The Dolphins’ offense was a work of art behind Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel

The Miami Dolphins sent a message on Sunday.

Not just to the rest of the AFC East, but perhaps the entire conference, and the NFL at large.

They are going to be a dangerous football team this season.

The Dolphins went to the West Coast and knocked off the Los Angeles Chargers in dramatic fashion 36-34, getting a late minute touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Tyreek Hill to take the lead. From there, the Dolphins defense sealed the victory, getting a pair of sacks of Justin Herbert on the Chargers’ final possession to put the Los Angeles offense behind the sticks.

But the story of this game was their offense, and a quarterback who is expanding that offense’s potential.

Schematic elements

As one might expect from Mike McDaniel, there were schematic elements from the Dolphins offense that put Tagovailoa in advantageous situations. Spacing elements was one such theme, as McDaniel found ways to put stress on the Chargers defense while putting Miami’s talented receivers into holes in the coverage.

Another theme? Movement, particularly at the snap. This is one of the schematic themes to watch league-wide this season, which we previewed in our extensive NFL Season Preview. McDaniel found ways to put receivers in motion at the snap that created problems in the Los Angeles secondary, and created opportunities for Tagovailoa and company.

Take this first example, a completion from Tagovailoa to River Cracraft from late in the first quarter:

The Dolphins align with a tight slot formation on the right, putting Cracraft on the outside and Erik Ezukanma on the inside. Just before the snap Ezukanma goes in motion towards the sideline, and that draws both the slot cornerback as well as the outside CB.

That bit of confusion from the defense creates space for Cracraft, and Tagovailoa hits him with a beautiful anticipation throw in the second window for a solid gain.

An even better example of this notion comes from early in the second quarter. McDaniel puts Hill in motion right before the snap, and the speedy receiver breaks vertically on what looks to be a deep wheel route. But Hill then snaps off his vertical stem, slicing inside on a dig route in a variation of the Dagger concept:

Hill’s presnap movement gives him a bit of a head start, and that puts stress on the cornerback who buys into the idea that the receiver is going deep. That gives Hill the ability to win inside off his break, coming open over the middle for Tagovailoa who hits him perfectly in stride for a 29-yard gain. The timing is such that Hill is able to not just make the catch, but make the first defender miss in space, leading to additional yardage after the catch.

These movement concepts help make Tagovailoa more effective, help get Miami’s receivers into space, and generally make the Dolphins offense more dangerous. For more on the evolution of Miami’s motion concepts from last season, this video breakdown from Shawn Syed of Sumer Sports is well worth your time:

But schematic elements were just one part of the story.

Tua Tagovailoa was the other — and bigger — part.

A fully armed and operational Tua Tagovailoa

Tagovailoa was on his game Sunday.

The third-year passer completed 28-of-45 passes on Sunday for 466 yards and three touchdowns, along with one interception. But beyond the numbers is where he completed those throws, and how he completed them. Tagovailoa was 8-of-14 on throws of at least 15 air yards, and on many of his throws you saw him display high level quarterback traits.

We can split those into three general buckets, although there is a big degree of overlap: Pocket poise, anticipation, and accuracy.

Let’s start with pocket poise.

Pocket poise and movement

Life as an NFL quarterback is hard, a concept which we have discussed at length over the years. With talented players up front looking to put you in the hospital, athletic defenders in the secondary looking to pounce on any mistake, and devious defensive coordinators looking to fool you so people like me write about your processing failures, it is not an easy job.

Playing in the face of pressure is part of the gig, but athletic quarterbacks like Tagovailoa can create opportunities for their offenses thanks to an ability to move in the face of pressure, all while keeping their eyes downfield scanning for opportunities in the secondary.

On this 3rd and 8 play from late in the first quarter, watch as Tagovailoa escapes from a collapsing pocket while keeping his eyes trained downfield:

Tagovailoa initially wants to throw left on this play, where McDaniel has dialed up a nasty variation of the Smash concept with Jaylen Waddle and Hill. Waddle runs the corner route while Hill, working out of the backfield, runs a wheel-stop route that operates like the hitch in a Smash concept.

