With seemingly every AFC team still in the chase for a playoff spot, Sunday’s game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins had a lot on the line. Both teams came in at 4-5 with the Dolphins’ victory putting them a game up on the Chargers and five other teams that finished the week at 4-6.
San Diego had multiple chances to drive the field in the fourth quarter but the Miami defense held strong finishing the first drive with a sack before cornerback Brent Grimes knocked away the a desperation Hail Mary attempt from the 25-yard line on the last play of the game. It’s a huge win for the Dolphins who find themselves tied with the New York Jets for the sixth-best record in the conference despite a tumultuous season that appeared on the verge of coming unraveled. For the Chargers, it’s yet another chapter in a series of heartbreakers as five of their six losses have now been within one score.
Here’s a look at some of the key performances from this AFC battle.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
Tackles Falter at Crunch Time
Injuries up front have forced the Chargers to shuffle their offensive line as rookie right tackle made his first career start on the left side, this after spending time there a week ago when starter King Dunlap went down. It’s foreign territory for D.J. Fluker who played exclusively on the right side in college as well, and it certainly showed at times throughout the game. Whether it was defensive end Dion Jordan bolting past him in less than two seconds at the 2:11 mark of the second quarter or the two hits and the sack he surrendered on the Chargers’ final two drives, Fluker had his struggles on his way to a -4.3 overall grade including -2.8 in pass protection. On the other side, Jeromey Clary stepped in at right tackle, a familiar position for the eight-year veteran, though he’s been relegated to right guard duty for the majority of the season. He too had his issues down the stretch as he surrendered two pressures of his own on the last couple drives including a sack to DE Cameron Wake with 56 seconds to go in the game, forcing the Chargers to take their last time out in their own territory. Clary finished at -2.3 overall for the day as San Diego’s offensive line shuffle continues to creep up at important parts of games.
Look no further than the touchdown surrendered to tight end Charles Clay at the 7:54 mark of the third quarter to sum up the Chargers’ inability to tackle on Sunday. Linebacker Manti Te’o was caught out of position on the pass and found himself trailing Clay right off the bat and while he didn’t get charged with one of his two missed tackles on the play, it was strong safety Marcus Gilchrist and LB Donald Butler whose feeble attempts came up empty as Clay scampered for the 37-yard score. It was one of four missed tackles for Butler who finished at -3.1 for the day while Gilchrist managed two missed tackles on his way to a -2.0 grade. CB Shareece Wright was the final Charger to get in on the multi-missed tackle parade as he also finished with two to go with a -1.3 overall grade for the afternoon. When you add it all up, the 12 missed tackles for the Chargers compared to only four for the Dolphins may have made the difference in the game.
Earning Playing Time
After finishing at +2.0 a week ago, backup tight end Ladarius Green graded at +2.8 Sunday despite playing only 20 snaps. He’s now at +7.8 for the season and certainly should be in line to see the field more often in the coming weeks. The second-year tight end was targeted five times, catching four passes for 81 yards, including a beautiful 32-yard reception over Grimes with 2:35 to go in the first quarter. Even with Grimes in good position, Green outmuscled him for the well-thrown deep ball, proving to quarterback Phillip Rivers that he can be trusted to make contested catches. He later broke away for a 35-yard gain with 7:50 to go in the game as he showed good burst on the crossing route. Throw in a nice down block to spring a 9-yard run early in the first quarter and Green continues to make his case for more playing time.
Miami – Three Performances of Note
Third Year’s the Charm
A pair of 2011 draft picks picked up the Miami offense Sunday as Clay finished at +4.2 overall while running back Daniel Thomas graded at +3.3 on his 26 snaps. In addition to his touchdown, Clay picked up three first downs with his five other receptions to finish with six catches for 90 yards. He even notched his first positive grade as a run blocker, finishing at +1.0, on the strength of solid blocks against perennial top run stopping linebacker Jarret Johnson. For Thomas, it marked another strong performance on the ground as he finished with 57 yards on 10 carries, including four forced missed tackles and a touchdown. He kept the Dolphins in manageable down and distances situations with his signature run coming at the 11:51 mark of the fourth quarter as he ran through Te’o before sidestepping Wright on his way to an 8-yard gain. The pair of third-year players proved quite valuable to the Dolphins’ offense on Sunday.
Miami’s defensive line has played well throughout the season with defensive tackle Paul Soliai playing the role of run-stopping nose tackle. He was at it again Sunday finishing at +4.4 for the day including +3.7 against the run. He tied with a number of players for a team-high three stops, but he did so on only 15 run snaps while creating disruption throughout the game. Even when he didn’t find his name on the stat sheet, he redirected runs toward his teammates as he did on back-to-back running plays early in the fourth quarter. Soliai got involved as a pass rusher as well, picking up a hurry and a hit on his 18 rushes. The seventh-year defensive tackle is now grading at +10.9 on the season including +7.8 against the run.
After starting the season with four straight negative grades, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe put together three straight positives before posting a -2.1 last week and now a -3.9 effort on Sunday. His up and down season is not what the Dolphins had in mind when they paid him in free agency last offseason. Ellerbe graded at -4.6 in the running game as Chargers linemen had their way with him at the second level throughout the game. He was driven well out of the play when left guard Johnnie Troutman got a hold of him at the 5:56 mark of the first quarter while Fluker had it much easier with 0:51 to go in the second as he pounced on Ellerbe who tripped over himself in pursuit. He was simply slow to react and unable to shed blocks all afternoon, a dangerous combination for any linebacker.
– Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill graded at -1.4 as a passer including -2.3 on throws beyond 10 yards and to his left
- Chargers RG Chad Rhinehart pulled the lone positive grade up front as he finished at +4.0 overall.
– Dolphins undrafted rookie free agent Sam Brenner made his NFL debut playing 61 of the 65 snaps at left guard. He finished at -0.4 overall, surrendering a sack and a hurry on his 38 pass block attempts.
PFF Game Ball
Tight end Charles Clay’s +4.2 performance and key 39-yard touchdown earn him the game ball this week.
Follow Steve on Twitter.