The bottom feeders pushed. The second-stringers pressed. The lowest-rated defense the Dolphins will face to finish the year set up a roadblock at the middle intersection where Miami’s receivers love to find open space.
“Everyone has laid back and played soft in zones and gives them all this space because they’re scared of their speed,” Chargers defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko said late Sunday night after Los Angeles’ 23-17 win.
This was the secret sauce, they felt.
“We weren’t scared,” Fehoko said. “We played press man-to-man on their receivers. We didn’t give them any space for their speed to run. And up front, we didn’t blitz much, did we?”
“Hardly at all,” defensive lineman Morgan Fox said. “But we got plenty of pressure on (Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa).
“It was such a simple, smart plan,” Fehoko said.
Here’s the real question: Do such basic tactics explain how the Dolphins offense had the clunker of their season? Do they tell why Tagovailoa went from being Mr. Accurate in November to not shooting straight again in December?
“This is probably the furthest we’ve missed this season,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said.
No one expected big numbers every Sunday from this offense or Tagovailoa. But completing just 10 of 28 passes for 145 yards? Making just one substantial throw — a 60-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill to interrupt Tagovailoa’s 3-for-17 start and give some second-half hope?
That wasn’t the November Tua on display for a second straight week. That was 2021 Tua. That was maybe even the 2020 rookie model, considering these weren’t just season-low numbers for any game he finished. They also came against the 30th-ranked Chargers defense missing three more injured starters just from last week’s loss to Las Vegas.
“Everything,” Tagovailoa said when asked what went wrong. “From the communication to getting the details right with our guys and just being able to make plays. It was very disappointing for us to go out and do what we did. We work too hard to put up a performance like that.”
Gone were the open receivers of recent weeks. Gone were the easy passes. Gone, too, was the rhythmic beat that connected quarterback to receiver. Jaylen Waddle didn’t have a catch until the fourth quarter as he was shut down by Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel, Jr.
If one play represented this messy Sunday, it was Tua uncorking a long pass as Hill ran open for a rare moment in the second quarter. The receiver never saw the ball. And the ball arched far from Hill’s route. It bounced harmlessly on the turf in a way that explained Sunday. And couldn’t be explained at all.
McDaniel spread the ball around, just as it looked on the field.
“I thought overall, with the way we were playing for us to win the game, (Tagovailoa) probably had to do something great,” McDaniel said. “I thought at moments he did do some stuff. He competed and gave us a chance to win.”
That’s what you need some days from a franchise quarterback. The Chargers Justin Herbert delivered just that. Despite getting hit seven times and getting flushed from the pocket continuously, he completed a career-high 39 passes in 51 attempts for 369 yards and orchestrated several don’t-try-this-at-home plays.
Still, the Dolphins defense kept giving the offense a chance to win. The offense just couldn’t muster much of anything. Miami’s entire night was two Hill moments — the deep pass that was the only play the Chargers cornerback lost him and an earlier slapstick play where he recovered a fumble out of a rugby scrum and ran 56 random yards for a touchdown.
This is a three-game road test and the Dolphins have flunked the first two questions. In San Francisco, the Dolphins had receivers open all day against the top-rated defense and Tagovailoa was off. In Los Angeles, they were dominated by one of the league’s worst defenses and, maybe, just maybe, their novel scheme.
“Don’t let fast guys run down the field,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley explained it. “When you let fast guys run down the field — with as fast as they are — and you let them run through zones with no one around, it turns into a track meet. Guess what, you’re not as fast as they are. No one is.”
For weeks, the Dolphins offense couldn’t be stopped. Now it couldn’t be found. The question becomes if they can locate it on a short practice week before the coming cold of Buffalo on Saturday night.