NFL News & Analysis

How the Los Angeles Chargers shut down Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins offense

Chicago, Illinois, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Miami defeated Chicago 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

After a blistering start to the season, the Miami Dolphins — coming off back-to-back losses — have looked downright bad on offense the last two weeks. This was the surprise team of the season who hadn’t lost a game when their starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa started and finished a game coming into Week 13. Two weeks later — two losses later — the offense looks out of sync.

In the 1994 hit blockbuster “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” the blueprint for stopping the high-powered Dolphins offense was to kidnap their lovable dolphin mascot “Snowflake” and — to a much more important extent — their starting quarterback Dan Marino. Most likely, history won’t repeat itself again in 2022 but after two weeks of toiling away in the muck, is there a blueprint to stopping the 2022 high-powered Dolphins offense?

The overall comparison between the Dolphins over the first 12 weeks of the season and the last two is startling. They aren’t just playing poorly, they are near the bottom of the league in a heap of offensive categories.

Weeks 1-12 Weeks 13 & 14
Dolphins EPA/play 0.06 (3rd) -0.20 (27th)
Tagovailoa Passer rating 115.7 (1st) 73.1 (25th)
Tagovailoa Yards per attempt 9.0 (1st) 7.2 (13th)
Tagovailoa PFF Grade 91.1 (2nd) 57.9 (27th)

Only scoring 17 points against one of the NFL’s best defenses in Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers is nothing to be ashamed of but only scoring 17 against the Los Angeles Chargers, who came into the game with the NFL’s sixth-worst defense from an EPA per play perspective is concerning. While the 49ers' game plan was solid, their elite players made huge plays to limit Miami's offense. The Chargers don’t have many, if any, elite players right now, so head coach Brandon Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill's scheme had to be perfect — and it was.

To understand the Chargers' game plan, we must understand how the Dolphins have been annihilating defenses with their base play — an RPO that has looked unstoppable throughout the season. The Dolphins' first play from scrimmage against the 49ers was an example of how deadly this concept can be:

Against the 49ers, the Dolphins ran this concept once every three plays and even though they ended up with just 17 points, the concept was basically unstoppable. Stopping this play was at the forefront of the Chargers' game plan, and to understand the concept, we turn to the whiteboard:

Even after the abysmal performance on Sunday night, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passing yards from RPOs by 84 yards. He has a staggering 10.5 yards per attempt — that’s better than second-place Matt Ryan’s 8.3 mark by 2.2 yards and Ryan has only had 19 RPO dropbacks compared to Tua’s 42. Jalen Hurts leads the NFL in RPO dropbacks with 62 and has accumulated 5.9 yards per attempt. The Dolphins' offense is creating free opportunities for its quarterback.

The Trent Sherfield 75-yard touchdown to open the game against the 49ers gives us a great starting point for how the Chargers defended this play from the start. We can see that the 49ers defense gets confused when the Dolphins start using motion. Charvarius Ward (No. 7) and Talanoa Hufanga (No. 29) end up covering the same person, enabling Sherfield to get wide open.

However, the Chargers weren't confused. The cornerback to the running back's side — the passing concept part of this RPO always goes to the running back's side — would press and provide man coverage on the receiver. Eliminate all confusion. Let all the adjustments happen outside of that first problem.

Often, the Chargers would start with two-high safeties and spin a safety down with the motion to cover the motioned receiver — again, while the cornerback, often Michael Davis, would not budge. No more confusion. The Dolphins were making a living off teams blowing coverages against this play.

These two assignments took away the downfield passing options, but there is a third passing option, a flat route, that Tua has thrown for good completions as well. The Chargers handled this by having their unblocked defensive end — the “read” player — attack Tua as often as possible. This clouded Tua's vision and forced him quickly throw over the defender, leading to inaccurate passes.

After watching the Dolphins run this RPO, it becomes clear that even though there is an option to hand the ball off and run the football, the Dolphins are telling Tua that unless that unblocked defender is charging directly at you, the ball can be pulled and thrown for the chance of a bigger play.

This is where the cat-and-mouse game started, as the Dolphins eventually picked up a couple of chunk plays in the run game using this motion and play design to counter how the Chargers lined up to defend it.

In general, however, the Dolphins have not been one of the best teams at running the football on RPO plays. They rank 31st in EPA per rush on RPOs at -0.35. For what it’s worth, they are 24th in EPA per rush overall. At just 27.7%, they have by far the lowest run rate on RPO plays. They do not want to hand the ball off because their offensive line struggles to create running lanes.

The Dolphins stand at a crossroads. If a defense that is as devoid of talent as the Chargers' can take away Miami's base play and force it to play left-handed – proverbially – then where does that leave the rest of the offense?

When there has been discussion surrounding “schematic blueprints” for suffocating elite offenses over the years, it's important to remember that the quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, always has the ability to transcend scheme. However, Tagovailoa is not that good of a quarterback right now. Defenses are not preparing for Tua and the scheme, as they just need to prepare for the scheme.

The talk surrounding Tagovailoa being an elite quarterback was always premature, and these last two weeks have shown that Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel was propping him up. The anticipation and timing that he was lauded for earlier in the season were exposed, as he kept throwing incompletions to his first reads who were covered. Those reads were open earlier in the year, which is why Tua’s stats skyrocketed.

With the Dolphins heading down a tough stretch of opponents to close out the season — the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills rank first, fourth and eighth in EPA per play allowed on defense — it’s imperative that the Dolphins continue to innovate their scheme because right now, the quarterback cannot go above and beyond it.

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