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Opponent preview: Miami Dolphins left-side run game

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Miami running backs have been far more efficient running to the left side—we aim to figure out why.

The Buffalo Bills won a tight contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the ground game of the Jags nearly pounded the Bills into submission. If it weren’t for a conveniently timed fight and ejection, the outcome could have been different. With playoff dreams hovering slightly above none, yet not quite to slim, a victory over the Miami Dolphins will be necessary. The Bills should look to take away the strength of the Miami offense, which happens to be runs to the left side.


Before we begin, let’s take a quick look at some data in the form of an easy to digest graphic. (Data and graphic courtesy of the NFL.)

Here we have the Miami Dolphins rushing offense broken down by play direction. The circled numbers show that the Dolphins are a top-ten team running the ball to the left end and tackle. Off the guard and up the middle aren’t too shabby either. To the right they’re pretty bad. Looking just above the ranking, we have the average gain per play. To the left side they’re several yards better per play than to the right side. It’s almost like they’re a different team on each side of the line. Oh, and in case you’re curious—they’re thoroughly mediocre in the passing game. So let’s see what their deal is.

Play 1

Kenyan Drake has a lane develop early on, courtesy of solid blocking nearly across the board. Both the right guard and tackle pull across the formation to help create the lane and make sure Drake has a lead blocker. An extra blocker in the form of tight end Nick O’Leary is to help out. Fun fact: O’Leary has a famous uncle or something. I think he played the Joker in one of the Tim Burton takes on Batman.

Play 2

Nick O’Leary is in to block again. This time the entire line moves left to zone block. Frank Gore then just needs to decide on a lane. He drives back into a nice-sized one that has just a little clutter. Gore is still producing at a high level, though, and a gauntlet of arm tackles favors Gore. If you look closely, you’ll notice that O’Leary doesn’t wear gloves which is straight up crazy.

Play 3

The Dolphins are at their best when blocking on the move. While the entire line isn’t shifting like we just saw, a couple key blockers in O’Leary and center Travis Swanson are mixing things up. Frank Gore makes you forget he’s 35 years old for a second as he breaks a tackle or ten.

Play 4

This is essentially the same thing as Play 2 just with Kenyan Drake in at running back. The Chicago Bears are a little better prepared for it, but Drake still manages to get four yards. Having O’Leary in to provide support and getting the linemen moving are elements the Bills should expect to see on a regular basis.

Play 5

Let’s take a look at the Dolphins attempting the same type of concepts toward the right. Despite the attempt at mirroring their success from the other side, no lane develops. Frank Gore bounces around the pile a couple times and finds his own path ahead. Gore is averaging 4.5 yards-per-carry. If it holds up, it’ll be his highest average since 2012. The Dolphins have decreased his carries a bit, which has likely helped his efficiency.

Play 6

The Dolphins aren’t a one-trick aquatic mammal, and will use other strategies to mix things up. Here they’re mostly following the age-old tenet of going hat-to-hat. The addition of O’Leary and the pull from guard Jesse Davis are reminiscent of the plays above.


Summary

The Bills should come prepared to shut down the run in all directions, but it may be wise to spend a little extra time planning for the left side. The heavy use of pulling linemen and blocking on the move could mean that discipline from the Buffalo linebackers will be a critical match-up to watch.

I still haven’t answered the question though have I? Why are they so much better moving to the left when it’s clear they can mirror the same concepts to the right side? Simply put, it’s just what they’re good at. When discussing technique, there is not an automatic ability to do the same thing on the opposite side. How many people can successfully throw with their off hand? In Bloodsport, Frank Dux warns Ogre about Chong Li’s right leg, but not his left. People are just usually better at things on one side. From all appearances, the lineman on the right are doing a better job of pulling across formation and move-blocking. The left side of the line is better with those early shoves.