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Dolphins-49ers Is a Battle for the Most Important Part of a Football Field

No one is better at passing to the intermediate middle than Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins. No one is better at taking those passes away than Fred Warner and the 49ers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is an article about the most important square yardage on an NFL field: the intermediate middle.

Now, I hear the cries of the football traditionalists: The game is won and lost in the trenches. I understand! I agree! The trenches occupy some important square yardage. But if you’ll allow the nerds to submit a different candidate for the prized area of the field, we’ll take the intermediate middle. Why? Because targets to that area of the field—10 to 19 yards of depth, between the numbers—have been more valuable than targets to any other area of the field in the past six years.

As passing offenses have developed and improved, this area has become the focus of many. Downfield routes are low-percentage propositions—those passes are hard to complete, and safeties are playing deeper than ever to discourage deep shots. Short throws are likely to be completed, and can become explosive gains with runs after the catch—but only if the receiver can break a tackle. It’s tough to inch your way down the field with mistake-free football, drive after drive.

The intermediate middle is the Goldilocks Zone. Passes there still get downfield and beyond the sticks, but they also offer opportunities for yards after the catch. Hit a wideout on a deep cross in stride, and he’ll turn upfield and give you a little extra bang for your buck.

Because this area of the field is so valuable, it should come as no surprise that the league’s best passing offense is exploiting it relentlessly. Nobody has attempted more passes to the intermediate middle than Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It is not close. The difference between Tagovailoa and the second quarterback (Tom Brady) is the same as the difference between Brady and the 22nd quarterback.

It’s worth remembering that with the time Tua has missed this season, he’s 22nd in the league in total pass attempts. This is astronomical usage.

That Tagovailoa targets this area of the field more than any other quarterback should not come as much of a surprise. The intermediate middle was foundational to the offenses run by Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel during their time together in San Francisco. In the heat maps below, you can see the similarities in the target distributions between Tagovailoa and Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback he’ll face this upcoming Sunday.

To attack the intermediate middle at such a high volume, the Dolphins come at it in a couple of different ways. First, they’ll get there with the quick game. By using spread formations with Tua in the gun, they can open up throwing windows between zone coverage defenders. With a great understanding of coverage and a release as quick as a hiccup, Tua can zip throws between zone defenders before they can react to and close down routes.

Here’s a great example. Tua reads the middle linebacker dropping toward the three-receiver side and immediately whips to the back side. The weakside linebacker is in a high-low bind, with a short route developing in front of him, and an intermediate route breaking behind him. Tua puts the ball into space with anticipation, and Jaylen Waddle makes the easy catch.

This play is an example of a horizontal stretch; the other way the Dolphins will attack the intermediate middle of the field is with a vertical stretch. Using the speed of Tyreek Hill and Waddle on vertical routes, McDaniel will push the safeties way, way, waaaay downfield—only to have Hill or Waddle suddenly snap off their route and turn back to the quarterback. Pair this vertical push on the safeties with a play-action fake to pull the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, and there are acres of green grass into which Tua can throw the football.

Here’s one of their favorite play designs. The Dolphins pair an under-center play-action fake with jet motion from one of their speedy receivers. That jet motion creates a stack release—two receivers, one with a ton of momentum already at the snap, both coming at the defense vertically. From this release, they can run a whole gamut of intermediate-breaking routes: digs, deep comebacks, corner routes, etc. Rarely do they ask Tua to throw the ball on a true “go” route—but instead, they break those routes off, so Tua can throw to space.

There are even more examples of creative ways McDaniel has generated and then exploited space in the middle of the field. But let’s keep the long story short and simply say: The Dolphins attack the middle more often and more successfully than any other team. It is the entire focus of Tua’s passing offense, and to this point of the season, nobody has really taken it away from him.

This week, the Dolphins play the San Francisco 49ers. The starting middle linebacker for the 49ers defense is Fred Warner. Because he is a middle linebacker, he does not get the same attention and adulation that a quarterback as prolific as Tua does, let alone what a star pass rusher or star cornerback gets. But Warner is the most influential and important defender on the entire 49ers defense—and it’s because of how well he takes away the intermediate middle.

