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Initial Returns on Investments: Breaking Down Ellerbe & Wallace
While one game is hardly enough to judge a player’s ability or worth, and while the Dolphins are heading into Week 2 with a 1-0 record after their victory over the Cleveland Browns in the opener, I thought it’d be interesting to take a closer look at how the Dolphins’ two biggest free-agent additions of the offseason—wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe—fared in their debut in aqua and orange.
Wallace, in particular, has been the topic of much debate since Sunday’s game. Some feel his stat line (one catch for 15 yards) is troublesome even against an elite corner like Joe Haden, especially considering the $60 million contract he received from the Dolphins. Others point to constant double teams and the benefits of that attention gained by receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, who combined for 16 catches, 191 yards and a touchdown.
After going back and watching every play the Dolphins had on Sunday, I’ve compiled what I believe to be an accurate analysis of the performances of Ellerbe and Wallace. (Editor’s note..click on the pic for full size image.)
- The first place of the game was certainly not Ellerbe’s best, as Browns receiver Greg Little knocked him on his butt, aiding resulted in a 9-yard run by Trent Richardson. (see screen below.)
- Later on the opening drive, Ellerbe was driven backward a good 10 yards by center Alex Mack and tight end Jordan Cameron, resulting in a game of 11 yards by Trent Richardson. (see screen below.)
- One of Ellerbe’s better plays also came early in the game, however. A nice blitz around the right side saw Ellerbe get into the backfield untouched. He hit Brandon Weeden hard, forcing a bad throw into double coverage that resulted in a Dimitri Patterson interception.
- Despite that early pressure, blitzing was not Ellerbe’s strong suit in this game. The aforementioned play was one of the few times Ellerbe got good pressure on the quarterback while blitzing, but most of the time he was swallowed up easily by the line. Brian Catanzaro and I both noticed during the game that the Dolphins strangely brought the house quite a bit in this one despite ample pressure from the front four. Ellerbe’s speed and athleticism are positives, but the Dolphins need to pick their spots better or they’re just taking him out of plays.
- Before I get to the praise, I do need to single out Ellerbe’s tackling in this one. Fans point at the box score (six tackles, four solo, tying for the team lead) as a productive day for Ellerbe in this one, but I believe those numbers are deceiving. Ellerbe was held without a tackle in the first half and was hardly around the ball on most running plays early in the game. When he was, he missed opportunities. And despite his six tackles, he also missed a handful as well by taking bad angles (see first screen below) or simply whiffing (see second and third screens below.)
- The best part of Ellerbe’s performance in his Dolphins debut was undoubtedly his coverage. While Browns tight end Jordan Cameron had a great day (9 catches, 108 yards and a touchdown), very little of that came with Ellerbe in coverage. Ellerbe had good coverage on a ball off Cameron’s hands that was picked off by Dimitri Patterson (his second on the day) and he allowed a few more catches for minimal gains throughout the day.
While I came to these conclusions on my own, metrics website Pro Football Focus seems to corroborate much of what I saw, giving Ellerbe a -2.2 grade in run stopping but a +1.9 grade in pass coverage. Ellerbe showed more than adequate speed and athleticism and really held his own against Cameron where other Dolphins defenders struggled.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ellerbe was nowhere to be found in the first half which is a bit concerning for a middle linebacker. He was routinely stuffed on blitzed (save for one play mentioned earlier), took some bad tackles on run defense and missed a few arm tackles.
I’m not all that worried about Ellerbe because the rest of the defense has so much talent, and I’m excited that he was surprisingly good in pass coverage. Still, with a defensive line as good as the Dolphins’ is, Ellerbe needs to be better instinctually and make more plays against the run. He was brought help replace an aging and overpaid linebacker unit, and I sincerely hope in three years we aren’t talking about him the same way we were talking about Karlos Dansby toward the end of his days in Miami.
