Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has experience playing behind an offensive line that’s given him time to throw, and he also has ample professional experience not having time in the pocket.
The third-year quarterback, after having the NFL’s worst pass protection last season, may have been growing used to having that lengthier internal clock to find a receiver this year before left tackle Terron Armstead went down with a pectoral strain in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans.
Tagovailoa, in the best stretch of his career over the Dolphins’ five-game winning streak, had only been sacked two times between four wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns. In the latter three, he combined to throw nine touchdowns to zero interceptions.
With a 27-0 lead in hand late in the first half when the Miami offensive line had to make do without Armstead, suddenly it was a parade of pressure Tagovailoa faced from the Texans.
He was hit once for a sack that was negated by a facemask penalty. He was officially sacked another time before the first half’s conclusion. The left-handed quarterback then came out for the start of the second half and was sacked three more times in two possessions before the Dolphins opted to sit him with a commanding 30-6 lead.
It was a stark contrast in pass protection once Armstead made his early exit and Brandon Shell, a right tackle much of his career, had to sub in on the left side.
But, along with coach Mike McDaniel for his play-calling, Tagovailoa also shouldered a portion of the blame postgame for the run of Houston sacks that occurred.
With a San Francisco 49ers pass rush, one that’s far more potent than the Texans’, about to face off against the Dolphins’ banged-up offensive line, Tagovailoa reflected on what he wanted to do better to face that pressure.
“Picking plays that were more sustainable to our offense’s success in that game than just thinking, ‘All right, we need to make a play, and we need a play to happen now,’ ” he explained Wednesday.
“We weren’t necessarily running the ball, so our [play]-action game wasn’t necessarily perfect when we did do it. It made it tougher on guys to sustain blocks. It made it tougher on guys to seal blocks and get on blocks and stay on guys. I would say, just going with the open-mindedness of things like that.”
McDaniel left the possibility open of Armstead making a speedy recovery, but it seems like an uphill battle to be ready in time for Sunday. Right tackle Austin Jackson, in his first start since Week 1, re-injured his right ankle against Houston. McDaniel said he would be “surprised” if Jackson could return in San Francisco.
A Jackson absence means the Dolphins could turn to the veteran Shell at right tackle, where he was solid previously filling in for Jackson. Armstead’s absence, though, then puts Miami in a position where it might need Greg Little at left tackle to block 49ers star pass rusher Nick Bosa and his 11 1/2 sacks.
If Tagovailoa has little time to throw, it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before. In 2021, Tagovailoa had an average of 2.1 seconds of pocket time, according to Pro Football Reference, which was tied for the lowest with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. He may need to reach back to that experience if San Francisco (7-4) is getting to him in a hurry Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Tagovailoa sat in on the offensive line’s Monday meeting this week, and he got to witness the voice that Armstead has with the unit.
“It was really cool to see him take charge in that room,” said Tagovailoa, adding he noticed Armstead taking ownership with his own play. “Nothing slips. No one gets a free pass, not even himself.
“It’s been really good having a veteran as himself help out with the guys up front. When Liam [Eichenberg] went down, how he kind of took Rob Jones under his wing and kind of help mentor him throughout the process of what it means to be a starting left guard and how you go about your business.”
Tagovailoa’s 9.0 yards per pass attempt leads the NFL. If the 49ers are effective in bringing pressure, he may have to look to get the ball quickly to wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and have them help with yards after catch.
“It’s hard when guys are playing so far back,” said Tagovailoa of the opportunities for YAC with the way opponents play Miami. “Defenses are getting a lot deeper than usual with linebacker depth and you also see the shell of the safeties. They’re getting really, really deep. So they do play, I would say, our team a little different in that regard, I would say, just because of the speed that we have.”