Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been a popular name in the 2022 MVP race this season. But it’s a week-to-week league, and Tagovailoa’s play in Weeks 13 and 14 showed a player struggling to replicate earlier success — and the Dolphins dropped both games.
There’s no denying that Tagovailoa is in the middle of his best season as a pro, with 3,004 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and five interceptions. But the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers figured out ways to slow down Miami’s passing offense. Ahead of the Buffalo Bills’ Week 15 meeting with Miami, let’s dive into how these respective defenses were able to keep the Dolphins’ high-powered passing offense in check.
By the numbers
First, let's take a look at what Tagovailoa has been good at this season within Miami’s passing attack, and what sort of tendencies they might show. Tagovailoa leads the league with 8.7 yards per pass thrown. He also leads the league in passes that gain 20 or more yards — over 11% of Tua’s passes have gone past this mark. This makes sense, because the Dolphins possess a highly potent tandem of deep threats in wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
In the chart above, we take a deeper look into the play-direction tendencies of Miami’s passing attack. Notice that they are first in passes to the deep-middle of the field, and third in passes to the short-middle of the field. One could conclude from this that Tagovailoa prefers to throw over the middle. We’ll touch more on this later.
Another interesting nugget I found on Fantasy Pros was that Tagovailoa leads the league with 5.8 air yards per attempt, which is how far the ball traveled in the air before being caught (minimum 200 pass attempts). He leads in air yards per attempt while also having one of the shortest times from the snap to throw or pressure (“PKT Time” as Fantasy Pros calls it). Tagovailoa has an average of 2.3 seconds of PKT time, which ranks 24th among QBs with a minimum of 200 passing attempts. This means that Tagovailoa is, on average, throwing the ball further down the field than anyone else in the league in one of the shortest amounts of time from the snap. We can conclude two possible lines of thinking from this:
- Tagovailoa is anticipating routes and quickly throwing the ball down the field before the wide receivers are “open”
- Tagovailoa gets pressured quickly and is just throwing the ball down the field when he faces that pressure
I would tend to side more with the thought process of the first idea above. I think Tagovailoa has set reads that “should” be open on any given play (that head coach Mike McDaniel draws up), and he throws the ball down field anticipating his first read should be open.
Tagovailoa against the 49ers
In Week 13 against the 49ers, Tagovailoa posted a stat line of 18-of-33 for 295 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a lost fumble. The 49ers accumulated three sacks and five quarterback hits while only blitzing four times. Of note, Miami was sorely missing starters due to injuries along the offensive line. The 49ers relied on pressure to create timing issues for the Dolphins’ offense. They primarily played disciplined zone coverage, where they tried to keep the wide receivers in front of their safeties and corners. They also had their linebackers get great depth, forcing Tagovailoa to make tight throws over their heads and in front of the safeties if he wanted to go to the middle of the field.
Cover 3 forces Tagovailoa into errant throw
The 49ers bring a safety down in the box on this play and end up in Cover 3. Notice the seamless pass-off of routes by the three deep defenders as the receivers get downfield. The most important part of this play is how deep the linebackers get, which forces Tagovailoa to throw over top of them — falling incomplete.
Tagovailoa’s middle-of-field tendencies
Here is where the middle-of-the-field tendencies come into play. The 49ers cover the middle of the field well, and leave a wide-open “hole shot” throw for Tagovailoa in their Cover 2. Pressure in Tagovailoa’s face causes an overthrown ball out of bounds.
Cover 1 press blitz detrimental to Tagovailoa’s timing
The 49ers are in Cover 1 and in a press technique across the board (besides the linebacker covering the running back, who was motioned out of the backfield). They also bring a blitz off the edge on the top side of the field. The idea here is to bring pressure and take away the first two seconds of the routes to take Tagovailoa off his first read. The 49ers do this to perfection, and end up getting a sack because Tagovailoa can’t get rid of the football.
Tagovailoa struggles with accuracy issues on the run
This one is just on Tagovailoa, who makes a bad throw outside the numbers. His receiver is wide open for an easy completion, but the ball is overthrown and behind the intended target — resulting in an interception.
Tagovailoa against the Los Angeles Chargers
In Week 14 against the Chargers, Tagovailoa was 10-of-28 for 145 yards and one touchdown. In Los Angeles, Tagovailoa still had a “PKT” time average of 2.3 seconds, but his average air yards per attempt drastically shrunk to a measly 2.8 (his season average is 5.8). This means the Chargers were able to take away downfield throws, and more specifically, the deep-middle of the field. Los Angeles focused on taking away the middle of the field, but they also emphasized playing press coverage so Miami’s speedy wide receivers didn’t have space to run free in zone coverage.
Also clever, the Chargers typically didn’t ask their corners to run across the field if a receiver went in motion to the other side of the formation. Miami loves to run Hill (and others) in a “jet” motion across the field to get a head-start on the route without facing a jam at the line of scrimmage. If a team is in man-to-man, oftentimes they will have the defensive back mirror the man in motion, but the Chargers didn’t do that. Rather, they “bumped” the coverage to the other side of the field and had a defensive back on the other side of the field pick up the motion man.
Taking a look at Tagovailoa’s passing chart against Los Angeles confirms the Chargers’ game plan: they didn’t let Tagovailoa complete any passes over 20 yards down the middle, even though he tried. Most of his completions were short to the intermediate middle. Tagovailoa was largely unsuccessful in throwing passes outsides the numbers, besides one 60-yard touchdown pass to Hill where the defender fell down.
Chargers’ bump coverage confounds Dolphins’ pass attack
Here is an example of the Chargers bumping coverage instead of following the jet-motion across the field. The corner at the beginning of the play passes the jet-motion man (Tyreek Hill) to the opposite side safety. Notice how the safety who picks up Hill is playing hard inside leverage to prevent him from going to the middle of the field. This results in an incompletion in a throw outside the numbers.
Press-Man coverage disasterous to Tagovailoa’s first read
The Chargers weren’t afraid to press Miami’s receivers, and this play illustrates a prime example why. If the Dolphins want to run all of these deep routes, none of the receivers will be out of their breaks in the first 10-15 yards of their route. So the Chargers decided to plaster the receivers for these first 10-15 yards, taking away Tagovailoa’s first read. This causes him to hesitate, which prevents Tagovailoa from getting the ball out quickly. On this play, it results in a sack.
Chargers employ defensive switch to confuse Tagovailoa
I find this play design really clever. The Chargers make two switches with their defensive backs — the first switch comes when the jet-motion starts, and the second is when the ball is snapped. They have a defensive back mirror the jet-motion, but instead of staying with the motion man, they have him switch inside to Hill and take away the inside seam route. Look at how both defensive backs at the top of the GIF are protecting the inside of the field, leaving Tagovailoa with nothing to do besides throw the ball away.
When the Bills face the Dolphins on Saturday night in a juicy Week 15 divisional showdown, the stakes will be huge — not only in terms of the AFC East crown, but also the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture. Miami’s potent passing attack has run into some speed bumps the past two weeks. Hopefully, the Bills can incorporate some of the tactics the 49ers and Chargers used to slow them down. However, don’t discount Mike McDaniel and the Dolphins — they’ll certainly be looking for new wrinkles to fool defenses. It’s sure to be a chess match on Saturday night, and it’s possible both sides’ original game plans will be thrown aside if the game is played in projected heavy lake-effect snow.