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Film breakdown: The Miami Dolphins and the art of the big play

The success of the Dolphins big play offense starts on the drawing board.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New York Jets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched an NFL halftime show this season, you’ve probably seen a few highlights of a really fast guy in a Miami Dolphins uniform burning past everyone for a long touchdown. While Miami may not have the star-studded names on offense that many other teams do, they have a set of players with specific skill sets that do exactly what they need them to.

The one variable all of the Dolphins weapons share is their speed. Kenny Stills’ speed and route running make him a great deep threat that can take the top off of defenses. Albert Wilson is a shifty, speedy slot receiver that can hit the second gear once he has the ball in his hand. Jakeem Grant is one of the fastest players in the NFL and can’t help but remind me of Cordarrelle Patterson (if he wasn’t bad). Even running back Kenyan Drake has great long speed that he can turn on to race past defenses.

None of these players are elite at their respective position. Outside of Stills, none would even be considered above average at their position in previous years. They all perfectly execute their role in this offense, though, and it leads to great results.

The crux of the Dolphins offense’s big plays are the speed of Wilson. Unlike the other guys, who are better at beating guys for deep catches, Wilson is yards after catch guy. Similar to the Lions’ Golden Tate, Wilson can create plays out of nothing. If he can get any sort of open space after the catch, then he has the speed and agility to weave through an entire defense for a touchdown.

Chicago learned this the hard way last week as he torched them for two deep touchdown runs on short passes. One came late in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

Late in the game, Chicago drops their defense back into deep zone coverage. Wilson receives a quick pass in space and gets to work. The receiver darts horizontally to outrun three defenders before finding a crease. He turns up field and, once he gets past the first wave of defenders, he’s in the open field. One would-be tackler is beat by a quick cut to his left. Wilson does a great job setting up his blocks on the last two defenders down field as he outruns everyone for a long touchdown.

The receiver’s ability to make plays once he has the ball in his hands haunts the minds of opposing defenses. Wherever he is on the field, he has a chance to score once the ball in his hands. This forces defenses into unforced errors that can open room for others.

Wilson was the passer on this deep touchdown against the Raiders earlier this season. His ability as a receiver is what opened so much space for Grant down the sideline for a touchdown.

Ryan Tannehill hands the ball off to Frank Gore off of the snap who then flips it over to Wilson an a reverse. The Raiders realize that the ball is in Wilson’s hands and stretch the defense wide to make sure the receiver can’t find the edge. Oakland’s corners are so preoccupied by Wilson that Grant runs by them without them noticing. Wilson lobs it to a wide open Grant and the speedster burns everyone for a touchdown.

Later in the same game, the Dolphins used the Grant touchdown to set up one for Wilson.

The Dolphins get the ball in Wilson’s hands on the ball in the backfield here as well. He takes off on the jet sweep but this time makes a hard cut inside before the Raiders could even get wide enough to react. With some Raiders still darting towards the sideline and others still sitting back in coverage no one truly stood a chance of catching the receiver.

While Wilson and Grant are newer pieces making an impact on the offense, Kenny Stills, who’s been their best receiver (the other guy wasn’t that good) the past few seasons, is making an impact as well. Stills used to get stuck with double teams all the time downfield, and Miami would have to settle for a 2-yard check down. With more downfield options around, things have opened up for Stills and he is thriving.

The Titans are playing cover-3 here against the Dolphins. Miami uses a Yankee concept to give all of their receivers 1-on-1 matchups downfield. The receiver split to the left and the receiver in the right slot run deep routes that cross each other. This removes the free safety out of the middle of the field and gives Stills, who started the play split right, space downfield. Stills has inside leverage on a corner that he just runs by and Tannehill finds him for a deep touchdown.

The receivers aren’t the only guys getting involved in the action. While Drake has seen limited carries due to the signing of Gore, he’s been very active in the receiving game. The running back gets majority of his catches underneath, but Miami draws the occasional play up to get him open downfield as well.

Drake lines up to Tannehill’s left, while two other receivers are split wide left for Miami. Cincinnati is in single-high man coverage. The two receivers to the left both run post routes that take the corners covering them and the high safety to the middle of the field. Drake leaks out of the backfield covered by a linebacker. The running back beats his man down field with a well-run corner route and creates an open touchdown pass for Tannehill. The Bengals were so worried about getting beaten by the receivers that the existence of Drake slipped their mind.

The scariest part about the Dolphins offense is that they still have potential to grow. Second-round pick Mike Gesicki still hasn’t gotten going, but he has the skill set and athletic profile of someone that Miami can use as yet another big-play threat. At the moment, he won’t be someone the Detroit Lions are heavily game-planning for and that makes it even easier for them to surprise Paul Pasqualoni and the Lions defense with him.

What does this mean for the Lions?

Detroit is probably in trouble. Darius Slay is the only great corner on the roster and even he has had a few bad games this season. Slay is really fast, so he can probably keep up with the Dolphins speedsters but no one across from him can. Nevin Lawson has made a name for himself getting torched, Teez Tabor is slow, Cre’Von LeBlanc hasn’t done anything to impress. The Lions will get killed in man coverage and their zone defense has looked awful this season as well.

Shorter underneath passes have been a thorn in Detroit’s side the past few years setting up Wilson for another huge day. Quandre Diggs will have to have a big day to contain him. This matchup is not a good one for the Lions, but if Brock Osweiler is starting, there always is a chance he has a full-game brain fart and hands the game to the Lions.