CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jay Cutler was coming off his best game as a Dolphin when he faced the Panthers on Monday night. He then had one of his shakiest games in a 45-21 blowout loss.
But Cutler doesn’t play defense, and that unit, not him, is Miami’s biggest obstacle in trying to get back into the AFC playoffs.
In addition to the massive point total, the Dolphins could stop neither pass nor run: Cam Newton threw for 254 yards and Carolina rushed for 294. Add it up, and that’s 548 yards, by far the most Miami has given up this season and a Panthers franchise record.
There were breakdowns in every area. The Dolphins didn’t get any push up front to slow down the run. Their pass rush was nonexistent. The coverage was lost from the get-go, saved only by a few bad Panthers drops. The tackling was poor, highlighted by running back Christian McCaffrey undressing linebacker Kiko Alonso on multiple occasions. There wasn’t even any effective spying of Newton, who rumbled for 69 yards on one play as part of his 95 yards rushing.
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“It’s a little frustrating,” Dolphins safety Reshad Jones said. “You just have to get back to the drawing board. You’ve got start from scratch. We just have to get better.”
“Everybody has to be where they’re supposed to be. Everybody has to be on the same page, At times, we weren’t tonight.”
Linebacker Rey Maualuga was incredulous at learning how many yards his team gave up. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was “disappointed” in how the Dolphins couldn’t get off the field against Newton. Defensive end Cameron Wake was among those who didn’t want to talk about the ugly performance at all. It’s hard and puzzling to accept how things got so out of hand.
Earlier this season, Miami looked significantly improved against the run from last year and competent against the pass despite issues in the secondary. That improvement was a major factor in its 4-2 start while the offense was still trying to find an identity with Cutler as its fill-in quarterback.
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The turning point, weirdly, was in the Dolphins’ last win, when Cutler was knocked out with an injury to his ribs against the Jets and Matt Moore had to rally the team to a home victory in Week 7. For much of that 31-28 escape, the Jets’ offense could pretty much do whatever it wanted.
Then Moore had to start against the Ravens in Week 8 and the Dolphins got shut out for the second time — but also gave up 40 points in the process, getting gashed by running back Alex Collins. Then Cutler returned to light up the Raiders, only to see Oakland’s inconsistent offense become an explosive unit again and wake up Marshawn Lynch in the process.
Cutler’s final numbers (22-of-37 passing, 213 yards, two TDs, one INT, 82.4 rating) weren’t good, but they were by no means disastrous, beyond his ill-fated end-of-half pass that was intercepted by linebacker Luke Kuechly when the Dolphins were down only 10-7.
Coach Adam Gase just two weeks ago called out the offense for being awful. Then running back Jay Ajayi was traded, and Cutler got healthy and came to life. Providing the spark were Ajayi’s replacements, Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams, and the return of wide receiver DeVante Parker.
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Being more balanced and versatile and moving the ball very well at times is one thing; being prolific is something completely different, and Cutler isn’t capable of doing that. When a team such as the Panthers is scoring drive after drive, the ball control-oriented Dolphins have no chance.
Believe it or not, the Dolphins somehow have a fighting chance to make the playoffs despite falling to 4-5 in Week 10. They are among the three teams who are one game behind suddenly bumbling 5-4 Buffalo for the AFC’s second wild-card berth.
Unfortunately, those two other teams are Baltimore and Oakland, who were responsible for Miami’s most recent two losses before Carolina. The Dolphins still have two games left with the Bills, and more unfortunately, have also yet to play the Patriots.
Next week comes a break at home against a weak, short-handed Buccaneers offense, and the inept Broncos will visit in three weeks. But the four division games and a date with the high-powered Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 16, there’s not much confidence the defense will discover a quick fix, given how fast everything broke.
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Cutler will still be blamed most for the Dolphins’ dropoff, because it’s fun and convenient to do so. In reality, he has been the inconsistent QB he has always been. He wasn’t meant to carry the team, but rather be dependent on support from everywhere else.
All things considered, Cutler was the closest emergency fallback option to replace Ryan Tannehill and run Gase’s offense. Roast Cutler as much as you want now, but when the defense is getting toasted like this, that’s where the real blame lies.