NFL Rewind: How the Chargers forced the Dolphins out of their comfort zone – The Athletic

For the remainder of the regular season, the NFL Rewind will shift from its usual league-wide approach to focus on an area of concern for a potential playoff team.

The Miami Dolphins had been shredding defenses over the first dozen games of the 2022 NFL season. For the nine of those video games that the Dolphins had a healthy Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, their offense ranked among the league’s best in whatever number you pulled from the acronym soup of metrics:

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

All the critical and fan praise one might expect followed. The Dolphins’ offense would have been “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. There were plenty of thumbs up to be dished out for Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill , Jaylen Waddle and the offensive designs plus play calling from head coach Mike McDaniel.


And it was absolutely justified. McDaniel had hyper-focused his attack to get the ball to his best players (Hill and Waddle) early, often and everywhere. Hill’s efficiency numbers were among the best of the past decade (and still are; their current yards-per-route run rate of 3. 55 yards is the highest of any qualifying player since 2013) and Tagovailoa was playing the best football of his career as the trigger man.



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But the ebbs and flows of the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE season tend to affect everything. The more games are played, the more trends and tendencies of teams, players and play callers come into focus. So , some coaches attempt to play off what they have already shown, taking opportunities during bye weeks to self-scout and reassess the good, bad and the ugly from the first chunk of their season. The game plans since the days get shorter become more one-offs.

In a Week 14 matchup that had the attention and tension of a playoff game, the particular Dolphins’ criminal offense faced a Chargers defense that has been constantly tweaked in an attempt to find the best use of its roster. The results have been mixed, but in this game the Brandon Staley-led Chargers defense was able to key upon all phases of what has made this Miami attack so dangerous. The Rechargers dared the Dolphins to find answers on the fly, across all downs.

First and second down

Like most of us who have played Madden, McDaniel and the Dolphins have a “money play” — a concept that they like to spam over and over to rip off chunks of yards and leave defensive players and coaches howling in frustration.

(Said in my best Troy McClure voice ) You may recognize this particular play from your Dolphins’ initial snap against the 49ers in Week 13, a 75-yard touchdown in order to Trent Sherfield :

The “money play” for the Dolphins is one particular run-pass option (RPO) concept that they dress up. It combines the best parts of a split-zone run idea with horizontal and vertical pass elements. McDaniel as well as the Dolphins’ instructors do a great job of disguising the pre-snap looks on this play using different motions and personnel groupings. But the final picture always ends up the same.


Here’s the particular Dolphins going back to the well in a key fourth-and-1 situation late contrary to the 49ers. The particular play features Tagovailoa keying the defensive end to decide whether to hand off or keep the ball, much like he would on a common zone-read play.

When the defensive end crashes on the mesh point, Tagovailoa pulls the golf ball and essentially turns this play into a bootleg pass concept. He’s then looking at a switch vertical concept from their receivers, as a teammate slices across the formation into the flat:

The Dolphins will mix up the gamers on each route, frequently sending someone in motion to run the wheel route or changing the staff groupings. The Sherfield touchdown featured 20 personnel (two running backs and three wide receivers), while the fourth-and-1 snap was out of heavier 22 employees (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver).

Tagovailoa has been devastating on this specific play, no matter what spice the particular Dolphins have added. And McDaniel uses it a lot .

After that fourth-down conversion, the Dolphins repeated the exact same play call for an 11-yard gain. McDaniel has been leaning on that will setup since early in the season. Here’s Seth Galina from PFF with an extended breakdown from the RPO, early in November:

So , after seeing the Dolphins repeatedly rattle off back yards on 1st and second downs using the same concept — including against the vaunted 49ers protection the very game before — the Chargers were ready for it. It didn’t matter if the Dolphins used Blue Steel, Magnum or Le Tigre.


On the following play around the Dolphins’ second drive last Sunday, Arkansas called the RPO in a backed-up situation:

Notice the pressed-up Chargers cornerbacks. They are attempting to slow down the Dolphins’ speedy weapons, as best they can, in a man-coverage situation. Michael Davis (No. 43) does so admirably against Hill, resulting in an incompletion.

Not deterred, McDaniel hits “1” on speed dial plus calls the RPO idea again on the same drive:

This one again functions single-high coverage with the Chargers’ cornerbacks still up pressing. And Davis again wins his rep against the broad receiver. Tagovailoa double clutches and eventually ends up throwing within the flat to Hill, who stumbles and winds up with no gain.

It’s a tough concept to defend consistently, but the Chargers showed an understanding of the Dolphins’ go-to play call. Better yet, Los Angeles actually came up a means of stopping it, on those 2 examples above and at least one other instance later in the game. It wasn’t just theory.

There’s the particular classic line that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again plus expecting different results. In previous games, McDaniel and his offense have been able to dust off the RPO like it was a hot spot in an “NBA Jam” game. However the Chargers took away Miami’s main schematic weapon. The lack of consistent yards from their Old Faithful perform call left the Dolphins in long distances upon third down and cranked up the pressure on the offense. (More on that in a bit. )

That pressure might have led New mexico to making some small diamonds, though, because McDaniel found success in the second half last Sunday with a tweak to his favorite contact: straight run plays with no pass routes tagged. It was a “back to the basics” amendment that separated the church and state from the play’s operate and pass elements.

