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The Miami Dolphins had been shredding defenses over the primary dozen video games of the 2022 NFL season. For the 9 of these video games that the Dolphins had a wholesome Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, their offense ranked among the many league’s greatest in no matter quantity you pulled from the acronym soup of metrics:

  • EPA/play: 2nd
  • Offensive DVOA: 2nd
  • Passing DVOA: 1st
  • Pass success fee: 2nd

All the vital and fan reward one may anticipate adopted. The Dolphins’ offense would have been “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. There had been loads of thumbs as much as be dished out for Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and the offensive designs and play calling from head coach Mike McDaniel.

And it was completely justified. McDaniel had hyper-focused his assault to get the ball to his greatest gamers (Hill and Waddle) early, typically and in every single place. Hill’s effectivity numbers had been among the many better of the previous decade (and nonetheless are; his present yards-per-route run fee of three.55 yards is the best of any qualifying participant since 2013) and Tagovailoa was enjoying the perfect soccer of his profession because the set off man.


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But the ebbs and flows of the NFL season are inclined to have an effect on every part. The extra video games are performed, the extra tendencies and tendencies of groups, gamers and play callers come into focus. So, some coaches try to play off what they’ve already proven, taking alternatives throughout bye weeks to self-scout and reassess the nice, dangerous and the ugly from the primary chunk of their season. The sport plans as the times get shorter grow to be extra one-offs.

In a Week 14 matchup that had the eye and stress of a playoff sport, the Dolphins’ offense confronted a Chargers protection that has been continually tweaked in an try to seek out the perfect use of its roster. The outcomes have been blended, however on this sport the Brandon Staley-led Chargers protection was capable of key on all phases of what has made this Miami assault so harmful. The Chargers dared the Dolphins to seek out solutions on the fly, throughout all downs.

First and second down

Like most of us who’ve performed Madden, McDaniel and the Dolphins have a “money play” — an idea that they wish to spam again and again to tear off chunks of yards and depart defensive gamers and coaches howling in frustration.

(Said in my greatest Troy McClure voice) You may acknowledge this play from the Dolphins’ first snap towards the 49ers in Week 13, a 75-yard landing to Trent Sherfield:

The “money play” for the Dolphins is one specific run-pass possibility (RPO) idea that they gown up. It combines the perfect components of a split-zone run idea with horizontal and vertical cross parts. McDaniel and the Dolphins’ coaches do an incredible job of disguising the pre-snap appears on this play utilizing totally different motions and personnel groupings. But the ultimate image all the time finally ends up the identical.

Here’s the Dolphins going again to the effectively in a key fourth-and-1 state of affairs late towards the 49ers. The play options Tagovailoa keying the defensive finish to resolve whether or not at hand off or maintain the ball, very like he would on a standard zone-read play.

Dolphins Money Play

When the defensive finish crashes on the mesh level, Tagovailoa pulls the ball and basically turns this play right into a bootleg cross idea. He’s then taking a look at a swap vertical idea from his receivers, as a teammate slices throughout the formation into the flat:

The Dolphins will combine up the gamers on every route, typically sending somebody in movement to run the wheel route or altering the personnel groupings. The Sherfield landing featured 20 personnel (two operating backs and three broad receivers), whereas the fourth-and-1 snap was out of heavier 22 personnel (two operating backs, two tight ends and one broad receiver).

Tagovailoa has been devastating on this specific play, it doesn’t matter what spice the Dolphins have added. And McDaniel makes use of it so much.

After that fourth-down conversion, the Dolphins repeated the very same play name for an 11-yard acquire. McDaniel has been leaning on that setup since early within the season. Here’s Seth Galina from PFF with an prolonged breakdown of the RPO, early in November:

So, after seeing the Dolphins repeatedly rattle off yards on first and second downs utilizing the identical idea — together with towards the vaunted 49ers protection the very sport earlier than — the Chargers had been prepared for it. It didn’t matter if the Dolphins used Blue Steel, Magnum or Le Tigre.

On the second play on the Dolphins’ second drive final Sunday, Miami known as the RPO in a backed-up state of affairs:

Notice the pressed-up Chargers cornerbacks. They try to decelerate the Dolphins’ speedy weapons, as greatest they will, in a man-coverage state of affairs. Michael Davis (No. 43) does so admirably towards Hill, leading to an incompletion.

Not deterred, McDaniel hits “1” on pace dial and calls the RPO idea once more on the identical drive:

This one once more options single-high protection with the Chargers’ cornerbacks nonetheless up urgent. And Davis once more wins his rep towards the broad receiver. Tagovailoa double clutches and finally ends up throwing within the flat to Hill, who stumbles and winds up with no acquire.

It’s a tricky idea to defend constantly, however the Chargers confirmed an understanding of the Dolphins’ go-to play name. Better but, Los Angeles truly got here up a way of stopping it, on these two examples above and a minimum of one different occasion later within the sport. It wasn’t simply idea.

There’s the traditional line that madness is doing the identical factor over and over and anticipating totally different outcomes. In earlier video games, McDaniel and his offense had been capable of mud off the RPO prefer it was a scorching spot in an “NBA Jam” sport. But the Chargers took away Miami’s major schematic weapon. The lack of constant yards from their Old Faithful play name left the Dolphins in lengthy distances on third down and cranked up the strain on the offense. (More on that in a bit.)

That strain might need led Miami to creating some small diamonds, although, as a result of McDaniel discovered success within the second half final Sunday with a tweak to his favourite name: straight run performs with no cross routes tagged. It was a “back to the basics” modification that separated the church and state of the play’s run and cross parts.

The Dolphins’ gamers ended up in the identical spots, even utilizing pre-snap movement, however in the end the play name relied on straight split-zone ideas.

