Miami Dolphins 2021 Team Study

Part 4 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 3 here: New York Jets. Part 5 now available: Dallas Cowboys.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (teal and orange) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

It’s exceedingly difficult for an NFL offense to win with a poor offensive line. The Dolphins had arguably the worst offensive line in 2021, giving them little chance to succeed. The eye test and statistical metrics tell the same story here. I saw Tua harassed on dropbacks, forcing the Dolphins to employ a quick-hitting low-depth passing attack to have any chance to succeed. They finished with the 2nd-lowest average time in the pocket and still allowed the 17th-highest pressure rate.

Teams can succeed by employing a low-depth passing attack, but only if those passes lead to yards after the catch. This can result from effective scheme (like the 49ers) or a quarterback and weapons that can burn you deep on any play (like the Chiefs). The Dolphins had the 3rd-lowest yards after the catch per completion. This obviously meant they lacked explosive plays, as they didn’t throw deep or rip off big gains after the catch. They also didn’t run the ball effectively, thanks to their 3rd-worst yards per carry before contact. This once again illustrates weakness on the offensive line. 

Tua has failed to consistently threaten deep during his time in the NFL. Obviously his offensive line has not helped him out, but last year Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to take deep shots (and have some success) in the same offense. Maybe the coaching staff has wanted to protect him, or maybe he doesn’t like taking risks. When he has thrown deep, he has been inconsistent. This allows defenses to play tighter on receivers, which explains their lack of yards after the catch.

At his best, Tua is an extremely accurate quarterback who can put the ball in spots where only his receivers can make a play. I think he would do fairly well in an offense designed to his strengths, with good protection and a sound running game to lean on. But he doesn’t read and manipulate defenses or generate opportunities with elusiveness and mobility. He’s basically Kyler Murray in the pocket without Murray’s game-breaking scrambling ability. This puts him squarely in the tier of quarterbacks with Mayfield, Goff, Dalton, and others, whose performance varies greatly with their circumstances. Tua’s circumstances have not been great thus far.

Interestingly, the Dolphins did not step up their game against teams that did not exert pressure. Chart A shows Miami’s offensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each opponent ranked by its pressure rate on the season in games that Tua played. Outside of a fairly good performance against Atlanta, the Dolphins actually played their worst offensive football (adjusted for opponent) against low-pressure teams.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pressure rate on defense.
*Only games with Tua at QB included.

The Dolphins played at or above their average against most of the high-pressure teams they faced, including the Panthers, Patriots, and Saints. But they couldn’t take advantage of the low-pressure defenses of the Giants and Jets. Despite winning both games, more drives ended in punts and turnovers than points. The defense did its job. This likely indicates that their offensive scheme was a permanent identity rather than a reaction to pressure-heavy teams. Time will tell what direction the new coaching staff takes, but the options are limited without significant improvements to the offensive line.

But to give credit where credit is due: Jaylen Waddle popped as a rookie, making plays all over the field. Mike Gesicki continues to make contested catches look easy and even Davante Parker has shown flashes during his career. With a year under his belt, I expect Waddle to become a matchup nightmare if the Dolphins can find a way to use him. He will be a crucial element of any offensive improvement.

It’s tempting to look at the Dolphins’ late season surge (winning 8 of their last 9 games) and have optimism about the future. But this optimism would not be grounded in their offensive performance over that stretch. Six of those wins game against the Texans, Jets (twice), Giants, Panthers, and a Saints team with so many injuries and Covid absences that they started Ian Book at quarterback. We know how that went. My Ratings showed no real offensive improvement down the stretch when adjusted for opponent. Optimism for this offense must be tempered, and grounded in material improvements to the offensive line over the offseason.  


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (teal and orange) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The Dolphins once again brought the heat on quarterbacks in 2021 without an elite individual pass rusher by employing exotic blitzes from all over the field. They hit opposing quarterbacks more than any other NFL team on the 3rd-highest pressure rate, while blitzing at the 2nd-highest clip. This worked because Xavien Howard could play man defense on an opponent’s top weapon and perform at a high level. Blitzing without the coverage on the back end leads to disastrous results.

