Dolphins Running Game: Bush vs. Thomas vs. Playcalling

November 28th, 2012

Daniel Thomas

Last season, his first as a Miami Dolphin, Reggie Bush posted career highs with 216 carries and 1,086 rushing yards. Allegedly, that season was proof that Bush could take the beating that comes with being a feature back and still produce.

This season, Bush averages less carries per game than he did last season, and his yards per carry average is down as well. One could attribute the emergence of Daniel Thomas as a reason for Bush’s diminished role in the offense. But Thomas also averages less carries per game than he did in 2011, roughly three and a half carries less.

At the end of October, the Dolphins had a 4-3 record, with two of their losses coming in overtime. Over those first seven games, Bush and Thomas averaged 16 and 10.2 carries per game, respectively. Third stringer Lamar Miller also had games with 10, 9 and 4 carries in September as a fill-in back.

But then the Dolphins struggled through November, limping out of the month with a 1-3 record. Over those four games, Bush and Thomas averaged only 9.5 and 8 carries per game, respectively.

So it seems like the gap closed a bit between Bush and Thomas, and that’s fine. Thomas is a talented player, and even though Bush had a good 2011 season, he really isn’t an every-down back like Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice. But why did the Dolphins reduce carries for both players?

MDD Staff Writer: Garrett Baker

Sure, the offensive line was faltering and neither back seemed to really get their footing. But when you abandon the run, it makes the defense’s job easy, and it’s not like the Dolphins have a high-octane passing offense that could compensate for the lack of a ground game. Mike Pouncey is one of the best centers in the league, and while guards John Jerry and Richie Incognito are pretty average, they are certainly capable of providing decent run blocking.

Bush and Thomas actually make for a great 1-2 combination in the backfield because they compliment each other’s playing styles so well. Bush is at his best when he gets around the end and into open space, making defenders miss and extending the play. Thomas is a bigger, stronger back who can also make defenders miss, but is capable of getting between the tackles and wearing down the line.

A running game does more than move the ball. It wears down the opposing defense’s linemen and linebackers as the game progresses. It forces the defense to blitz less, because they can’t risk big gaps in the middle of the field if the running back slips through the line. At the same time, it brings the linebackers a little closer to the line, and makes play-action a lot more effective.

The Dolphins need to run the ball more for all these reasons, but the biggest reason is simple: they need to protect their rookie quarterback. Ryan Tannehill has been solid in his first season in the NFL, but is far from a polished product and could use a little more help.

Let’s look at the stats game-by-game for November. Against Indianapolis, Bush and Thomas combined for just 16 carries. The game was in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, making it easier to move the ball through the air, but Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman can’t be that one-sided with the offense. Especially in a close game that finished 23-20 for the Colts, an established ground game may have made the difference as the game wore on. Bush even had a spectacular 18-yard touchdown run, and Thomas broke out for a 20 yarder as well. Why don’t the Dolphins give these backs more chances to make plays like that?

The Titans game is harder to critique because they fell behind early, which caused them to run the ball less. But the Bills game, in which both offenses struggled to move the ball, was a great example of a situation where Sherman needed to stick with the run even though it wasn’t working. Bush finished with 10 carries and 20 yards, while Thomas had 12 carries for 33 yards. Even though they weren’t being productive, Sherman should have continued to pound the ball and keep the Buffalo’s defense honest. Instead, they pressured Tannehill, sacking him three times and intercepting him twice en route to a victory.

This past Sunday gainst the Seahawks, the Dolphins finally pulled out a win in a close game. The two running backs combined for a solid 147 yards, but still on just 23 carries. If it had not been for Tannehill leading a phenomenal two-minute drill at the end of the game leading to a Dan Carpenter field goal and Dolphins victory, I think the backlash over the lack of rushing attempts would have been far greater. Bush and Thomas were finally picking up good yardage and making things happen, yet they still didn’t get the ball that often, and it took their rookie quarterback coming up clutch to pull out a win.

There are going to be growing pains whenever a first-year head coach is guiding a rookie quarterback in the NFL. But both of their lives could be made a lot easier if they recognized how talented their two leading rushers are, and just gave them the ball more often.

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