Dolphins Money Play run

Here, be aware the tight finish slicing throughout the formation however blocking the defensive finish:

Also try Hill blocking the cornerback, as an alternative of operating his seam route:

Dolphins WR Block

McDaniel additionally acquired into counter-run performs efficiently within the second half towards the Chargers, with the Dolphins ratting off this explosive run early in a drive:

The Dolphins are a crew constructed on these explosive performs. Their explosive-pass fee of 19.2 % nonetheless paces the NFL, whereas their total explosive-play fee of 15.3 % on first and second downs ranks sixth amongst all offenses since 2012. So far, that manufacturing primarily has come by way of the passing sport, and this idea has been an enormous contributor.

However, leaning extra into the run sport and making defenses truly honor their run guidelines moderately than flying out into protection might give this offense extra instruments to make the most of when its hammer isn’t working.

On designed short-yardage runs (third or fourth down, between 1 and a pair of yards to go), the Dolphins are succeeding simply 47.4 % of the time, a quantity thank ranks tied for 660th out of 772 groups since 2002. But they’re proper across the league common total in speeding success fee on first and second downs (39.4 %). So, including extra effectivity by way of different means might assist maintain this offense on monitor. It additionally may save Miami from the doldrums it’s confronted at instances over the previous few weeks, particularly these third-and-long conditions that stymied the Dolphins Sunday night time.

Because the Chargers had a plan there, too.


Third Down

Third and fourth downs within the NFL convey their very own world of play ideas and tendencies, full with separate sections on play-call sheets and particular observe segments in the course of the week. It could be enjoyable to see the fingerprints of teaching staffs throughout these tweaks, particularly towards sure matchups as they play off of supposed tendencies.

Tagovailoa, for instance, has taken to alerting to deep passes in third-down conditions, rapidly studying comfortable coverages and letting the ball fly to his speedy weapons down the sphere. His 10.6 air yards per try on third and fourth downs ranks fourth amongst qualifying quarterbacks, and that method has been an enormous a part of the Dolphins’ success. It lets them throw haymakers after they’re up towards the ropes:

On Sunday night time, on so-called “passing downs”(second-and-7-plus or third-and-3-plus yards), the Chargers utilized variations of Cover 2 and Cover 6 (Cover 2 on one aspect, Cover 4 on the opposite). They additionally sprinkled in a couple of different changeups.

While that Tagovailoa-to-Waddle deep ball above got here towards a Bills protection in Cover 2, the Chargers discovered extra success by enjoying bodily on the Dolphins’ explosive offense and introducing some smoke-and-mirrors pre-snap. The mixture of flooding passing lanes, getting palms on receivers and making an attempt to power Tagovailoa to find out his selections publish-snap labored for the Chargers all through many of the sport.

Here, an early third-and-15 includes a Cover 6 variation from the Chargers, with Staley’s protection selecting its poison and leaving a cornerback one-on-one towards Waddle on the high of the display screen. The Chargers then use the security on the high to “push” or “poach” in the direction of the sphere and add one other defender to assist on the aspect with 4 eligible receivers. Notice the depth of the Chargers’ intermediate defenders as they flood the passing lanes. Also watch how a defender collides with Hill (the supposed goal) to throw off the timing and spacing of the play:

The Chargers ran variations of Cover 2, Cover 6 or 2-Man on 12 of Tagovailoa’s dropbacks in apparent passing conditions, and the outcomes had been constantly efficient. Tagovailoa was sacked twice in these spots and completed 2-of-10 for 21 yards and only one first down.

As Tagovailoa needed to maintain the ball for an additional half-second, the Chargers’ protection ended up producing some strain and getting residence earlier than Miami’s QB might discover a throw. At the very least, the Chargers made Tagovailoa really feel like he needed to rush his course of and discover a goal rapidly.

A disguised Cover 2 on this second-and-10 has Tagovailoa turning to his checkdown within the flat, proper the place a Chargers cornerback is lurking in his protection tasks.

Chargers disguise

The Chargers are exhibiting man protection pre-snap (keep in mind these press appears towards the RPOs), earlier than bailing out into their Cover 2 shell:

And these disguises carried over to the Chargers’ Cover 2 appears on third down. Compare and distinction that second-and-10 instance with this third-and-10:


The depth at which the defenders had been enjoying with should be emphasised, as a result of there have been instances that the Chargers’ protection basically disregarded the operating again on checkdowns and beneath routes. Instead, it added one other physique to its phalanx over the center of the sphere. Why? Because of this:

These issues are all fixable for the Dolphins. They’ve already had solutions for softer coverages, and the play towards the Bills above is a superb instance of that. As groups grow to be extra conscious of the Dolphins’ route distribution, although, there needs to be some willingness to seek out the following reply on these ideas — maybe, a checkdown to maintain defenders sincere or branches off the standard posts and go routes that the Dolphins had been throwing.

Credit for messing with Miami’s circulation needs to be given to Staley and the Chargers’ defensive teaching workers, too. Despite that protection being hit by accidents, there have been loads of examples of Los Angeles’ fill-in choices enjoying with an consciousness as to how the Dolphins had been attempting to assault.



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Tagovailoa has been some of the environment friendly quarterbacks within the NFL this yr, however he’s dipped to twenty eighth in EPA per dropback over the previous two weeks. There are paths again to success accessible for the Dolphins, like including layers to their favourite ideas on third down or using extra straight operating performs on first and second downs to assist clear some respiratory room for his or her most well-liked ideas.

The Dolphins simply can add a spark of effectivity to their powder keg offense and discover their footing once more, however they’ll need to study from their loss to the Chargers.

(Illustration: John Bradford Sullivan / The Athletic;
Photo of Tua Tagovailoa: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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