Instead, the Dolphins finished with the 7th-best defensive EPA/play and excelled in particular against #1 wide receivers. Howard once again played at a high level as the Dolphins finished with the 4th-best DVOA against alpha wideouts. This elevated the Dolphins’ overall defensive performance in games against teams that relied on a stud receiver for success. Chart B shows Miami’s defensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each of its opponents in order of each team’s passing yardage share that went to its #1 WR. You can see that the Dolphins played their best football against teams that leaned on a top option, like Carolina (D.J. Moore), Indianapolis (Pittman), Buffalo (Diggs), and Baltimore (Marquise Brown).

Chart B

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponents ranked by passing yardage share going to the WR1.
*Omitted games v. NO (Ian Book) and NYJ (Joe Flacco).

But a defense that relies on pressuring the quarterback for success tends to have a wider gap in performance based on the quality of the opposing quarterback. The best quarterbacks in the NFL find ways to offset pressure, whether it’s by diagnosing the blitzes and getting the ball out quickly (like Brady or Rodgers), or escaping the pressure and making plays out of the pocket (like Mahomes or Allen). On the other end of the spectrum, immobile quarterbacks who struggle under pressure tend to have even worse performances against a good blitz like Miami’s.

This explains why the Dolphins excelled in the latter half of the year as they rattled off 8 wins in their last 9 games. Unfortunately they didn’t actually improve as a defense. They benefitted disproportionately from a favorable schedule, including the Texans with Tyrod Taylor (who was worse than Davis Mills this season), the Jets with Flacco, the Panthers with Newton, the Giants with Glennon, and the Saints with Ian Book. That’s five of the worst NFL offenses who weren’t even playing with their top quarterback.

The easiest way to demonstrate this divergence in performance is to show how the Dolphins performed on defense relative to opponent strength, ranking each team by its passing EPA/play. Chart C demonstrates this, showing that they held the hopeless passing offenses employed by the Panthers, Giants, Texans, and Jets to below-average days even by their standards, but had their worst performance of the season against the Bucs.

Chart C

Chart C: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent passing EPA/play.
*Omitted games v. NO (Ian Book) and NYJ (Joe Flacco).

They also struggled against the run. Despite playing this cakewalk schedule, they finished only 21st in defensive rushing EPA/play. This benefitted them when they had the lead against these bad opponents, forcing them into obvious passing situations where blitzes are most effective. Teams that were able to build a lead against the Dolphins could lean into the ground game and win against a defensive line built for speed and not power.

With a new coaching staff time will tell whether the Dolphins maintain their distinctive defensive identity. Blitzing and playing man defense has become a staple of their style these past few years under Flores. Things might look very different moving forward. But regardless of scheme, Howard gives them a good start by anchoring one side of the field. Pending evaluation over the offseason, they should be deemed an average defense that plays better against the pass than the run.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Dolphins: With so much uncertainty and new coaches, it’s tough to predict how the Dolphins come out of the gate in 2022. But this offense has been held back by poor offensive line play, which can be fixed over time. I don’t think Tua is a bad quarterback; he has just had bad circumstances. This can create value if they do address the offensive line in a meaningful way and can give him looks on offense he previously has not had.

When to fade the Dolphins: With no protection for Tua (and/or Brissett) and a weakness on defense against the run, it’s been profitable fading the Dolphins in negative game scripts. But they could change their defensive philosophy and improve on the offense line, so I wouldn’t overplay this angle early in the season. There was value fading the Dolphins heading into 2021 but expectations have bottomed out so caution is warranted heading into 2022.

What to look for in the offseason: Goal number one for the Dolphins will be bolstering the offensive line. I don’t give them much of a chance if they don’t address this weakness. But on defense it will be interesting to see how they build and scheme in the wake of Flores’ departure. They have consistently run man defense and blitzed at a high rate, which leans into their talent structure with a high-end cornerback. It’s reasonable to anticipate defensive regression if they change things up dramatically.

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