Three top Dolphins questionable. And insight on team’s three biggest weaknesses so far

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

The Dolphins listed three of their best players as questionable for Sunday’s game at the Jets.

Cornerback Xavien Howard (groin) and receivers Tyreek Hill (quad) and Jaylen Waddle (groin) were all listed as questionable. All were limited in practice Friday.

Hill has been slowed by a quadriceps injury that surfaced in practice this week. “We are treating it. And we are hopeful he will play,” coach Mike McDaniel said.

McDaniel said he’s comfortable playing Howard on Sunday — if he feels well enough — even though he wasn’t a full practice participant this week. Howard left the Bengals game in the third quarter with a groin injury, and his agent David Canter said last week that Howard has two “severely hurt groin muscles.”

The Dolphins also hope Waddle can play through a groin injury that has been an issue for the past couple of weeks.

Also on the final injury report: Tua Tagovailoa and Cethan Carter are both in concussion protocol and out.

Listed as questionable besides Howard, Hill and Waddle are Terron Armstead, who hasn’t practiced in weeks but continues to play through a toe injury; cornerback Keion Crossen (glute/shoulder) and Robert Jones (back).

Cornerback Byron Jones remains on the physically unable to report list and won’t be activated this week.

The Dolphins would need to create a spot on the 53-man roster to activate safety Clayton Fejedelem, who is eligible to come off injured reserve. He has practiced this week.

EXAMINING THE SHORTCOMINGS

Through four games, we know the Dolphins have a dangerous passing offense, a pretty good run defense (12th in the league in yards per carry allowed) and an above-average fourth down defense (10th in the league at 37 percent permitted). They have speed to rival any team in the league. They have one of the best starting receiving tandems in football.

Those rank among the many positives in this 3-1 start.

What’s concerning is this: Few teams run the ball worse than the Dolphins this season. And only one team has permitted a higher passer rating against opposing quarterbacks. And only three have fewer sacks.

The Dolphins knew their defensive backfield might be vulnerable with Jones beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list. He remains out indefinitely.

What they couldn’t have expected was a rough start to the season by Howard, who left the Bengals game in the third quarter with a groin injury that began bothering him a week earlier against Buffalo.

Howard has permitted a 149.3 passer rating in his coverage area; 14 of the 21 passes against him have been caught for 269 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Only Chicago’s Kyler Gordon has permitted more passing yards, per Pro Football Focus.

By contrast, Howard closed last season with an 88.2 passer rating in his coverage area: 48 completions in 84 targets for 717 yards, with seven touchdowns permitted and five interceptions.

Undrafted Nik Needham has exceeded all expectations in his pro career, but his coverage numbers rank in the bottom tier of cornerbacks.

So far this season, he has allowed a 119.8 passer rating, with one TD allowed.

Rookie Kader Kohou has made some very good plays but also has allowed 14 of 20 targets to be caught for 182 yards (a 98.3 passer rating against).

Overall, the Dolphins have permitted a bloated 107.1 passer rating against, compared with 85.4 last season. In Miami’s defense, they have faced three very good quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, and Mac Jones is decent.

But that 107.1 was second worst in the league entering Sunday, ahead of only Tennessee (107.2).

It hasn’t helped that the pass rush has produced just seven sacks. The Dolphins mustered just one sack against a Bengals team that entered having allowed a league-high 15.

One problem against Cincinnati, linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel said, is “not being able to get the sacks when we needed them. not be able to finish the drives. That’s something we have to work on.”

Emmanuel Ogbah, who had nine sacks each of the past two seasons, has only one so far.

“We definitely have to improve as pass rush unit,” Ogbah said. “We have to get better at affecting the quarterbacks. I know Joe Burrow got rid of the ball pretty quick during our game. Have to do a better job of getting back there as fast as I can.”

Melvin Ingram has two sacks and has been a helpful addition.

Jaelan Phillips, off a 8.5-sack season as a rookie, has only one (against Cincinnati), but Pro Football Focus noted he had five pressures against Cincinnati and his pass rush win rate has been very good. He has also improved against the run.

The Dolphins don’t have any sacks from defensive tackles Christian Wilkins, Zach Sieler and Raekwon Davis. In fact, Davis has just half a sack in 33 NFL games.

And the Dolphins pressure quarterbacks only 13.4 percent of the time, which is second worst in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference.

The problem on offense has been a running game that’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, which is 28th in the league.

Raheem Mostert has a 3.8 average on 39 carries, well below his 5.4 career mark.

Chase Edmonds has a 3.0 average on 28 carries, below his 4.5 career average and 5.1 average for Arizona last season.

So unless those two suddenly and dramatically regressed as runners (which seems unlikely), one might conclude that the blame lies solely with the blocking. But it’s far more nuanced than that.

“It’s definitely a complicated running game,” said Mostert, who played in this system in San Francisco. “I don’t expect them to get it right just like that.”

Mostert and offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg cited the importance of communication with presnap line calls — something that hasn’t been as sharp as necessary for the run game to succeed.

“The biggest thing that hasn’t been as effective on this offense with regard to the run game are the calls,” Mostert said. “Connor [Williams] is a new center. He’s getting better each week. It’s a little bit tricky, especially in this offense. He hasn’t been in this type of offense as a center. He’s making the best calls he possibly can. Sometimes, it’s just missed ID [identifying something in the defense].”

Eichenberg said communication responsibilities go beyond the center: “We all make our calls. We need to communicate better across the line, communicating where everybody is going. And understanding the whole scheme with all of our motions and what our offense does....

“It’s a hard system. It’s a really good system. [But it’s] hard. We’re trying to clean up the mistakes. That’s why we do a lot of walk throughs. Watching tape helps, too.”

And Mostert makes clear that “even in the running back room, we’re not hitting holes the right way. Especially me, I didn’t do a good enough job to hit those holes. We’re almost there. Once we figure it out, it’s going to take off.”

In the area of run blocking specifically, PFF ranks right tackle Greg Little 49th and worst among all NFL offensive tackles; left tackle Terron Armstead is 14th.

PFF rates Eichenberg the No. 60 run-blocking guard (among 61 qualifiers) and Robert Hunt is third.

PFF doesn’t blame Williams; the website grades him as the No. 3 run-blocking center.

Durham Smythe had two good blocks on Mostert runs in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati, but PFF rates him 48th as a run blocker among 65 tight ends. Mike Gesicki is 51st.

Hill this week called on the Dolphins’ receivers to improve their run blocking.

McDaniel oversaw one of the NFL’s best running offenses in San Francisco. He has done excellent work overall as a rookie head coach, but he’s still looking to be able to replicate that 49ers running-game success in his new job in Miami.

Here’s my conversation with CBS Trent Green - who works another Dolphins game Sunday - about the Tua Tagovailoa situation, recovering from concussions, how the Dolphins handled his concussion and the time he snored on the field after being concussed.

Here’s a Tua update and other news from McDaniel’s Friday press conference.