By henry mackenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
Off to a wild start to 2022 NFL season, the miami dolphins might have put together the most impressive 16 minutes of football yet.
Starting in the final minute of the third quarter on Sunday, Miami went on a 28-3 run to beat the Baltimore Ravens 42-38. Tua Tagovailoa looked like the precise, aggressive signal the Dolphins’ offense needed.
Even with that superlative display, there’s reason to believe the Dolphins will get even better. They will have to adapt and improve. But.
It’s like New York Jets coach Robert Saleh told me during training camp this year: “To survive, you have to evolve.”
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Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel and Tua know this. It’s great that they’re already getting some excellent production from stars Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, who each scored two touchdowns and racked up more than 100 receiving yards. It’s also great that McDaniel is apparently already thinking about how he can get more players involved.
“Part of a good offense is using all five eligibles on the field,” McDaniel said Monday. “Defenses are so good in the National Football League that if you’re a one-trick or two-trick pony, they can eventually dictate the terms and make you a lot less effective. So in each and every game, you’re trying to distribute the ball to your attacking midfielders, and we have a lot of them”.
No one is better at exposing one-trick ponies than Bill Belichick, whose Patriots likely compete with Miami for second place in the AFC East and, in turn, a wild-card spot in the playoffs. But Belichick isn’t the only defensive brains in the division. The Buffalo Bills, Miami’s opponent on Sunday, have one of the most schematically impressive and talented defenses in the NFL under coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Their defensive linemen are positionless and rotate eight talented players down the line.
The Dolphins may not see many defenses that can cover their two receivers all the time. But there are other ways to break up a passing offense without closing the field to receivers. The Bills’ pass-rush is a good example. And if they can put their ears back without worrying about the Dolphins controlling the ball, defensive linemen have a huge advantage.
As electric as McDaniel’s offense may have looked, it could probably look better, in part through the balance of running and passing (in Week 2, Miami had 18 runs and 50 pass attempts) and in part through the increased use of other receptors.
“You have to be able to take advantage of matchups or defenses if you get the chance, but you also have to be able to spread the ball around so guys can’t overdo it on one or two guys,” McDaniel said.
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There will be weeks when Hill and Waddle are open all the time. But on weeks when the Dolphins aren’t in sync with those two receivers, they’ll have to work their offense through players not named Hill or Waddle.
The first order of business will be to avoid falling behind 35-14.
“We talked about accepting adversity as an opportunity, but I think it was too much adversity. I don’t think we wanted that much adversity,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday.
If the Dolphins lead or play from a smaller deficit, they can make better use of their running game. While the Dolphins’ offense ranks 2nd in DVOA, an advanced stat that measures efficiency, their running game ranks 12th in DVOA. That’s fine in terms of ranking. But the running offense has a negative DVOA (-.9%), meaning it detracts from the offense.
One part of this could be that they need a stronger game from the offensive line. It’s rare for a team to improve its health, but tackle Terron Armstead is dealing with a toe injury. There is a chance that will improve and he will help them push more from the left side. Connor Williams is gaining experience at center after playing guard for his entire NFL career. That’s a work in progress, particularly as he gets used to shooting with the shotgun. He is also in charge of helping set up the guards before the center, a new duty for him. That should also improve. And the entire offensive line is learning McDaniel’s outside zone scheme, which sometimes takes years, not months, to optimize.
It will also be interesting to see how running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert evolve as a two-head attack for Miami. They’ve split carries and snaps fairly evenly so far this season, with Mostert posting 64 snaps, 16 runs and four receptions for a solid 68.9 offensive rating, according to PFF. Edmonds has 74 snaps, 17 runs and five catches for a 60.2 grade. Edmonds had a more prominent role in Week 1, prompting McDaniel to say after the game that he wished he had made more use of Mostert, who then had a more prominent role in Week 2.
Edmonds, however, had the longest run in Week 2. And it was a play that represented how the Dolphins can subvert defensive focus to generate big plays with the help of Hill and Waddle, but giving other players the ball. .
On the Dolphins’ last rushing attempt of the game, a 28-yard run by Edmonds, McDaniel used the move to get the defense out of position, partly because the defenders were so focused on Hill and Waddle and partly because they were trying to account for tight end Mike Gesicki. The move also made defenders believe a pass was coming, because Miami flashed that look several times earlier in the game.
“We’ve been running a certain play and we just dish it out to the guys [as a pass]Tagovailoa said Wednesday. “That move helped get guys out of their spaces, and Chase was able to run and get a lot of yards. He would say that’s how we look at plays that complement other plays.”
Here’s a look at the game with humans, instead of points.
It’s a nice job from McDaniel. It’s the kind of smart plays and play design that will benefit the Dolphins’ offense. McDaniel spent one season as offensive coordinator before taking on this role as head coach. As he gets to know his offense, he’ll get better at setting up his players for success.
Of course, defenses are doing the exact same thing, in terms of developing their players and tailoring their scheme and plays around those players. So it’s just about McDaniel developing at a faster pace, and developing plays to get the ball into the hands of his full range of skillful players.
This isn’t to say that Gesicki or Edmonds should suddenly become the focal point of the offense.
“This is not about me, this is about the team,” Gesicki said. “We’ve got two wide receivers out there. Up to this point, he hasn’t drawn the attention of defenses that one would expect.”
The Dolphins have clearly identified their strength: Hill and Waddle, an explosive set of receivers. They can lean on that. But they also have the tools to build a more complementary offense that highlights the strengths of Gesicki, receiver Cedrick Wilson and running backs.
In the first two weeks, the Dolphins had extremely high DVOA variance, meaning they haven’t been consistently efficient. They were off the charts in Week 2 and solid in Week 1. Obviously, they’re not going to score 42 points every week, but if the Dolphins want to play at a higher level on average, and limit that variance, they’re going to have to do a better use of all his midfielders. And that will include running the football at a higher volume.
Before joining FOX Sports as a reporter for the AFC East, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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