Dolphins not fooling foes on first down

The identity of the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback for Monday night's game at San Diego, coach Dave Wannstedt has announced, likely will not be revealed until Sunday.

But for tailback Ricky Williams, with just two 100-yard outings in the first six games of the season, it probably doesn't matter if it is Jay Fiedler or Brian Griese handing him the ball. Averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, the lowest of his career over the first six games of any season, Williams has been slowed by the inconsistency of the Miami passing attack and the pressure its shortcomings have imposed on the running game.

And, perhaps just as much, by an offensive design that, on first and 10, has become the football equivalent of a broken record.

"Run, run, run," said New England defensive lineman Richard Seymour following last weekend's overtime victory at Pro Player Stadium. "On first down, you pretty much just know what (the Dolphins) are going to do, and that's run the ball. I mean, our game plan was based on that assumption."

A pretty good assumption it was, not just in last Sunday's contest, but in virtually every game the Dolphins have played in 2003.

Only in the opening game loss to the Houston Texans, when Miami had a dozen passes on first and 10 and just nine runs, have the Dolphins diverged from the predictable script. For the season, the Dolphins have run the ball on 69.3 percent of their first-and-10 plays, the NFL's most lopsided ratio by a wide margin.

And if Miami is running the ball, of course, that means Williams usually is doing the toting. Of the team's 104 rushes on first and 10, he has logged all but a dozen of them. And on those carries, Williams has averaged just 3.15 yards per attempt. In the last three games, with opponents aware of Miami's first-and-10 pattern, Williams has averaged a miniscule 2.9 yards per carry.

Make no mistake, part of the problem is the Dolphins offensive line, a unit that has been ravaged by injuries and the resultant reshuffling of starters. There is a chance that Miami could get left guard Mark Dixon, arguably the line's best player but a veteran who has not lined up yet this year after summer ankle surgery, back for Monday night's outing.

But beyond the line problems, the Dolphins will have to be more diverse on first down, to either run the ball more outside the tackles or increase the passing quota.

"We have to start hitting the ends better," acknowledged guard Jamie Nails. "Get more outside runs, and keep them a little more off-balance, just so they can't sit there and play the run up the middle."

New England, for instance, played a five-man front on nearly every down last week, just to slow the Dolphins' inside running attack. The Patriots covered all three Miami interior blockers, the center and both guards, and dared the Dolphins to run outside. Miami rarely called an outside rushing play and, as a result, the rushing attack was rarely productive.

On all first-down plays, the Miami offense is averaging 4.67 yards, the ninth-worst mark in the NFL. But that lack of proficiency, with Williams' overall rushing average down a full yard from where it was after the first six contests of the 2002 season, has been most evident in the first-and-10 situations.

Of his 104 rushes on first-and-10, Williams has netted two yards or fewer 50 times, or 48.1 percent of his runs. Seventy of the carries have resulted in gains of four yards or fewer and, on first and 10, Williams has just five plays of 10 yards or more. He has had just two first-and-10 carries of 20 yards or more.

Not surprisingly, Williams has refused to blame his line or the offensive design for the first-down problems, noting generically that the team simply needs better execution. But with defenses keying so much on the run, and future opponents likely to borrow from the New England blueprint, it's obvious Miami must alter its approach, no matter who lines up at quarterback on Monday night.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.