In a week where NFL offenses largely struggled, the Miami Dolphins were an exception. Mike McDaniel's unit piled up 536 yards against the Los Angeles Chargers, along with 36 points, in Week 1. No team gained more yards, and no offense scored more points. (The Cowboys and Packers scored more points overall, but that was thanks to defensive and special-teams scores.)
It was a continuation of what we saw from the Dolphins whenever Tua Tagovailoa was healthy last season, as McDaniel repeatedly schemed superstar receiver Tyreek Hill into wide-open space, Tagovailoa repeatedly hit him in stride at every level of the defense, and players like Jaylen Waddle, Braxton Berrios, Raheem Mostert, River Cracraft and more each made significant contributions.
Unsurprisingly, Tagovailoa did most of his damage throwing the ball over the middle of the field. Of his 466 passing yards, 291 of them came on throws over the middle, according to Tru Media. Those 291 yards were more than all but four quarterbacks in the league threw for overall. Again, this was a continuation of what Tagovailoa did last season.
In 2022, the league average quarterback threw 48.9% of his passes to the middle of the field. Tagovailoa was at 54.3%, the sixth-highest share among qualified passers. The average passer checked in with 8.14 yards per attempt on those throws, but Tua's average pass to the middle of the field gained 10.71 yards, the best mark in the league. And while throws over the middle typically generated more expected points added (EPA) per play than throws to the right or left side, Tagovailoa shattered even the league-average mark. NFL quarterbacks got 0.25 EPA/play on throws over the middle; but Tagovailoa got more than twice that amount (0.53 per play).
By comparison, when forced to throw to one of the wide sides of the field, Tagovailoa got fairly ordinary results. Arm strength is not Tua's best skill; accuracy, timing, and the ability to layer the ball over multiple levels of defenders are his superpowers. So it makes sense when attacking the perimeter, he wasn't as effective.
All of this is important because on Sunday night (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) he's about to go up against a defense that was one of the NFL's best at defending the middle of the field in 2022: that of the New England Patriots. The Patriots allowed throws over the middle at the second-lowest rate in the NFL last season, and those throws yielded the seventh-fewest yards per attempt and fifth-fewest EPA/play league-wide.
|2022 QB||Tua (Rank)||NFL Avg||vs NE (Rank)|
|% Att Left||22.1% (25)||24.8%||28.9% (30)|
|% Att Middle||54.3% (6)||48.9%||43.7% (2)|
|% Att Right||23.7% (24)||26.3%||27.4% (22)|
|YPA Left||7.10 (22)||7.35||7.31 (19)|
|YPA Middle||10.71 (1)||8.14||7.32 (7)|
|YPA Right||8.71 (4)||7.46||7.29 (18)|
|EPA/Play Left||0.15 (20)||0.17||0.10 (9)|
|EPA/Play Middle||0.53 (1)||0.25||0.12 (5)|
|EPA/Play Right||0.17 (17)||0.18||0.08 (8)|
No coach in the NFL -- and perhaps in NFL history -- is better than Bill Belichick at taking away an opposing offense's strength and forcing the team to "fight left-handed." Tagovailoa actually is left-handed, of course, so I suppose in this case the idea would be to force him to fight right-handed by making him test the wide areas of the field outside the numbers rather than making throws to the areas he's more comfortable attacking.
That, obviously, is easier said than done. Even if you do your best to take that area of the field away, the Dolphins' offense is well-schemed enough to access it anyway; and all it takes is one big play to burn you. In the one game Tagovailoa played against the Patriots last year, he threw for 129 yards and a touchdown on 14 passes directed to the middle of the field, per Tru Media, with the score coming on a slant he fired to Waddle in between three defenders before the speedster took off and raced 42 yards to the end zone. (That means the Pats did hold Tagovailoa to just 87 yards on his other 13 passing attempts over the middle, a paltry average of 6.69 per attempt. But again, they also yielded a 42-yard touchdown.)
The big question here is how Belichick decides to play this Miami offense. Does he actually prioritize taking away an area of the field (the middle, obviously), or does he prioritize taking away the opposing team's top option (Hill)?
There are arguments to be made for both strategies, but it is arguably even more difficult to take away Hill than it is to take away the middle and force Tua to throw outside. The Dolphins move Hill all over the formation (41.9% of his snaps in the slot, 55.8% outside, 2.3% in the backfield, per Tru Media) and send him in motion more often than almost any other primary receiver in the league (23.3% of his routes in Week 1), and of course, Hill might very well be the fastest player in football. There are very few players that can keep up with his speed even when he takes off from a set position on the line of scrimmage. Give him a head start by sending him in motion and it's almost unfair to the defensive back. (Especially given that McDaniel keeps coming up with new and fun ways to utilize said motion.)
If prioritizing Hill, there's also the question of Eagles last week, and we know how much Belichick likes to zag against his own tendencies in order to confound the opposition.. Do they want to man up with their best cornerback? Use the famous "1-Double 10" strategy, sticking their best cover guy on Waddle and doubling Hill on nearly every snap? Or will they sit in zone and try to force Tagovailoa into underneath throws to his complementary targets? The Patriots are typically among the most man-coverage-heavy teams in the NFL, but they did play more zone than usual against the
Devoting too much attention to Hill can also leave your defense vulnerable to being torched by Waddle. As previously mentioned, he caught Tua's lone touchdown pass against New England last season, and he also went off for receiving lines of 11-171-1, 4-102-0, 6-1290-0, 8-106-2, 3-114-1, and 5-143-1 in different games last season. He's not Hill, but he's more than capable of making a defense's night miserable. That duo, plus McDaniel's ability to get them into open space, make the Dolphins one of the league's most explosive offenses. Getting to see how a coach that McDaniel called "one of the founding fathers of this generation of football" deals with them should be must-see TV.