Miami Dolphins 2020 Team Study

Offense

You can’t talk about the Dolphins’ 23rd-ranked offense without having an opinion on the quarterback situation. So I’ll start with mine: the Dolphins were a better offense with Ryan Fitzpatrick than with Tua Tagovailoa. This does not mean that Fitzpatrick is necessarily a better player than Tua. But the offensive scheme was entirely different and more productive with Fitzpatrick. He spent more time in the pocket throwing downfield into coverage and letting his receivers win. The plays drawn up for Tua were far more conservative, involving a lot of roll-outs or quick reads with only one or two options. The Dolphins made fewer costly mistakes with Tua, but they were less dangerous on a play-by-play basis. Ultimately, the Dolphins’ offense was simply more successful with Fitzpatrick opening up the field.

This chart shows Miami’s game-by-game offensive Adjusted Rating with Fitzpatrick (teal) versus Tua (orange), from worst to best. The difference between the two was not dramatic. On one hand, 4 of the Dolphins’ 6 best offensive performances were Tua games (+0.56, +0.31, +0.30, and +0.05). But 5 of the Dolphins’ 6 worst offensive performances were also Tua games (-1.32, -1.24, -1.14, -1.07, and -0.75). Fitzpatrick provided more consistency overall and orchestrated their 2 best offensive performances (+1.17, +0.80).

The advanced passing metrics support my claim. Fitzpatrick threw the ball deeper, with more accuracy, and led his receivers to more yards after the catch. And while these statistics only account for passing numbers, Tua’s rushing did not make a meaningful difference. He only rushed for 109 yards in 9 games on a measly 3.0 yards per carry.

Tua v. Fitz Advanced Passing

PlayerTuaFitz
Avg. Depth of Target7.57.8
Air Yards per Comp.5.66.8
Yards After Catch per Comp.4.14.7
On-Target %74.1%79.9%
Comp. %64.1%68.5%
Bad Throw %18.8%14.0%

Tua’s offense reduced the size of the field. He did not often threaten deep. It really seemed like he couldn’t see the field well from inside the pocket. Many of his plays involved an immediate roll-out left or a pre-set quick pass that did not require him to read the defense on the fly. He frequently utilized his first or second read, often on the same side of the field. Defenses love when they have a smaller area to cover and Tua gave that to them.

He did have some sharp throws. At times he fit the ball into a tiny window where only his receiver could get to it, sometimes throwing while on the run. But even on those impressive plays it seemed a defender was already tackling the receiver as he caught the ball because a smaller field makes it harder for receivers to get separation. And as teams compiled film on Tua’s limited offense, it became easier to game plan against him.

As a rookie quarterback, Dolphins fans would love to have seen Tua improve over the course of the season. But after opening with three straight wins, he ended with what would have been four straight losses if Fitzpatrick had not come in and rescued a miracle win against the Raiders. The team’s offensive performance was on a downward trend that ended with a season-low (-1.32) performance against the Bills in a must-win game. With more and more evidence that Tua was either unwilling or unable to truly threaten deep, defenses played tighter and tighter. This was a problem.

One play really stuck out to me as alarming. In a must-win game, down 28-6 on the Bills’ 9 yards line, Tua scrambled up the middle and slid on the 4 yard line when it looked to me like he had a chance to punch it into the endzone. It felt like he never won his teammates over as a rookie in the way that Fitzpatrick did. I can’t help but think this type of play had a huge impact on how his teammates perceived him. Maybe he would not have scored a touchdown, but shying away from contact in such a critical situation showed a lack of leadership. They ended up getting bailed out by a defensive penalty on 4th down, but it left me feeling that he had a long way to go to earn the respect of his teammates.

The Dolphins were fairly effective on the ground, regardless of who was running. And Tua did show flashes of accuracy on several throws, particularly once coverage softened up in games they were losing. When they needed to just hold the ball and let their defense win, they were successful. But Tua did not often lead his team to victory when the defense did not step up.

Young quarterbacks can make huge strides from year to year. Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray all took a huge step forward in their second or third year. For Tua to progress, the Dolphins will need to implement a more challenging scheme that opens up the field and pushes the defense back on its heels. If they attempt to roll out the same vanilla offense in 2021, it will likely not go well.

Defense

The Dolphins’ 16th-ranked defense featured a stud cornerback (Xavien Howard) and a diverse blitz-heavy pass rush that involved players all over the field. Flores implemented disguised blitzes with the goal of confusing and disrupting the other team’s quarterback and forcing mistakes. But with inconsistent cornerback play outside of Howard, they were particularly vulnerable to big plays when their pass rush did not immediately fluster the quarterback.

Instead of featuring a stud edge rusher, the Dolphins got to the quarterback with everyone in their front seven (and sometimes defensive backs). This exposed their weaknesses in the secondary, as the Dolphins tied for the highest number of 40+ yard passing plays allowed in the NFL. Howard typically matched up against the opposing team’s number one receiver, so these big plays were often made by the team’s second or third option in the passing game.

