All-22: Tannehill, Dolphins offense will test Lions

Getty Images

Getty Images

This story was published by the Detroit Free Press, here

The Miami Dolphins are firing on all cylinders after dismantling the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, 37-0, to earn their fourth win in five games. The defense is second to only the Lions according to Football Outsiders and the offense is one of the most improved in the league. Third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing the best football of his career and has the offense thriving.

Much of the credit must go to Miami’s first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who had discussions with Jim Caldwell in January to come to the Lions before taking his talents to South Beach. Lazor spent last season as the quarterback coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, learning under Chip Kelly. Lazor brought Kelly’s spread offense principles to the Dolphins and has built the system around Tannehill’s strengths.

After the team considered benching Tannehill following a 1-2 start, the Dolphins have scored 24 points or more in five straight games. The offense has averaged 30.6 points per game during the streak and will test the Lions’ discipline up front, and its communication on the back end.

While examining Miami’s offensive scheme, the first observation to make is that the Dolphins use the running game to set up the aerial attack. The foundation of the run game is the infamous inside zone read. Lazor utilizes the threat of Tannehill running the football to keep the defense honest.

As a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M, Tannehill lost the quarterback battle and was moved to wide receiver. He promptly caught 101 passes for 1453 yards and nine touchdowns in his first two seasons at receiver before taking over as the signal caller midway through his junior season. Tannehill is very athletic and at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he is nimble in the open field.

Let’s break down the tape to analyze why the Dolphins are having such great success on offense.

Here is the second and third play from Miami’s 10-play, 77-yard drive to open the game last week. Miami’s fourth-ranked rushing attack is averaging over 137 yards per game running behind a revamped offensive line (four new starters). Here, they come out in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three receivers) with running back Lamar Miller (averaging 4.9 yards per carry) lined up in the backfield beside Tannehill. All three wideouts are split outside, forcing the defense to spread to account for each threat and giving the Dolphins a numbers advantage at the line of scrimmage to their right.

SD-MIA IZ zone run above

Here’s the view from the end zone camera angle. Miami has four blockers to San Diego’s three defenders.

SD-MIA IZ run handoff

The play-side (the direction of the play in football jargon) is designed to go to the right with the lineman blocking down to the right to create a wall for the running back. What makes this a zone read play is Tannehill ‘reading’ the safety that has crept up to the line of scrimmage.

SD-MIA IZ run handoff2

If the safety doesn’t respect Tannehill and crashes towards the running back, the quarterback can keep the ball and run left. With nobody on that side of the field, Tannehill could have a huge gain, so the safety must protect the edge. This lets Tannehill handoff to Miller with the safety essentially being ‘blocked’ by the quarterback.

SD-MIA IZ run handoff3

Miller has room to run and knifes his way through the defense for seven yards, which sets-up the next play.

Miami moves to 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers) sandwiching the two backs, Damien Williams and Miller, around Tannehill.

SD-MIA 1Q stretch field horizontally

Before the snap, Tannehill sends Williams in motion towards the sideline. This allows the quarterback to read whether the defense is playing man coverage or zone. With the defender responsible for Williams following him to the outside, Tannehill reads man coverage and immediately knows he wants to hit tight end Charles Clay on the over route across the middle of the field. The design of this play is to spread the defense horizontally, forcing them to cover the entire width of the field (53 and 1/3 yards). This gives Tannehill a clear view of the defense and plenty of space to fit the football into his receiver.

The Dolphins also incorporate a play-fake to Miller, freezing the two underneath defenders for a second. This allows Clay to beat his man to the inside.

SD-MIA 1Q stretch field horizontally2

Clay splits the defense and since he has his initial defender beat, that defender tries to ‘pass-off’ Clay to the other defender sitting at the 45-yard line.

SD-MIA 1Q stretch field horizontally3

There is a miscommunication and the tight end runs free. Tannehill easily hits Clay in stride, allowing the athletic tight end to gain 14 yards after the catch for a 24-yard pick up.

SD-MIA 1Q stretch field horizontally4

This drive culminates with Miami’s second opening drive touchdown of the season.

In the second quarter, Tannehill picks up 22 yards on the zone read. He will read the unblocked edge defender and depending on the defender’s actions, Tannehill will either hand the football off or keep it himself. Clay, positioned off the line of scrimmage to the left, will be Tannehill’s lead blocker if he keeps the ball.


The defender crashes down the line of scrimmage so Tannehill keeps the football.


The edge defender is completely fooled and out of position. Tannehill has only green grass in front of him as Clay escorts him down the field for 22 yards.


Tannehill is second on the Dolphins in rushing with 245 yards and averages 7.9 yards per carry. He holds Miami’s longest run of the season at 40 yards and has a run of 20 yards or more in four straight games because of play designs like the one above.

The Lions’ defense has been excellent all season but they will be challenged by this Dolphins offense. The defense must be able to play together and stay disciplined in their assignments. If they fail, Tannehill will exploit them with both his arm and his legs.

Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.

Follow Marlowe on Twitter and check out all of his film breakdowns for the Free PressEmail:


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