Consider another heat map in comparison to Tua’s target distribution. Here are the areas of the field to which quarterbacks have attempted passes when facing the 49ers defense since San Francisco drafted Warner in 2018:

Warner dominates the intermediate middle, as the 49ers have allowed fewer completions there in the past five seasons (71) than any other team. In this season alone, only four teams see a lower percentage of their opponent’s passes thrown to the intermediate middle than the 49ers do.

This phenomenon of the 49ers defense is almost entirely attributable to Warner. San Francisco plays zone coverage at the sixth-highest rate among defenses, leaving Warner always somewhere in the defense’s middle. In particular, the 49ers play a high rate of Cover 3 and quarters—two coverages that NFL offenses have seen for a long time and beaten for a long time. But because Warner is such a smart and athletic player, the 49ers defense is much tougher to beat.

Consider this play against the Broncos earlier this season. The concept should look mighty familiar: jet motion to a stack release, under-center play-action, vertical routes breaking off in the intermediate levels of the field. This is the exact same concept that the Dolphins run heavily to attack the middle. But the 49ers are in quarters—one of their favorite coverages—and they have a secret weapon: Warner.

Watch Warner identify the play-action, open his hips to the exact area of the field that Courtland Sutton will eventually break, and begin to gain depth, all while keeping his eyes on the running back releasing from the backfield. Warner challenges Russell Wilson to make a perfect, well-timed throw to Sutton—over his drop, but before the corner can close on the route—while also showing Wilson that he’s ready to close on the running back should Russ check it down. He hesitates, and that hesitation allows the 49ers pass rush to get home.

Of course, Russ is slower from the pocket than Tua; with this amount of space, Tua can make the throw. But here’s another example: same concept, but with a shorter route from the receiver. Watch how quickly Warner sinks under this route and closes the window.

Another: This time, not a deep curl route, but a deep dig route, as Warner sits and waits for the breaking route to come to him, filling the throwing window and letting the underneath route slide harmlessly away to another zone defender.

And even in the quick game, when the routes don’t take as long to develop and the quarterback throws with tempo, Warner doesn’t take the eye candy of underneath routes and instead closes the window on intermediate concepts, forcing the ball to go to another side of the field or get dumped harmlessly to a checkdown option.

Warner is this successful because he knows what you’re doing. He hacked the headset and heard your play call—that’s one of those jokes that I kinda believe is true. Warner’s route recognition—his ability to feel common route concepts, avoid being manipulated by them, and get into a position to shut down the read—is second to none. There isn’t a deep safety, or a zone cornerback, or a slot who does it better. It’s Warner, and then the field.

And because Warner happens to police the intermediate middle of the field, that makes him the most important player that the Mike McDaniel Dolphins have ever faced. He is the final boss, offered on Week 13 instead of Super Bowl week. If the Dolphins can throw to the middle against Warner with the same success they’ve enjoyed against the rest of the league, they can do it against anyone. And if Warner can take the middle of the field away? Then the Dolphins passing game may finally be stressed. Instead of weekly 30-point outings that make an NFL Sunday look like an afternoon session of Madden, the Dolphins offense may actually produce a stinker.

Whenever two top teams play, everyone wants it to mean something for the future. But this is not a blueprint game. “Is this the blueprint to beating the explosive Dolphins offense?” pundits will ask if the Dolphins falter. The answer: absolutely not. Employing Fred Warner is not a blueprint—it is a privilege. “Is this the blueprint to beating the vaunted 49ers defense?” pundits will ask if the Dolphins soar. The answer remains the same. Employing Mike McDaniel is not a blueprint—it is a cheat code.

Instead, this is a clash of titans. This is a turf war, and the contested land is the most valuable yardage on a football field. This is hordes of Orcs outside of Helm’s Deep, scores of Persians against 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, an invading force against a mighty defender. This is the coolest schematic battle we’re going to see all season, and I have no idea who’s going to win it. I just can’t wait to watch it and find out.