Hurting Dolphins trying to piece together plan for Khalil Mack

Khalil Mack has five sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception in just four games with the Bears. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase put his head down, let out a resigned chuckle, and uttered what every offensive coordinator thinks when Khalil Mack comes to town: "You're not going to slow him down."

But for the safety of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins have to do something different in Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears than they did in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's meltdown against the Bengals. Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a front-runner this season, has to be licking his chops coming off a bye and set to face the Dolphins' offensive line in Miami.

The Dolphins say they have a plan for Mack. They had better, or it could get ugly.

"You face guys like this a few times a year. There's a few elite pass-rushers in this league, and he's one of them," Tannehill said. "You have to be aware of where he is. If you don't control him [and] you don't do a good job of having a plan of attack, he can wreck a game. Definitely a guy that we want to have in mind where he is at all times."

Tannehill certainly has to do his part, and that starts with protecting the football. He often gets gun-shy when pressure comes, and the numbers reflect that. Tannehill has a 21.1 passer rating when pressured so far this season, second worst in the NFL.

Gase knows the Dolphins' best hope to turn around their offensive struggles is to put Tannehill in more advantageous positions, including getting the ball out quickly to his playmakers.

The problem, however, is defenses are now expecting that. Miami's receivers have often struggled to get off press coverage, sometimes leaving nobody open within the window of two to three seconds in which they want Tannehill to throw the ball.

The biggest upheaval in Miami's fourth-quarter Cincinnati disaster (outscored 24-0, including two defensive touchdowns) was losing left tackle Laremy Tunsil to a concussion in the third quarter. Gase called it an "avalanche" from that point forward and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said they saw "blood in the water" after Tunsil exited and reserve tackle Sam Young replaced him. Young predictably struggled, giving up an easy pressure that led to a Tannehill pick-6 to start the momentum shift. He also committed two key penalties.

It seems to be a good sign that Tunsil returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday, though he is still in the concussion protocol. Gase said the Dolphins re-evaluated their plan for left tackle this week, whether Tunsil plays or not.

Mack lines up primarily at left defensive end facing off against the right tackle, but he did move around some in the Bears' last game, a 48-10 win over the Bucs on Sept. 30. So that means Ja'Wuan James will have much of the heavy lifting. If Tunsil can't play, it seems likely Chicago will attempt to exploit the backup left tackle.

This would be fine if the Dolphins' offensive line issues started and stopped at Tunsil suffering a concussion last week. They lost two interior offensive linemen (left guard Josh Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore) for the season because of injuries, which has forced them to rely on replacements and change their game plan. That group gave up two sacks to Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins on Sunday.

James also has run into some struggles, too. He gave up the Carlos Dunlap strip-sack that led to the Bengals' second defensive touchdown Sunday. Now he gets Mack, who has five sacks in four games this season.

James seemed willing -- but not excited or confident -- about the prospect of switching to left tackle if needed. So the best alternative seems to be leaning on reserve tackle Zach Sterup, who has been active for only one game this season but played in six games (one start) for the Dolphins last season.

The 6-foot-9, 327-pound Sterup is a better fit at left tackle than Young, who is more natural at right tackle. Sterup had a strong camp, and though we haven't seen him much in the regular season this year, the Dolphins seem high on him if needed.

"He's always done a good job in practice. I know the defensive line always talks about how long he is and how hard he is to get around," Gase said. "I know [Dolphins defensive end] William Hayes has said since the first day he got here. He said, 'When that guy punches you, you feel it.' He's got a strong punch."

But practice isn't a game, and Sterup, no matter how long his arms are, is no match for Mack. So expect the Dolphins to use their running backs and tight ends to chip Mack and the rest of the Bears' defensive ends regularly on Sunday. We might also see more of reserve tight end Nick O'Leary as a blocker to keep a six-man protection front and give Tannehill more time to throw downfield.

"When a guy gets beat so fast he can't defend himself, unless he's Houdini, not many guys are getting away," Gase said about Tannehill in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati.

Tannehill sure isn't Houdini. And if the Dolphins want their first-string quarterback to make it through Sunday, and the season, they must have a sound plan for Mack.