You never know what you’ll get from a Bill Belichick–coached defense, so Mike McDaniel wasn’t surprised when the New England Patriots started Sunday Night Football off with a new look.
“By and large, most teams—specifically [teams] coached by Coach Belichick—if you’ve put on tape that you can win a certain way, they’ll try to force you to win another way,” McDaniel said the day after the Miami Dolphins’ 24-17 win in New England. “So I don’t go into the game assuming. We go into the game kind of prepared—if they are overplaying something, we have to have answers. … You can assume that with all the unbelievable football that he’s produced, that Coach Belichick and his staff would come up with something that we hadn’t seen, and we’d have to be able to adjust.”
That “something” was a three-high safety structure designed to take away Miami’s explosive passing attack—or at least slow it down a little.
Dolphins receiver Braxton Berrios said after the game that he’d never seen anything like it, which tells me he doesn’t watch much college football: Iowa State first popularized the concept in 2017 as it punched above its weight against Big 12 defenses. And it tells me that he hadn’t seen Thursday Night Football a few days before, as former Belichick assistant and current Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores used the same structure against the Eagles.
One might assume that the main goal of the three-high structure is to limit the deep passing game—and it certainly helps do that—but its popularity at the college level is mostly based on its effectiveness against the dreaded run-pass option. Every NFL team uses RPOs, but only a handful base their offense around them, and the number of teams that have their receivers run downfield routes off RPOs—rather than perimeter screen passes—is even smaller. The Dolphins and Eagles are in that select group, which is why Belichick and Flores both landed on this particular strategy for these games. But while the tactic was largely effective for Minnesota, the Dolphins racked up nearly 400 yards and averaged over 6 yards per play against it.
This type of coverage might have been effective against the 2022 version of the Dolphins. That team had no real backup plans. The whole operation was built around having Tua Tagovailoa throw the ball downfield to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle—and quickly. If defenses could disrupt the timing of those routes or just play sound coverage on the back end, Miami wasn’t a hard team to beat. Its traditional run game wasn’t a threat. The defense wreaked some havoc but surrendered more big plays than it created. All in all, those Dolphins were built to win shoot-outs, not a championship.
Championship teams have more than one pitch. They all have spectacular fastballs, sure, but they also have good changeups and breaking balls they can turn to when an opponent is sitting on the heater. In their opening-week win over the Chargers, the Dolphins showed the league that they still have one of the best fastballs in the game—and that they may have added a few miles per hour to it over the offseason. But the second game required a different approach. McDaniel and Co. had to nibble at the corners and mix in some off-speed stuff to keep Belichick’s defense behind in the count.
It was a more mature approach to winning a football game, one that Miami would have struggled with a season ago. But this year feels different. From the more diverse offense to the more reliable defense to the coaching staff that has learned from last season’s collapse, the Dolphins are an all-around more complete team. And in an AFC that’s weaker than we all imagined before the season, that might be enough to make the Dolphins the top threat to Kansas City in the conference.
We’ve been here before. We had a similar discussion about the Dolphins this time last year—not about the team’s depth of options, but about its capacity to win a Super Bowl. Looking back, that discussion was probably based more on emotion than reason. The 2022 Dolphins were fun as hell, and it would have been cool to see them make a playoff run. But their contention hopes were snuffed out by a late-season losing streak that started against an über-talented 49ers defense.
It wasn’t a surprise that the Niners were able to hang with the Dolphins. After all, their defense finished first in DVOA last season. But when a banged-up Chargers defense, which finished in the bottom half of the league in most metrics, had even more success against Miami the following week, it became clear that the Dolphins had a ways to go before we could consider them viable title contenders.