Big Receptions Allowed by MIA

PlayerLong CatchRec. Yards Rank on Team
N. Agholor852nd
T. Boyd722nd
T. Patrick612nd
D. Moore (SEA)573rd
G. Davis563rd
C. Kirk562nd
S. Diggs471st
J. Brown464th
I. McKenzie466th
T. Hill442nd

Mobile quarterbacks excelled against the Dolphins. Without an elite player on the defensive line, they relied on complex blitz packages to confuse pocket passers, but this did not work against quarterbacks who could escape the pocket and break the play down. These quarterbacks extended the play past the initial blitz and into the next phase, where they could get creative with both running and backyard-style passing.

This chart shows the Dolphins’ defensive Adjusted Rating against opponents ranked by each quarterback’s average rushing yards per game. Miami outperformed against the least mobile quarterbacks they faced in Jimmy Garoppolo (+0.59), Joe Flacco (+1.06), Brandon Allen (+0.99), and Jared Goff (+0.92). But the Dolphins really struggled against the league’s best rushing quarterbacks, Kyler Murray (-1.16), Cam Newton (-1.41 and -0.07), Russell Wilson (-1.73), and Josh Allen (-0.27 and -0.17). In fact, the Dolphins had a negative Adjusted Rating against every quarterback who averaged more than 21 yards rushing per game and a positive Adjusted Rating against every quarterback who averaged fewer than 21 yards rushing per game, except Drew Lock.

By escaping the initial pass rush, quarterbacks negated Miami’s defensive strength and put the pressure on the secondary. They did not always beat the Dolphins on the ground. For example, Miami’s worst defensive performance of the season came against Russell Wilson, who only had 1 carry for 8 yards outside of kneel downs at the end of the game. Instead, Wilson used his mobility to give his receivers time and completed 6 different 20+ yard passes to wide receivers in the game.

Overall, the Dolphins took a massive step forward defensively from their poor 2019 season and implemented exotic blitz packages that made them less reliant on a single pass-rusher. This bodes well for continued success as the Dolphins bolster the talent on their defensive front to complement their scheme. But they will need to improve at cornerback to prevent big plays if they want to become a top NFL defense.

Putting it All Together

Betting Takeaways

  • Overall, Miami is overrated going into the offseason. They were fortunate to be in playoff contention and have moved on from their better quarterback.
  • Expect Miami to underperform offensively in close games where the defense plays tight coverage, as opposed to games where they are trailing and the defense plays soft. Tua’s accuracy against soft coverage increases the likelihood of a backdoor cover as a big underdog.
  • Watch to see if the Dolphins have opened up their offense in year two with Tua before having any confidence that he can be consistently successful in the NFL.
  • Expect Miami to underperform defensively against mobile quarterbacks, particularly true dual-threat quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray.
  • Be confident in Miami’s defense against immobile quarterbacks, particularly if they are not proficient at reading complex defenses. For example, rookie quarterbacks likely will struggle with the Dolphins’ scheme (as Justin Herbert did in 2020).

Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways

  • Many analysts will tout Tua Tagovailoa as the next emergent fantasy quarterback. While players can improve over an offseason, I wouldn’t count on it. Spend your late round capital on higher upside players and target safer late-round quarterbacks.
  • Unless you believe the coaches will revamp the offense, this is a low-upside offense to invest in. Do not overpay for Miami skill players. However, Mike Gesicki is an extremely talented tight end who should be a staple of this offense and has elite tight end potential.
  • Consider prop bets on big plays against Miami if they do not improve their defense against 2nd- and 3rd-option wide receivers. Overs on receiving yards for these secondary players make good bets.

Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year

I actually performed poorly betting on Miami in 2020. One bet in particular has stuck with me. I read the game correctly for the most part and believe I had the right side. But I missed a key element and ended up losing the bet. In Week 14 against Kansas City, I saw a mismatch. Mahomes is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league and consistently beats blitzing teams. He’s also fairly mobile. On the other side, I did not think Tua had a chance to keep up offensively. I took KC -7 for 4 Units. I was correct on the matchups. The Chiefs moved the ball at will on the Dolphins but had several uncharacteristic turnovers on drives that looked like sure touchdowns. Despite four turnovers, the Chiefs had a 30-10 lead in the 4th quarter. But with no real pressure the Chiefs’ defense softened and Tua took advantage by driving slowly but steadily up the field for two easy touchdowns. When the game got back within 7 at 30-24, the Chiefs easily marched down the field for the game-sealing field goal at 33-24 with one minute left. Of course, the Dolphins used this minute to drive up the field for a meaningless field goal with 16 seconds left to make the final score 33-27. I lost the bet because I failed to account for Tua’s backdoor ability. Lesson learned.

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