The Miami Dolphins (4-4) appeared to intentionally make their run game go belly up with the trade of Jay Ajayi on Oct. 31.
But leaning on a new system actually trended more positively for Miami in Week 9 than in many weeks prior.
Instead of relying solely on Ajayi, the Dolphins turned to using two backs in tandem: Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams, who have been utilized heavily as pass-catchers out of the backfield.
Against Oakland, Drake rushed for 69 yards on nine carries and caught six passes for 35 yards. Williams rushed for 14 yards on seven carries and caught six passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Neither running back dropped a pass out of the backfield.
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Miami’s run game is still gasping – the Dolphins only rushed for 86 yards last week, and rank 30th in the league with just 77.6 yards per game. In fact, the team has yet to score a rushing touchdown all season.
It’s hard to imagine the Dolphins’ offense will find any success against a Carolina front that ranks second in the NFL in stuffing the run (allowing just 78.4 yards per game).
But using the two backs as pass-catchers does offer a wrinkle Carolina will have to account for, as Cutler is likely to get the ball out quickly against the Panthers.
Cutler attempted 42 passes against Oakland last week. Several of those were checkdowns to Drake and Williams as Cutler faced heavy pressure often.
“I think it’s a big part of who Jay Cutler is, first of all,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “I think everybody talks about the fact that they were 12-for-12 out of the backfield. Well, what that tells you is that the coverage sank, got themselves into middle to deep range and he had to check the ball down, or, you watch it, too, there were some pressures that came immediately and he dumped it very quickly.”
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase told Miami reporters this week that “when (Cutler) has had time in the pocket, he’s done a really good job of finding the open guys and getting the ball out on time. ... The games that we’ve struggled in were where things were collapsing quick and we weren’t getting open quick enough. It was hard for him to get in a little bit of a rhythm.”
Carolina’s defensive linemen should be licking their chops when they hear that – particularly defensive end Mario Addison, who is on a bit of a hot streak.
Addison has recorded 11 pressures over the last two games, according to Pro Football Focus, and has had four quarterback hurries and 2.5 sacks during that time.
“More so than anything else, he’s healthy,” said Rivera. “He told me a couple of weeks ago; he did a couple of things in practice and came up to me and said ‘I’m back. I’m ready to go.’ And he looked the part. As you’ve noticed the last couple of weeks, he’s been very productive, been right around the quarterback.
“And it’s at a good time, because I think a couple of the other guys are getting a little worn and they’ll have to catch their second breath. This game comes at a good time for it, just before the bye.”
If they can put pressure on Cutler, the Panthers will need to be prepared for those checkdowns.
“He sees the pressure, he checks it down almost immediately,” said Rivera. “The thing we have to do is make sure we’re set and ready to break, whether it’s back or downhill.
Miami has already been shut out twice this season (one of which came while missing Cutler to injury).
If Carolina focuses on pressuring Cutler and eliminating the pass-catching abilities of Drake and Williams, it could happen again.