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Dolphins film study: The plays Miami’s offense is lamenting in a lopsided victory

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/29/2022 Daniel Oyefusi, Miami Herald
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) gestures during a huddle in the second quarter during the game against the Houston Texans at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sunday, November 27, 2022. © Al Diaz/ Herald/TNS Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) gestures during a huddle in the second quarter during the game against the Houston Texans at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

By the end of the Dolphins’ Week 12 game against the Houston Texans, Miami had scored 30 points — all in the first half — in another lopsided victory.

But as quarterback Tua Tagovaiiloa addressed reporters postgame, he was thinking about the plays Miami could have made.

“We could have finished a lot of drives better,” Tagovailoa said. “We could have given guys opportunities more, put guys in better position to make plays for our team. But that’s always tough when you’re hot, your team is hot, and then you go into a bye week. You try to come back on a week like this to find whatever that feeling was that you guys had with that momentum and that’s all it was. We’re just out there just trying to find what rhythm our offense was trying to get back into. I think we’ll go in and find that throughout this next week and we’ll be better for it.”

The comments were customary from a player who admittedly spends much more time obsessing about what he could have improved rather than gushing about what he did well. But for a team that had been executing with so much efficiency before the bye week, it did appear that the break threw off the timing of the Dolphins’ high-flying offense.

The margin for error was wide, however, against the one-win Texans. One takeaway from the Dolphins’ defense set up the offense with a short field and another was returned for a touchdown. That margin will be much slimmer when Miami faces the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13, by far the toughest opponent since Tagovailoa’s Week 7 return from a concussion.

San Francisco won’t be as forgiving to drives that end in field goals — or rare punts. So, the Dolphins will have to recapture that pinpoint timing before their highly-anticipated matchup, as well as find contingency plans if one or both of starting offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Austin Jackson cannot play because of injury.

On the Dolphins’ opening possession, Tagovailoa controlled the middle of the field as he has done throughout the entire season. But after a holding penalty on right guard Robert Hunt backed the team out of the red zone, Tagovailoa threw three straight incompletions, an anomaly for the accurate passer.

The first was a bit high to wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who jumped for the ball on an in-breaking route, but the pass was catchable and would have put the Dolphins back in the red zone. The second sailed over the head of wideout Cedrick Wilson Jr. in a tight window. The third hit the inside shoulder of wide receiver Trent Sherfield, bouncing off his shoulder pads before hitting the ground, forcing the Dolphins to settle for a 45-yard field goal.

Two drives later, after traveling from their own 9-yard line to their 49, another string of incompletions forced Miami to punt for the first time since Nov. 6. On the first, Tagovailoa’s pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill, running a crossing route, was just a bit too far ahead of him and bounced off his stretched-out hand. On the next, Waddle had to twist and contort his body to try to reel in the pass over the middle of the field, but the ball fell threw his hands. On the third, Tagovailoa left the pocket before throwing the ball away.

On the penultimate drive of the first half, the Dolphins got as close as the Texans’ 5-yard line. But on second down, Tagovailoa targeted Hill on an out route. The defensive back was playing press coverage, which disrupted the timing of the route. Tagovailoa’s pass was just outside the outstretched hand of Hill. If caught, it would have been a walk-in touchdown. But the incompletion was a better result than if Tagovailoa’s pass was too far inside and likely intercepted. Tagovailoa’s third-down pass to tight end Mike Gesicki in the end zone was deflected, setting up another Jason Sanders field-goal attempt.

Tagovailoa played two drives in the second half before sitting for the rest of the game. He finished with 299 passing yards but his 61.1 percent completion percentage and expected points added (EPA) per play — a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position — were both the lowest since Week 7. In recent weeks, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel spoke about the importance of timing — from the depth of the receiver’s route to when the quarterback throws the ball — in the passing game.

“In the NFL, it is immensely important,” he said, “because the windows are tighter, the potential for catastrophic drive-ending bad things happening because you’re late so a defender can recover or you’re taking too much time and then getting sacked. It’s really everything.”

The Dolphins’ efforts will get a lot tougher if Armstead and Jackson are sidelined against the 49ers. Armstead is expected to miss some time with what NFL Network said is a Grade 2 pectoral strain, otherwise known as a partial tear. On Monday, McDaniel didn’t provide an exact timetable for his return but when asked about a return in two to three weeks, he responded: “I definitely wouldn’t put that past him.” He also said Jackson injured the same ankle that kept him out for several weeks on injured reserve.

In the three drives without Armstead, Tagovailoa was sacked four times, including on the final possession of the first half, which ended in a Sanders field goal. According to TruMedia, Tagovailoa was pressured on 33 percent of his dropbacks; the only game he’s been pressured more was Week 1 against the New England Patriots.

Though Tagovailoa and McDaniel took the blame for play-calling that put the team’s backup tackles in tough positions, the looming matchup against the 49ers defense and Pro Bowl edge rusher Nick Bosa is one that could wreck the team’s game plan if safeguards aren’t added to assist one or two reserve tackles, likely Brandon Shell and Greg Little.

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