Dolphins film study: What happened to the offense? And revisiting decision to not shadow Diggs

Al Diaz/

One of the most shocking developments from the Dolphins’ 48-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills was an offense that stumbled just days after a historic 70-point outing.

After opening the game with a pair of touchdown drives, Miami struggled to move the ball and turned the ball over on downs on its final three possessions, with the game out of hand.

Issues from last season resurfaced, leaving many to question what Buffalo did to stop an offense that was the league’s most explosive unit entering Week 4.

After the game, wide receiver Tyreek Hill said the Buffalo ran a lot of Cover 2 coverage and that the Dolphins didn’t run the ball well enough to threaten their light boxes. Cover 2, a zone coverage that has two defenders covering half of the deep field and five underneath defenders, two of which are usually cornerbacks covering the flats, isn’t a foreign concept to Miami. But a well-executed game plan from the Bills, mixed with protection issues and self-inflicted mistakes gave the Dolphins’ offense its worst performance of the young season.

The Bills did focus their efforts on stopping Miami’s deep passing. Buffalo played some form of two-high-safety coverage — Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6, and two-man — on 64.2 percent of Tagovailoa’s dropbacks, according to TruMedia. Buffalo’s fast inside linebackers Matt Milano and Terrel Bernard, as well as slot corner Taron Johnson, did a great job of getting depth over the middle of the field and forcing tight passing windows.

When Miami began to trail by multiple scores, Buffalo lived in these coverages. But the Dolphins also couldn’t make the Bills pay for committing so much to stopping the pass.

Rookie running back De’Von Achane’s 55-yard run early in the fourth quarter when Miami was trailing by four touchdowns boosted the team’s final stats, but otherwise, Achane and Mostert combined for 55 yards on 14 carries.

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel also acknowledged not committing to run earlier in the game, which was a problem last season. To make matters worse, a Dolphins offensive line that had only given up one sack entering the game couldn’t pass block well enough, typically against four-man rushes from Buffalo. The Bills only blitzed on 17.9 percent of Tagovailoa’s dropbacks — the same rate as Week 3 against the Denver Broncos — but pressured him 30.8 percent of the time and sacked him a season-high four times. Playing much of the game without two offensive line starters — left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams — didn’t help matters.

It’s not the first time the Dolphins have seen a game plan such as this. Last year, the San Francisco 49ers leaned into the speed of their linebackers and were able to get pressure with only a four-man rush. The Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles, whom Miami will face in Week 6 and 7, run similar concepts so how McDaniel and Co. adjust will be interesting.

“It’s just tough when you get into that situation and you’re behind several scores to really dictate the terms the way that we like,” McDaniel said. “I think the Bills did a great job adhering to their game plan, and they didn’t take anybody away with one or two individuals. It was a team commitment that when you keep 15-yard plays from being 30-yard plays and you stop 12-yard runs and make them 3-yard runs, it has a residual effect that they deserve all the credit in the world for.”

Diggs decision fails

In the lead-up to the Bills game, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was asked about what goes into shadowing a standout wide receiver and, while explaining the many factors that go into it, said: “I don’t think with our team right now it’s something that we would do. But it could be down the line.”

When the defense took the field, corners Xavien Howard and Kader Kohou stayed on the left and right side of the unit, respectively. Noticing that Howard, who lined up with Diggs on 57.7 percent of his routes in three matchups in 2022, would not show him throughout the game, Buffalo took advantage.

Diggs was lined up against Kohou for 11 of his 24 routes and Kohou, in his second game as a full-time outside corner, struggled. The Bills often isolated Diggs against Kohou and Diggs caught two of his three touchdown passes with Kohou in coverage (NextGen Stats attributed Kohou to all three, but an unofficial review of the game showed Kohou had a different zone coverage responsibility on Diggs’ 11-yard touchdown).

Kohou was also flagged for two accepted penalties but one came on a questionable defensive pass interference that set up the Bills’ third touchdown. After the game, McDaniel was hesitant to place an oversized level of blame on Kohou.

“I saw two plays directly associated with the technique and fundamentals at the point of attack by the corner,” McDaniel said, “but then there were other plays that were a trickle-down effect from pass rush expectations on that play, from integrity in our pass rush plan and whether or not we voided lanes for Josh Allen, one of the best in the league to do it, to make plays last longer and go off schedule. So it’s a collective group of individuals that to me, as I see it after the fact, after action, that had more to do with his stat line than anything else, is guys not forcing the issue, guys not trying to make plays and guys playing team defense. That’s what we need to focus on and what we will focus on moving forward.”

Through the first four games of the season, the Dolphins’ defense ranks toward the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. Against Buffalo, the unit registered a season-low eight pressures, and communication issues resulted in a number of blown coverages that were exploited for big gains. The absence of starters Jaelan Phillips and DeShon Elliott were evident but many of these issues have been present since Game 1.

And teams with star receivers will certainly take note of the decision to not shadow and find similar ways to exploit Miami’s coverage.

“The entire locker room, they need to really come together as a group,” McDaniel said, “and we need to as a defense play better team defense. That’s the great thing about this game is there’s nowhere to hide. It is what it is, and that doesn’t bother me. You get beat 48-20, you should know coming into the building that things have to get corrected and that’s not to our standard. I think we’re on that process. I think meetings have been good today, and we’ll see what that brings forth on Wednesday.”