The Chargers loss was especially shocking because it was the first time we’d seen McDaniel’s offense get outschemed. L.A. head coach Brandon Staley used his cornerbacks aggressively that game, jamming Miami’s receivers at the line of scrimmage and throwing off Tagovailoa’s timing. The Chargers played a mix of Cover 2 and man coverage—looks that are usually vulnerable to a downhill run game. But that wasn’t the Dolphins’ MO last season, so McDaniel tried to find other avenues to move the football. He called plays that should have worked against L.A.’s techniques:
On the next drive...Mike McDaniel got some outbreakers dialed up...and... pic.twitter.com/1HS1QEWbM2— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) December 12, 2022
But Tagovailoa wasn’t comfortable executing them, and Miami couldn’t find a rhythm.
Who knows how Miami’s season would’ve ended had Tagovailoa remained healthy for the playoffs, but the Chargers appeared to have discovered a blueprint for slowing down the Dolphins offense. And McDaniel and Co. knew that for things to go differently in 2023, some evolution would be required.
One thing that stood out from the 2022 Chargers game was Miami’s inability to run its money play. I’m not even sure how to describe this play. It’s hard to tell whether it’s an RPO or just a regular play-action concept designed to look like an RPO. Even McDaniel’s old boss in San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan, can’t tell you what to call it.
However you want to label the play, though, the Chargers had no problem shutting it down last year. And I mean completely shutting it down. Throughout the regular season, the Dolphins ran that same concept 28 times on first down and averaged 8.6 yards per play. Miami ran it three times against Los Angeles in the 2022 game and didn’t gain a single yard.
If you watched Sunday’s broadcast of the Dolphins-Patriots game, you probably heard NBC’s Cris Collinsworth obsessing over this play design and how it serves as the foundation for Miami’s offense. The Dolphins are still running it a lot this year, but to account for the way teams stuffed it in 2022, McDaniel has made some key tweaks. First and foremost, he’s come up with more ways to disguise it. Instead of having Hill motion from the back of the formation, he starts from the side. The concept stays the same; it just looks different to the defense right up until the snap.
The secret to the success of this concept is the pre-snap motion—especially when Hill is the person running it. Think about it: You have the fastest receiver in the NFL—maybe the fastest receiver ever—with a running start and a teammate nearby who’ll prevent opposing cornerbacks from getting their hands on him and slowing him down at the line of scrimmage. Thanks to Next Gen Stats’ player tracking data, we can quantify the benefits of this action for Miami’s speedy receivers. Let’s use a play from Week 1 as an example. Miami has Hill run a quick out motion right before the snap. When the ball is snapped, he’s already running nearly 8 mph:
By the time he crosses the line of scrimmage, he’s up to over 16 mph.
And by the time he’s 5 yards downfield, he’s revved it up to 18 mph.
That’s top speed for 90 percent of the NFL, and here’s Hill, hitting it after just a few paces. Chargers corner J.C. Jackson never stood a chance.
Tagovailoa is currently near the top of the leaderboard in both average time to throw and average depth of target, a rare combination for obvious reasons: It takes time for a receiver to run downfield, so the quarterback usually has to hold on to the ball a little longer. Thanks to this little tactic, though, and the speed of Miami’s receiving corps, Tagovailoa can throw downfield just seconds after the ball is snapped. That’s how Miami maintains a deep passing game while mostly keeping the quarterback clean. The pass rush just doesn’t have enough time to get home.
You can see why Belichick felt the need to deploy a defense on Sunday that we had never seen his Patriots use. He was trying to goad Tagovailoa into a dink-and-dunk approach, and the coach left plenty of enticing space underneath to do so. Rather than succumbing to that like they might have a year ago, though, the Dolphins attacked that weakness on their first offensive play, sending Raheem Mostert out on a perimeter run that set the tone for the rest of the evening. Using a mix of those perimeter runs and short passes underneath the Patriots’ conservative coverage, Miami put up 17 first-half points and eventually forced New England out of the three-safety looks. Belichick didn’t want to suffer death by a million paper cuts, so he changed things up for the second half. New England defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. explained the adjustments after the game.
