver. On this Calvin Ridley reception, Wilkins retraces, then retraces again to help finish off the ball carrier.
The effort has always been there, now the stats are too. Wilkins has two sacks, six QB hits, four tackles for loss and 33 total tackles, which prorates to five sacks, 15 QB hits, 10 tackles for loss and 80 total tackles; all of which would obliterate Wilkins' career-best marks.