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This was the scene on Sunday: Tua Tagovailoa was flushed out of the pocket on a fourth-down pass when right tackle Jesse Davis missed his block against Buffalo Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Epenesa ran down the rolling out Miami quarterback and delivered such a violent blow that it left Tagovailoa with “fractured ribs,” according to coach Brian Flores. As Tagovailoa lay on the field, writhing in pain, Davis came over to see how he was doing and tried to help him get up.
“I felt pretty bad,” Davis said this week. “Every time you see the quarterback go down and it’s your fault, it’s a bad deal.”
It’s also a bad deal that Davis was the only Dolphins offensive lineman who tried to help Tagovailoa. No one else responsible for keeping the quarterback upright and healthy came to aid their ailing teammate.
Later in the third quarter, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen was flushed out of the pocket by the Dolphins’ pass rush, and he scrambled up the left sideline until he was pushed out of bounds by safety Brandon Jones. Except Jones delivered a little extra shove at the end of the play.
That’s when Buffalo left guard Jon Feliciano came charging from 15 yards away to challenge Jones and other Dolphins players. And right guard Cody Ford also joined the verbal jousting with Dolphins defenders while another Bills offensive lineman escorted Allen away from the group.
Two quarterbacks in harm’s way.
Two offensive lines with vastly different responses.
So, I ask, what is wrong with the Miami Dolphins offensive line?
It’s a question Dolphins fans have been asking for years because, it seems, season after season the club streams resources into the position group with hopes of getting it right.
And yet it’s not right. It’s not good.
The Dolphins are 30th in the NFL in most sacks allowed with eight — thank God for the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, which have allowed 10.
The Dolphins are tied for 30th with a 5.4 yard per pass attempt average — a sign coaches are calling plays that get the ball out quickly so as to protect the quarterback and cover for poor blocking up front.
And the Dolphins are tied for 28th with a 3.4 yard per carry rushing average, a stat that reflects on the team’s running backs, sure, but also speaks to substandard blocking.
“It’s not the O-line,” said Jacoby Brissett, who will start for the injured Tagovailoa against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday. (Dolphins are +4.5 on FanDuel.) “It’s not the quarterback. It’s all of us. It’s the receivers, it’s the running backs, it’s the tight ends. It’s all of us playing a part in it.
“We’ve just got to find ways to get better at those things and really just understand the broad picture of what we’re trying to accomplish on each play and understanding the timing of each play, and when we have a lot of time and when we don’t have a lot of time.
“I think once we realize that and understand that, that just puts us in a better position so you guys don’t write these terrible articles about the O-line can’t block and (expletive) like that.”
What Brissett is saying may sound logical, but here’s the problem: He just joined the team this offseason. He’s new to the Dolphins in 2021.
But the Miami offensive line not meeting expectations and getting quarterbacks injured is not new. It’s not just a 2021 issue.
This has been happening for years.
Brissett was still in college when Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill was the most sacked quarterback in the NFL his first three seasons. He was not around when Calais Campbell, with a free run at the quarterback, hit Tannehill and blew out his knee.
Brissett’s not been around long enough to see that the Dolphins have been unable to draft well enough, play well enough, or coach well enough to put this issue to bed.
And let there be no doubt the troubles with the Dolphins blocking up front is about all those failures. It’s on the personnel department. It’s on the players. It’s on the coaching staff.
It is indeed everybody as Brissett says, except everybody includes a wider swath of people within the organization than he might think.
Chris Grier, who is in his sixth season as Dolphins general manager, has drafted nine offensive linemen and signed six more as unrestricted free agents during his tenure.
And yet in the last decade, a majority of that time with Grier making the personnel decisions, the Dolphins have started 46 different offensive linemen — the most of any NFL team.
Grier has invested two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, a fifth-round and a couple of back-end-of-the draft picks on Miami’s offensive line.
And it’s true four of those picks comprise Miami’s current starting five linemen.
But attendance and accomplishment are two different things, so the fact the draft picks are playing isn’t good enough if they’re playing poorly.
That, by the way, is exactly what’s happening.
According to grades from ProFootballFocus.com, Michael Deiter owns the 23rd lowest grade of the 33 NFL centers graded.
Left guard Solomon Kindley has the 43rd lowest grade among 69 guards.
Right guard Robert Hunt has the 60th lowest grade among 69 guards.
Davis has the 58th lowest grade among 74 offensive tackles.
And left tackle Austin Jackson has the 61st lowest grade among 74 tackles.
Said another way, none of these guys are grading out well so far this season, and don’t forget, the quarterback quite literally got knocked into next week (at the earliest) in the last game.
There is obviously hope the Dolphins’ line can improve because it is a young group and young players can develop.
But here’s where the Dolphins coaching is failing: Flores, in his third season as head coach, has tried and failed in the hiring of three previous offensive line coaches so far, and the jury is is still out on offensive line coach No. 4.
This year, Flores promoted Lemuel Jeanpierre to be Miami’s offensive line coach after he was the offensive line assistant last year.
Jeanpierre is the fourth offensive line coach Flores has hired or promoted in three seasons.
And now, for the first time in his career, he’s the main guy coaching an offensive line.
So the Dolphins have a head coach who can’t seem to find the right offensive line coach that he wants to keep beyond one season. They have an offensive line coach who’s never held the job before, and is the fourth guy to hold the position the last three seasons.
How’s that going to help develop and instill continuity along the offensive line?
Continuity, by the way, is something the Dolphins hope for but cannot promise. Because in training camp, second-round pick Liam Eichenberg played on both the left and right side. He played at both left guard and right tackle.
“I’ve been playing a lot of different positions – been playing guard, tackle, flipping sides of the line,” Eichenberg said.
So where’s the plan? The vision?
The Dolphins are reacting as much as acting up front. And it might continue because Flores has not dismissed the idea of making changes to the unit this week.
None of this would be insurmountable if the Dolphins had a running back so outstanding he could overcome the flaws of an underperforming offensive line.
Grier last offseason was under pressure from the local media to draft a running back who could threaten defenses by either making tacklers miss or by simply running over people.
But Grier stubbornly stuck with the idea that Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed and Malcolm Brown — none of them candidates to lead the league in rushing — were more than adequate to carry Miami’s running game.
So far, Miami’s combination of backs are 27th in the NFL in rushing, averaging a paltry 72.5 rushing yards per game.
The Dolphins’ situation could also be saved if Grier had drafted a big, mobile quarterback or had a veteran quarterback who could dissect blitzes quickly or set protections up front so well he could buy himself time to throw.
But Tagovailoa, picked No. 5 overall in the 2020 draft, is neither of those.
He’s moderately athletic but not so much he can get away from chasing defenders, as Epenesa proved. He’s only 6 foot and 217 pounds, so he cannot just stand in the pocket and take the punishment.
And his recognition of oncoming blitzes is not as quick as it needs to be, especially while playing behind a poor line. It’s the reason the Bills blitzed Tagovailoa on three of his four pass attempts last week — two times with the blitzers pouring in unblocked.
So what now?
The Raiders will present the Dolphins’ offensive line with another interesting challenge.
They hit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 10 times last week. The Raiders sacked Roethlisberger only twice but hit him so often he has been nursing a pectoral muscle injury this week.
It doesn’t promise to get easier.