“They were a pretty fast team,” Wise said. “[They] wanted to hit our edges a lot. And we wanted to set the edge—stop them from running the edge—so we kind of wide nined our guys a little bit to make sure we had more force on the edge.”
Those are the kinds of adjustments the Dolphins couldn’t force defenses to make last year. They didn’t have the patience in the passing game, they didn’t have a run game capable of punching tough defenses in the mouth, and they didn’t have a sound defense that could finish off close games with stops. Last season, the Dolphins played their game and just hoped for the best. That was enough to carry the team over the first half of the season. But that’s not sustainable in the NFL, as McDaniel explained on Monday.
“There’s teams that continue to get better. And there’s teams that stay the same or get worse,” McDaniel said. “And at the end of the season, you want to be part of the former, not the latter. And just by staying the same or not improving, [it’s] a death sentence, really, over the long haul of the season.”
It’s a death the Dolphins are trying to avoid for the second consecutive year. And it’s one that’s taken down many upstart contenders in their first seasons in a new system. We saw that with the first Patrick Mahomes–led Chiefs team in 2018 and with the Bills in 2019. These teams burst onto the scene with an established identity, opponents countered, and then said teams adapted and came out on the other side as more complete versions of themselves. The Dolphins are aiming for a similar metamorphosis, which would help them avoid a decline like last year.
“You’re trying to have each phase not be completely dependent on each other while depending on each other, if that makes sense,” McDaniel said on Monday. “Listen, we have some residual scars from last season that … kind of make last season purposeful. It was the first time that a lot of guys had felt some sort of positive hype. … The league humbled them and us. I think that’s very still alive and awake in our mind.”
There have been only two games, but this year’s team looks more prepared to take on whatever challenges will pop up over the next few months—whether it’s an injury to a key player or a particular defensive tactic that throws off the offense’s rhythm. And new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has crafted a more dependable unit that has cut its opponents’ explosive play rate nearly in half, per TruMedia.
Fangio has dialed back a lot of the blitzing last year’s defense did under Josh Boyer—much of which featured needlessly complicated designs meant to confuse opposing quarterbacks. But even the NFL’s worst passers had little trouble carving them up.
Through two games, this group is still getting mediocre results: The Dolphins rank around the middle of the pack in almost every efficiency metric, including DVOA and expected points added. But they’ve been better at making opposing offenses earn their points by going on long drives. With a quick-strike offense on the other side of the ball, that might be enough to get Miami where it wants to go this season.
It’s still too early to say whether the Dolphins can keep this up all year. And Tagovailoa’s recent history of head injuries is a dark cloud that will hang over the team all season. This offense doesn’t work without him under center. But even at this stage, we’ve already seen an awful lot of positives for the team. Tagovailoa looks more comfortable playing under pressure, and he’s been a more willing playmaker when the defense takes away his first option. Hill and Waddle are blocking their asses off in the run game—something we’ve rarely seen either player do. And the defensive line has consistently collapsed the pocket—Miami ranks sixth in “quick” pressure rate, per Pro Football Focus—which has made Fangio’s zone coverages more effective. This is a deep, talented roster with a coaching staff that knows how to get the most out of it.
The postseason is still a long, long way off. Fifteen games, to be exact. But so far, out of the possible AFC contenders, the Dolphins look like Kansas City’s most formidable threat. The Bills remain frustratingly inconsistent. The Bengals’ hopes are tied to Joe Burrow’s injured calf, which isn’t getting any better. The Ravens are 2-0 but have already been hit with their annual onslaught of injuries. The Jaguars currently have the 30th-ranked passing game by EPA. And the Chargers are, well, Chargers-ing.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, don’t have any major concerns at the moment, and as McDaniel points out, they also have plenty of room to grow. Over the course of a grueling 17-game slate, challenges are bound to pop up. But these Dolphins have never been in a better position to adapt—and, perhaps more importantly, force other teams to adapt to them.