But with that covered well — and the pocket breaking down around him — Tagovailoa flushes to his left and then absolutely threads the needle to Braxton Berrios to move the chains.

Tagovailoa dialed up two very impressive throws in the face of pressure in the fourth quarter, both moving the chains on third-and-long situations. The first came on a 3rd and 15, and once more you’ll see Tagovailoa flushing to his left before finding Berrios downfield:

Tagovailoa initially wants to climb the pocket, but with that path blocked, he flushes to his left. He still has a defender in his face, so he has to fade away from Berrios on the throw. Even with all of this working against him, he puts the ball in a perfect spot to move the chains.

Also, consider the situation. Not only is this a 3rd-and-long situation, but the Dolphins trail 31-27 at this time in the game. If Miami punts on the next play, this game could turn out differently.

Instead, the Dolphins would tack on a field goal to make it a one-point game, and this huge third-down conversion was a big play on the drive.

Tagovailoa delivered another big third-down conversion later in the quarter, again displaying elite pocket movement. On this 3rd and 10. Tagovailoa is able to climb the pocket, before finding Hill to move the chains:

On second thought, climbing the pocket might be a flawed description. Tagovailoa is almost in a dead sprint here, but he is still able to not just find Hill breaking open outside the numbers on the left, but he also hits him in stride.

This is a very difficult throw, and he makes it look easy.

Anticipating the windows

Another aspect of Tagovailoa’s game that was on full display against the Chargers was his anticipation. The third-year passer was able to throw receivers open, and feel voids in the coverage and lead his teammates to safety.

When you hear an analyst say that the “game is slowing down” for a quarterback, these are the kinds of plays that illustrate that point.

Take this play from late in the second quarter:

Running back Salvon Ahmed goes in motion out of the backfield, and towards the right side of the formation, just before the snap. This presnap movement gets the Dolphins into a 4×1 formation as the play begins, a lovely schematic wrinkle from McDaniel. But instead of targeting Ahmed, Tagovailoa looks for Hill on a quick Bang-8 post route. He anticipates the secondary lane perfectly, and splits a pair of defenders with his throw.

In terms of anticipating that window, look at the state of play when the ball is coming out of his hand:

Hill has yet to clear that defender, but Tagovailoa anticipates the window, and leads his receiver to safety. Beautiful design, incredible feel, and a big gain for the Dolphins.

Here is another example of these ideas in action from the third quarter:

Once more you see movement at the snap — this time in the form of tight end Durham Smythe — and an anticipation throw from Tagovailoa to Hill on a skinny post. Again, Tagovailoa feels the coverage here, letting this ball go before Hill clears the underneath defenders. The result? Another big gain for Miami.

The QB’s huge numbers on Sunday? Anticipation was a big reason why.

Downfield handoffs

If you boil down quarterback play to just a few words, it could be these: Throw the ball where it needs to be thrown.

Tagovailoa did that incredibly well on Sunday.

We can look at two examples. First is this sit route to Berrios in the fourth quarter. The receiver is working against the middle runner in a Tampa 2 coverage, and after sitting down over the middle he starts to work outside, away from that defender’s leverage.

But with the hook defender lurking in this zone coverage, Berrios cannot drift too far.

Tagovailoa makes sure of that:

The QB throttles Berrios down in the void between those two defenders, putting this throw in an absolutely perfect spot. If this pass is left too far inside, or strays too far to the outside, either defender probably makes a play on the football.

Instead, the Dolphins have a fresh set of downs.

Then, the game-winning throw:

Tagovailoa could not have put that throw in a better spot if he walked into the end zone and handed it to Hill.

Last year, the Dolphins showed they were players in the AFC.

But the team we saw yesterday?

They might be more than players. They might be contenders.

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