The Dolphins introduced the latest iteration of their offense in 2023 with a Week 1 performance in which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards.
So, as expected, in a matchup against Bill Belichick and the Patriots in Week 2, New England’s defense was going to place a focus on not getting beat deep like the Los Angeles Chargers.
Under coach Mike McDaniel, that’s often easier said than done. But in Miami’s 24-17 road win, the Patriots began the game with a unique defensive formation.
On the first play from scrimmage for the Dolphins’ offense, the Patriots fielded three deep safeties, an extra cautious layer of protection. Two-high safety shells, which have increased in usage in recent years, deter deep attempts while sacrificing defenders in the box. New England’s unique coverage exacerbated both extremes. With extra defenders deep in coverage, the Patriots had just six defenders in the box. Tagovailoa handed off to running back Raheem Mostert, who picked up 3 yards on an outside run.
On the next play, the Patriots again showed three deep defenders. At the snap, New England rushed three and dropped eight into coverage. With only wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle running downfield routes and blanketed, Tagovailoa scrambled for 4 yards, setting up a manageable third down.
Facing third-and-3, the Patriots again used three deep safeties. Tagovailoa scanned the field and then found wideout Braxton Berrios in the flat for a 10-yard gain.
Dolphins Week 2 thread pic.twitter.com/tQTdBXZEk0
— Daniel Oyefusi (@finsfilmstudy) September 19, 2023
During the opening possession, the Patriots used the three-deep-safety alignment on six of 12 defensive plays. For the rest of the game, it only resurfaced for three plays, one of which was erased by an offensive holding penalty.
“I was not surprised [by] what they wanted to do,” Tagovailoa said. “Seemed as if they wanted to put an umbrella over our two fast guys. And then as the game progressed, they started to get back into what they normally would run.”
While the new ploy wasn’t long-lasting, it was emblematic of a game plan that sought to take away deep pass attempts. The Dolphins had split-safety coverage on 41.9 percent of plays, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The Dolphins had no problem adjusting, though. While Tagovailoa has taken advantage of passes over the middle of the field, he did not have a downfield attempt between the hashes on Sunday night. Instead, Tagovailoa targeted the flats and outside the numbers with much success.
Tua Tagovailoa averaged the 4th-quickest time to throw (2.08 seconds) of any quarterback in a game since 2020.
Tagovailoa is the only QB with a time to throw under 2.20 seconds to average over 8.0 air yards per attempt in a game over that same span.#MIAvsNE | #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/H1p3zXbTYF
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 18, 2023
And the Dolphins continued to use their new presnap motion, with more wrinkles, to get their pass-catchers open.
On Miami’s first touchdown drive, Hill, like in Week 1, had a tight alignment on the right side of the formation before sprinting to his right past Waddle. The presnap movement, referred to as exit motion, forced the outside corner, already lined up about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, to back up and began to get into his backpedal.
But instead of targeting Hill, Tagovailoa threw a screen pass to Waddle, who was able to pick up 28 yards with a convoy of blockers.
Even more so than in Week 1, the Dolphins used the exit motion interchangeably with their skill-position players, including on Hill’s 2-yard touchdown pass toward the end of the first half. Tight end Durham Smythe, in a tight slot alignment, was sent in exit motion to his right past Hill. The Patriots were in man coverage and at the snap, rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez opened up to stay with Smythe, who was running a wheel route. The space freed up Hill 1-on-1 with defensive back Kyle Dugger, who was beaten easily on a short out-breaking route.
“We have a purpose for everything that we do,” offensive coordinator Frank Smith said last week. “When coaches would say, ‘Hey, that’s window dressing, that movement.’ That’s not the way we operate. We move people for a reason. Everything is for our attack of the defense. Whenever we move someone one way, we have a complementary play for another reason. Our job is to see the defense. What do they present? Attack it with our personnel and be unrelenting in our approach. And you might move different people at different times.”
According to Next Gen Stats, Tagovailoa had an average time to throw of 2.08 seconds against the Patriots, the fourth-quickest in a game by any quarterback since 2020. But he was still able to push the ball downfield, with 8.6 air yards per attempt. Through two games, Tagovailoa has the highest average air yards per completion (8.5) despite the lowest average time to throw (2.35 seconds). It’s a testament to his quick release, the speed of the Dolphins’ skill players and McDaniel’s scheme working to counteract defensive game plans.
And just as important in the victory was one of the Dolphins’ most balanced efforts since McDaniel became head coach. Miami had 145 rushing yards, its fourth-most since the beginning of last season. The 26 designed runs were the third-most since McDaniel became head coach. And no run was bigger than running back Raheem Mostert’s 43-yard score, which gave the Dolphins a 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
“You have to take advantage of overplay,” McDaniel said. “So if they’re overplaying the pass game, if you want to be a good offense, you have to threaten them with the run.”