The particular Dolphins’ players ended up within the same spots, even making use of pre-snap movement, but ultimately the enjoy call relied on straight split-zone concepts.

Here, note the particular tight finish slicing across the formation but blocking the defensive end:

Also check out Hill blocking the cornerback, instead of running his seam route:

McDaniel also got into counter-run plays successfully in the further half against the Chargers, with the Dolphins ratting off this particular explosive run early in a drive:

The Dolphins are a team built on those explosive plays. Their explosive-pass rate of 19. 2 percent still paces the particular NFL, while their overall explosive-play price of 15. 3 percent on very first and 2nd downs ranks sixth among all offenses since 2012. So far, that will production primarily has come through the passing game, and this concept has been a huge contributor.

However , leaning more into the operate game plus making protection actually honor their run rules rather than flying out into protection could give this criminal offense more tools to utilize when its hammer isn’t working.

On designed short-yardage runs (third or even fourth down, between 1 and two yards in order to go), the Dolphins are succeeding just 47. 4 percent of the time,   a number thank rates tied for 660th out of 772 groups since 2002. But they’re right around the particular league average overall within rushing success rate on first and following downs (39. 4 percent). So , adding more efficiency through other means could help keep this offense on track. It also might save Las vegas from the doldrums it’s faced at times over the past few weeks, especially those third-and-long situations that stymied the Dolphins Weekend night.

Because the Chargers had a plan there, too.

Third Down

Third and fourth downs in the NFL bring their own world of play concepts and tendencies, complete with separate sections on play-call sheets plus special practice segments during the week. It can be fun to see the fingerprints associated with coaching staffs all over all those tweaks, specifically against certain matchups as they play off of supposed habits.

Tagovailoa, for example , has taken to alerting in order to deep passes in third-down situations, quickly reading soft coverages and letting the ball fly to his speedy weapons down the field. His 10. 6 air yards per attempt on third and fourth downs ranks fourth among qualifying quarterbacks, and that approach has been a huge part of the Dolphins’ success. It lets them throw haymakers when they’re up against the ropes:

On Sunday night, on so-called “passing downs”(second-and-7-plus or third-and-3-plus yards), the particular Chargers utilized variations of Cover 2 plus Cover 6 (Cover 2 on one side, Cover 4 on the other). They also sprinkled in a few other changeups.

While that Tagovailoa-to-Waddle deep ball above came against a Bills defense in Cover 2, typically the Chargers found more achievement by playing physical on the Dolphins’ explosive offense in addition to introducing some smoke-and-mirrors pre-snap. The combination of flooding passing lanes, getting hands on receivers and attempting to force Tagovailoa to determine their decisions post -snap worked for the Chargers throughout most of the game.

Here, an early third-and-15 features a Cover 6 variation from the Chargers, with Staley’s protection picking its poison and even leaving the cornerback one-on-one against Waddle at the top of this screen. The Chargers then use the safety at the top to “push” or “poach” towards the field and add another defender to help on the side with four eligible receivers. Notice the depth of the Chargers’ intermediate defenders as they flood the moving lanes. Also watch how a defender collides with Hill (the intended target) in order to throw off often the timing together with spacing of the play:

The particular Chargers ran variations of canopy 2, Protect 6 or even 2-Man upon 12 of Tagovailoa’s dropbacks in obvious passing situations, and the results were consistently effective. Tagovailoa was sacked twice in those spots and additionally finished 2-of-10 for 21 yards and just one first down.

As Tagovailoa had to hold the golf ball for an extra half-second, your Chargers’ security ended up generating some pressure and getting home before Miami’s QB could find a throw. At the very least, the exact Chargers made Tagovailoa feel like he had to be able to rush his / her process and find a target quickly.

A disguised Cover 2 on this second-and-10 has Tagovailoa turning to his checkdown in the flat, right where a Chargers cornerback is lurking in his coverage responsibilities.

The Chargers are showing man protection pre-snap (remember those press looks against the RPOs), before bailing out into their Include 2 shell:

And those disguises carried over to the Chargers’ Cover two looks about third down. Compare and contrast that second-and-10 example with this third-and-10:

The level at which the defenders were playing with must be emphasized, because there were times that the Chargers’ defense essentially disregarded the particular running back on checkdowns and underneath routes. Instead, it added another body to the phalanx over the middle of the industry. Why? Because of this:

These problems are all fixable for the Dolphins. They’ve already had answers for softer coverages, and the play contrary to the Bills above is a great example of that. As teams become more aware of typically the Dolphins’ route distribution, though, there has to be a few willingness to find the next answer on these concepts — perhaps, a new checkdown to keep defenders honest or branches off the typical posts not to mention go routes that the Dolphins had been throwing.

Credit for messing with Miami’s flow has to be given to Staley and the Chargers’ defensive coaching staff, too. Despite that safeguard being hit by injuries, there were plenty of examples of Los Angeles’ fill-in options playing with an awareness as to how the Dolphins were trying to attack.



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Tagovailoa has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL this year, but he’s dipped for you to 28th in EPA per dropback over the past two weeks. There are paths back to success available for the Dolphins, like adding layers to their favorite concepts on third down or perhaps utilizing more straight running plays in first as well as second lows to help clear some breathing room for their preferred concepts.

Typically the Dolphins easily can add some sort of spark associated with efficiency for their powder keg offense and discover their footing again, but they’ll have to learn from their loss to the Chargers.

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

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