- The Dolphins spent the early part of the game having Wallace run drag routes, which did aid in giving players like Charles Clay room to make plays. Still, I believe after watching the film that those saying the attention Wallace drew from the Browns’ defense allowed the team’s other receivers to benefit. Most of what I saw had Wallace no more double-covered than anyone else on the team. That is not to say he was consistently shut down by Haden either, which I’ll elaborate on in a bit.
- It comes as no surprise, but Wallace gave little to no effort as a run blocker except for one play where he really tried to put a lick on a guy. (Maybe out of frustration with his lack of involvement in the passing game?) I suppose this is to be expected given Wallace’s stature (both literally in terms of size as well as investment), but it would be nice to at least act like he might block someone in case a running back gets to the second level. Of course, based on how the Dolphins’ line blocked on Sunday, that might not be a concern.
- Tannehill greatly underthrew Wallace down the right sideline on one play, which is entirely on the quarterback. Still, I would like to see Wallace fight for the ball a bit more if only to prevent an interception. (The ball fell incomplete.) As you can see in the screen below, Wallace had Haden beat on that play and a perfectly-placed ball could’ve been big.
- After being underthrown by Tannehill in the above play, Wallace was overthrown by his quarterback a few times as well. On one such play, the ball was nearly picked off in the end zone but could’ve been a long touchdown for the Dolphins if Tannehill had placed the ball more toward the left corner of the field. (See screen below.) That being said, that’s assuming that was even an option with the route Wallace was running and it would’ve required the receiver to change the shoulder he was looking over, so perhaps this was just a throw Tannehill should’ve avoided altogether.
- While Wallace’s impact on the other receivers’ ability to get open and catch passes may have been overstated, below is an example of where he did help create space for a teammate. Wallace was covered by Haden and also drew safety attention from Tashaun Gipson, allowing Brandon Gibson to pick up 15 yards on a big 3rd and 12 play from the slot. This is a nice impact by Wallace and something that could really allow the slot man (and the team) to benefit from.
- Wallace’s lone reception of the game came on a comeback route to the left side of the field. Based on his previous routes, this was something that allowed Wallace to get open and is something the team needs to explore further, which I’ll elaborate on below.
I do not think it was the case that Wallace was often drawing double coverage and I do not believe the Dolphins intend for him to primarily create opportunities for Hartline and Gibson, although Hartline should benefit from not seeing any No. 1 corners this season after a strong 2012 campaign.
I can’t say I was happy with Wallace’s lack of production in Week 1, and I personally was not as content as others at the notion of Wallace simply being a decoy/distraction for the defense to allow the Dolphins’ other receivers to work. In my opinion, a No. 1 receiver should be able to win battles with elite corners here and there, and you do not primarily pay a guy $60 million to create opportunities for other receivers.
That being said, I think all parties involved need to share responsibility for Wallace’s lack of production against the Browns. Wallace needs to run hard and run better routes more consistently. Ryan Tannehill needs to adjust to Wallace’s speed and make better throws, because a few well-placed passes Sunday could’ve resulted in some big plays. Mike Sherman needs to use Wallace better and make it a point to get the ball in his hands.
Wallace’s only catch of the game came on a comeback route, and that’s something the Dolphins need to do if the defense is taking away the deep ball. Wallace is your $60 million prized possession and has rare speed for the NFL—the only kind like it on the team with the departure of Reggie Bush. Whether it’s on comebackers, quick slants, drags, or bubble screens, get the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and let him create plays.
One has to assume this will all be a point of emphasis in this week’s practices and I would expect the Dolphins to make it a point of getting Wallace the ball in Week 2 against the Colts after a les-than-stellar debut from their star receiver. The Dolphins know what they need to work on and will have the benefit of facing a corner in Vontae Davis that is not on Joe Haden’s level and struggled in Week 1 against Oakland.
As great as the benefits may be of having Wallace when the ball is not in his hands, the Dolphins will be best served getting him the ball and making him a focal point of the offense.
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