The harsh reality Miami Dolphins fans must face is that their team is not equipped to win cold-weather games.
Joe Philbin‘s club is set to make three trips to cold-weather climates during the next four weeks. Miami will visit the New York Jets in Week 13, the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14 and the Buffalo Bills in Week 16.
To keep up in the muddled AFC playoff race, these are critical road games the Dolphins must win. If they don’t win all three they must at least emerge victorious in two, but it won’t be easy with the way this team is constructed.
It obviously doesn’t help that the Dolphins call South Florida home, where the average high temperature is 76 degrees in December. There have been several seasons during the team’s storied history where Miami collapsed down the stretch, oftentimes losing multiple games in freezing temperatures. The infamous December demise sputtered several promising Dolphins seasons during the 1990s and early 2000s.
But struggling to adapt to the conditions is far from the only reason why the 2013 Dolphins might have a difficult time playing and winning in the Northeastern United States. In said region, where it will likely be cold and windy for all three of Miami’s trips, teams must be able to run the football and stop the run.
The Dolphins’ strengths, although they have trouble consistently doing anything well, are throwing the football on offense and containing the pass on defense. While the NFL remains a pass-happy league in every month of the season, the running game will be more emphasized in the cold and wind. And if the Dolphins have to rely on their ability to run the football and stop the run in three of their final five games, reaching the playoffs might be, well, a reach.
Only six teams average less than the 84.5 rushing yards per game the Dolphins have managed thus far. Miami has struggled to run the ball and stay committed to doing so when it has actually had moderate success on the ground all year. And now the team is down three starting offensive linemen and running back Daniel Thomas, who split carries with starter Lamar Miller. Not to mention that the Dolphins play the Jets twice in the final five games. Rex Ryan‘s club ranks first in the entire NFL in defending the run.
Only six teams have given up more rushing yards per game than the 123.8 Miami has conceded this season. Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are capable of dominating in the trenches and leading one of the league’s stoutest run defenses, but a leaky linebacker corps has made the Dolphins vulnerable on the ground in 2013. Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe ranks 50th out of 53 eligible players at the position against the run, according to Pro Football Focus. Philip Wheeler ranks 32nd out of 34 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers defending the run. Remodeling the linebacker position has severely backfired for the Dolphins and could make winning down the stretch difficult as opposing offenses focus on pounding the rock.
There are ways the Dolphins could potentially compensate for their inability to run and stop opposing teams from running. On offense, employing more read-option plays might be in order to utilize quarterback Ryan Tannehill‘s athleticism and to induce some hesitation for the pursuit. On defense, Miami could allow strong safety Reshad Jones to creep up near the box more often to assist the front seven in stuffing the run. Whatever the case, improvement is desperately needed.
The Dolphins must overcome their shortcomings in the running game during the final five weeks of the season. If they don’t, cold-weather games, where the conditions might be frigid, windy and perhaps snowy, could expose their issues even more. Quite frankly, that would make qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2008 a long shot.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.