1. Ryan Tannehill has seemingly been on another level ever since there was talk about him potentially being benched. How has he improved as the season has progressed?
I think two things are happening for Tannehill at this point. First, he's starting to gain the confidence of an NFL starting quarterback. He's making throws he never would have tried before and he is starting to trust his instincts rather than trying to double-check everything. He is not becoming a gunslinger-style quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, but he does seem to be a little more relaxed and a little more sure of himself when he does release the ball.
Second, he seems to be getting comfortable in this offense. New Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor installed the first new offensive system for Tannehill since his days as a high school quarterback. In college, Tannehill played in head coach Mike Sherman's offense at Texas A&M. When he got to the NFL, Sherman was now Miami's offensive coordinator. That's six years in the same offense. Tannehill is growing into Lazor's system, and he is starting to take control of it. If that keeps up, Miami could have finally answered their quarterback question for the first time since Dan Marino.
It is important to recognize that Lazor has tailored the offense to Tannehill over the past few weeks as well, something an offensive coordinator should do. The team is allowing Tannehill to run more, both for yardage and on designed roll-outs/moving pockets. It's played directly into Tannehill's strength and he is flourishing.
2. The Dolphins defense also seems to be on another level right now. In fact, they're just two spots behind the Lions' top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed per game. What makes the Dolphins defense so good?
Miami's defense has been a good defense over the past few years, but (a) not many people noticed because the Miami offense always struggled and (b) it was always good, never great. Obviously people knew of Cameron Wake, but after that, it was a bunch of solid guys without a lot of standouts. That's changed as some players have developed into their own, like defensive end Olivier Vernon and safety Reshad Jones, as well as the Dolphins targeting the right players to fill holes, such as cornerback Brent Grimes last year and Cortland Finnegan this year.
The defense is not perfect, with the linebackers being the weak spot. Koa Misi, who has been forced to miss playing time this year due to injuries, came back last week and really seemed to help with that problem. Misi, who made the switch to middle linebacker this year, can control the defense and is a solid player who will fill up the middle.
Miami's defensive strength is absolutely its pass rush, with Wake and Vernon from the edges, as well as Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick rotating inside. Any of them can and will get after a quarterback. The Dolphins are fifth in the league in sacks so far this season, with 25 through eight games. Having a secondary that can cover long enough to allow those sacks is a big benefit as well.
3. How has former Lions safety Louis Delmas performed so far as a member of the Dolphins?
Delmas has actually been pretty good for the Dolphins. The first four games of the season, I think the team was asking him to play more of a strong safety type of role (the Dolphins don't label their safeties, expecting them to be interchangeable and able to play in any role on any play), something that, while effective, did not play into Delmas' strengths. Now that Reshad Jones, who was suspended for those four games due to a positive drug test, is back, Jones is able to fill the strong safety role better than Jimmy Wilson, who is a hybrid safety/cornerback, and Delmas can be more of a free safety. I don't think Pro Football Focus has Delmas ranked highly, but I think he is giving the Dolphins exactly what they need deep in the secondary.
4. Who is an under-the-radar type of player who could make a big impact on Sunday's game?
There are a few names on defense who could be noticed this week. Jones is one of them, though some people may already recognize him. He had a great 2012 and should have probably been a Pro Bowler that year, then disappeared for most of 2013 as the Dolphins played him more in a free safety type of role. Back in a strong safety role this year, he is playing some great football, with 29 tackles, a sack and two interceptions in four games.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon is not someone most people know, but he is coming off an 11.5-sack season last year and he has 4.5 sacks this year. He benefits from Wake being on the other side, but Vernon can get around left tackles and has some great pass-rushing moves.
Finally, for the defense, Jelani Jenkins got his shot to start when the team lost Dannell Ellerbe as the strongside linebacker this year, and Jenkins has been impressive. He currently leads the team in tackles and has been all over the field every week.
On offense, watch rookie wide receiver Jarvis Landry. He's someone people may know, coming out of LSU last year, but he was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. Landry is getting more and more playing time, replacing Brandon Gibson as the team's starting slot receiver, and he is making the most of it. He's also among the league's top kick returners right now, ranking third in yards per return average.
5. Based on what you've seen in recent weeks, what kind of ceiling do you think this Dolphins team has? Could Miami potentially challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC East crown?
If you asked this a couple of weeks ago, I might have said yes, but the Patriots are starting to roll, and it's going to take a lot for Miami to beat them. Could they do it? Maybe, if Miami can consistently perform closer to their best games of the season rather than the up-and-down roller coaster the team normally takes. The Dolphins should be a winning team this year, something that has not happened since 2008 and has only happened twice in the last 10 seasons. A wild-card position is more likely than an AFC East title, but I would not rule it out yet.
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