Sunday’s battle of top-10 rookie quarterbacks didn’t disappoint, with Andrew Luck’s Indianapolis Colts edging out Ryan Tannehill’s Miami Dolphins, 23-20.
Luck’s elusiveness in and out of the pocket helped the Colts convert 13 third-down conversions, extending several key drives. Tannehill and the Dolphins offense answered several times, but were unable to get into field goal range to attempt to tie things up in the game’s waning minutes.
Here are my key takeaways from the Dolphins’ 23-20 loss in Indianapolis:
- Third Down Was A Nightmare: They tried all types of remedies, but the Dolphins defense just could not stop the Colts on third down. Indianapolis, led by an in-control Andrew Luck, dictated the tempo and controlled the football, winning the time of possession battle (35:56-24:04), as well as finding all types of ways to stay on the field offensively on third down. The 68 percent conversion rate had several effects; one, of course, being that the Colts were able to seize momentum and consistently keep the Dolphins defense on its toes. More indirectly, though, it limited Ryan Tannehill’s opportunity to put points on the board on a day when the Dolphins offense was moving quite well. These third-down conversions weren’t simply a bunch of 3rd-and-2’s or 3rd-and-4’s–Indianapolis converted six of more than 10 yards and had eight possessions of eight plays or more, a few of which were kept alive by a key third-down conversion. This, too, limited the Dolphins offense’s ability to generate scoring opportunities.
- Bess and Hartline Keep It Going: Dictated by what opposing defenses had been showing, the Dolphins’ big-play passing game to Brian Hartline had been somewhat neutralized. Against Indianapolis, it was nice to see Tannehill generate big plays on the outside with Hartline. Whether it was a double move outside the hashes or a tough grab over the middle, Hartline reemerged, showing an ability to get separation in a one-on-one matchup with an opposing defensive back and stretch the field. He finished the day with eight receptions for 108 yards, more receiving yards than he had in the previous three games combined. Davone Bess was, once again, consistent throughout, and his production is something this offense continues to rely on. It may seem redundant by now, but Bess is the perfect target for a rookie quarterback: a sure-handed receiver that runs crisp routes. Tannehill found him six times on Sunday for 67 yards.
- Lucky Andrew: With no disrespect to Andrew Luck, whose rookie-record 433 yards and two touchdowns won the game, the Dolphins defense didn’t take advantage when Luck threw the football up for grabs. Three game-changing plays stand out in my mind for what the Dolphins defense didn’t do as much as what Luck and Co. were able to do: (1) With the Colts clinging to a three-point lead with under five minutes to play, Sean Smith had a chance to flip the script. An errant Luck pass was in Smith’s direction, but he wasn’t able to catch and hold the ball on the ground, a play that would have automatically put the Dolphins in field goal range. If Miami hadn’t gained another yard in that scenario, Dan Carpenter would have had a chance to make a 46-yard field goal from that spot. (2) The jump ball that T.Y. Hilton came up with in the end zone was more of a bad judgment by two Dolphin defenders than a great play by the rookie from FIU. Worst-case scenario that should have been an incompletion, but the end result was six points for Indianapolis. (3) Overlooked, perhaps, was a third-down pass in the third quarter that could have been picked off by Karlos Dansby. If he holds on, there’s nobody between Dansby and the end zone. It’s a pick-six, without a doubt; a play that could have turned Luck’s performance from nearly flawless to spectacular in defeat.
- Far From Perfect, But…: The Dolphins had a chance to win this game. Put aside the numbers, what went right and what went wrong, all of the missed opportunities, and the offense still had the ball at midfield, only down three, at the two-minute warning. That shows me, despite some definite struggles, this team can compete even if they aren’t executing perfectly. With half a season still to play, the Dolphins have a chance to start playing at a more consistent level. If they can do that over the next eight games, they should see tangible results where it counts: the AFC standings. That would keep them very much alive in what is currently a cloudy playoff picture.