Defense lets down Chargers as Dolphins win season opener, 36-34

Chargers tight end Donald Parham Jr. (89) catches a touchdown pass.
Chargers tight end Donald Parham Jr. (89) catches a touchdown pass over Miami Dolphins safety DeShon Elliott. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The new era of Chargers’ offense under coordinator Kellen Moore couldn’t survive more defensive issues under head coach Brandon Staley.

Miami amassed 538 total yards and averaged 8.5 per play in a 36-34 season-opening Dolphins win at SoFi Stadium.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finished 28 of 45 for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and Tyreek Hill caught 11 passes for 215 yards and two scores.

The Dolphins took their 36-34 lead on a four-yard pass from Tagovailoa to Hill with 1:45 to play. Jason Sanders, however, missed the extra point, setting up the Chargers for a potential game-winning field goal attempt.

But Justin Herbert and the offense could muster nothing, especially after an intentional grounding penalty.

When these teams met here in mid-December, the Chargers dominated time of possession and limited Miami to 219 total yards. Tagovailoa was 10 of 28 and Hill had only four catches, totaling 81 yards.

This was vastly different as the Dolphins drove up and down on Staley’s defense throughout the afternoon.

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Staley credited the Dolphins afterward and lamented the Chargers’ inability to stop Miami when the game was there to be won.

“I didn’t do a good enough job today getting us adjusted throughout the game,” he said. “We tried. Our adjustments just didn’t take shape today. It turned into a track meet in the passing game.”

In Moore’s debut as Chargers play-caller, they rushed for 234 yards and picked up 30 first downs. But it still wasn’t enough.

On their first possession of the second half, the Chargers went 75 yards in 11 plays, retaking the lead, 24-20, when Herbert scored from one yard out.

The Dolphins came right back, however, and moved into Chargers’ territory before J.C. Jackson intercepted Tagovailoa in the end zone on a deep pass. The pickoff was the first for Jackson as a Charger.

That wasn’t the only thing notable about the moment. Jackson briefly hesitated before deciding to return the interception rather than taking a knee for a touchback.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws under pressure from the Chargers.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws under pressure from the Chargers. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

He reached only the four-yard line, putting the Chargers’ offense in a difficult spot. That situation worsened when Herbert was sacked on third-and-one back at his one-yard line.

JK Scott then followed with a 34-yard punt. On the ensuing play, Hill beat Jackson off the line of scrimmage en route to a 35-yard touchdown that put the Dolphins back on top 27-24.

The Chargers’ offense did respond again, and impressively, by going 75 yards in 10 plays, with Joshua Kelley scoring on a two-yard run to put them back up 31-27 with 14 minutes remaining.

The Chargers entered this season with renewed hopes about their defense, which has been under attack in Staley’s first two seasons. Staley recently talked about having the personnel to finally match his plan.

But, against the Dolphins, the struggles continued and right from the start. Miami scored on four of its first six possessions, and quarterback Tagovailoa lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line on another.

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Hill had 104 yards receiving yards by halftime, and Tagovailoa finished the half 16 of 26 for 264 yards. Miami gained 326 total yards and averaged 8.8 yards per play. The Dolphins had 20 first downs to the Chargers’ 12.

On the plus side, the Chargers’ offense impressive found its running legs under Moore.

The first series of his tenure as ended with a touchdown as the Chargers went 94 yards in 14 plays, with Austin Ekeler scoring on a one-yard run.

The possession followed the good fortune of Tagovailoa mishandling the snap and Chargers defensive lineman Nick Williams recovering at the six-yard line.

The Dolphins had first-and-goal at the two-yard line when the turnover occurred.

Read more: Chargers' 36-34 home loss to the Miami Dolphins by the numbers

The Chargers then marched the other way, Justin Herbert converting a pair of third downs with his legs and Ekeler scoring on third-and-goal.

The big play of the run-dominated drive was Herbert and Keenan Allen hooking up for a 36-yard gain. Otherwise, 12 of the 14 plays — including the two Herbert scrambles on pass plays — were runs that picked up 58 yards total.

Moore, who was hired after four seasons as offensive coordinator with Dallas, was expected to bring elements of explosiveness and creativity.

The latter on Sunday included using tight end Gerald Everett on an end around, lining up tight end Tre’ McKitty and backup center Will Clapp at fullback and playing with increased tempo in spots.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.