The Dolphins’ top priority this week is to protect their first-round pick and allow his teammates to carry some of the mounting pressure that is building given the circumstances of his promotion (Ryan Fitzpatrick goes to the bench) and the strong play of fellow 2020 first-round quarterbacks Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals) and Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers).
Tagovailoa is making his first start since suffering a hip injury on Nov. 16, 2019, while at Alabama. The Dolphins have a plan to keep him upright, but if stopping Donald from wrecking a game was so easy, every team would do it.
Through conversations with Dolphins players and coaches, combined with statistics and analysis, ESPN has identified three areas Miami should focus on to protect Tagovailoa.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said one of the most important elements of facing Donald is identifying him before the snap on every play. Expect Tagovailoa, center Ted Karras or both to point out where Donald is on any given play so they can send double- teams his way or audible plays away from him.
“Is he lining up on the left or the right? Is he lining up on the tackle or on the guard,” Gailey said. “You want to know where he is, and you want to scheme some things to help out whoever’s got him.”
Added Karras: “Obviously, [Donald is] the premier player of the NFL on defense, and the plan is we’ve got to have sound fundamentals and technique and give our best effort, and obviously preparing in the week is a big part of that. … We’re going to have to perform our best when it counts the most.”
The problem is Donald had a season-high nine pass-rush wins on Monday against the Chicago Bears, including five against double teams. It’s the second time this season he has had five pass-rush wins versus double-teams, more than the rest of the NFL combined.
Donald is tied with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett for the most pressures (26) in the NFL this season, recording a season-high seven pressures Monday. He’s doing this despite being doubled on 68% of his pass-rush snaps, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
So the Dolphins will double him often, and it might help in neutralizing him, but that alone has rarely stopped him. Plus, it will create opportunities for the Rams’ other talented defensive linemen such as Leonard Floyd and Michael Brockers.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi
The Dolphins’ offensive line is much improved from 2019 when it was arguably the worst group in football, but that doesn’t mean the problem has been fully solved. Fitzpatrick did well to help cover some deficiencies by getting the ball out quickly — he averaged 2.41 seconds time to throw, good for third-fastest in the NFL.
Legendary pass rushers, including Jared Allen and Bruce Smith, analyze what makes Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald such a disruptive force.
Tagovailoa was one of college football’s best decision-makers, and he often excelled when forced into quick decisions, so he should transition better than most rookies. But NFL speed is different than in college, and it’s hard to get a feel for that through practices and watching film. How long it takes Tagovailoa to understand that speed difference will be important, and he’ll want to be as close to Fitzpatrick’s time to throw as possible.
“In practice, Tua’s done a good job of that, but we’ll see how it shows up in the game,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said.
The Dolphins rank 30th (48%) in pass block win rate, an ESPN metric using NFL Next Gen Stats. Tagovailoa, a left-hander, has two rookie offensive linemen — right guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Robert Hunt — protecting his blind side. Both have shown promise, but they are learning, and this offensive line is not a finished product. Expect the Rams and other defenses to send extra pressure, blitzes and exotic looks in hopes of confusing the rookie.
“We’ll all have to do our jobs and set at the same level, and kind of keep what we’ve been doing and don’t freak out when [Donald is] over you,” left tackle Jesse Davis said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of passing stuff off and talking, and that’s what will have to be heightened this game. It will be a fun matchup.”
One way Miami can combat extra pressure is to keep a tight end or running back in pass protection. Another is for Tagovailoa to get the ball out quickly to the first or second read on a progression. It’s well-documented Tagovailoa loves throwing the slant route, or a quick pass, so that’s a good start.
The Rams have the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense (17.7 points per game) and allow the fewest yards per quarterback dropback (5.5), but their pass defense isn’t just about getting pressure. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey leads a strong secondary ready to take advantage of tendencies.
Some of what makes Tagovailoa’s debut exciting is the unknown of what new possibilities he can bring to the offense, and the most obvious one is how Tagovailoa will use his athleticism as a weapon.
He was one of college football’s best quarterbacks using run-pass options (RPOs), and the expectation is the Dolphins will use more of that when the packages are fully established. When they do, it figures to open up the Dolphins’ playmakers for one-on-one opportunities while keeping defenses off-balance.
“It puts you in conflict. They’re reading basically the run [defender], and if the run [defender] plays run, they throw a pass. So if the run player plays a pass, they run it,” Flores said. “We really haven’t done much of that this season, so I think it’s — a couple days of practice, it’s hard to put something in like that.”
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Tagovailoa’s 90.8 QBR on RPO plays from 2018 to 2019 at Alabama was third in the nation over that span among quarterbacks with at least 50 such attempts.
If the Dolphins have a few RPOs prepped and ready, this would be the perfect week to unleash them. Screens and play-action throws are other options the Dolphins can use to create conflict for the Rams. As Tagovailoa and Gailey grow more comfortable together, RPOs are likely to be a notable part of the offense in the future.
It’s Tua Time in Miami, and nothing is more important than protecting the franchise QB. It starts Sunday.