How can the Dolphins offense build off 2022? ‘Finding that groove again’ and these fixes
In 2022, the Dolphins produced one of the most explosive and efficient offenses the franchise has had in years under head coach Mike McDaniel. And yet, after a late-season losing streak that also included the absence of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had a second stint in the NFL’s concussion protocol, there is room for improvement in 2023.
On Tuesday, before Miami’s first open OTA practice, McDaniel acknowledged the team had substantial growth in 2022 — Miami improved from 22nd to 11th in points scored and 29th to third in yards per play — but said it was a “critical offseason for me.”
“I didn’t look at our offense, and say, ‘Wow, we did all this stuff good.’ I saw all the stuff that we could improve upon,” he said.
After spending last offseason laying the foundation for a new offense, the Dolphins enter their second year under McDaniel with an identity. The core of a unit that averaged 23.4 points per game last season is still in place. Tagovailoa returned to the field for his first team drills since a Christmas Day concussion and will throw to top receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
But there are also new additions who could play major roles — and help evolve the offense — in 2023.
“Taking a step back [in the offseason], I think affords people a little more open-mindedness,” McDaniel said. “And all I’ve seen is an offense, I’ve seen a team that isn’t satisfied with where they’re at. They see 2023 is an opportunity to really move past where we were last year. And that’s the way they’ve approached it. From route running to how we block people, to everything in between; the consistency of our fundamentals and detail has been huge and we’ve had as a result, I mean, the growth that we made in Phase 1 and Phase 2, relative to last year, is astronomical.”
Asked on Tuesday in what ways the Dolphins’ offense could improve, McDaniel quickly mentioned the unit’s presnap penalties.
“We were the worst at that. So got a lot of ways to improve there,” he said.
The Dolphins’ 118 penalties in 2022 were tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the most in the NFL, and many consisted of presnap infractions. Miami had eight delay of game penalties, tied with six teams for second most in the league, according to nflpenalties.com. The Dolphins’ three illegal shift penalties were tied with the Cardinals for most in the league. They were also one of five teams to be penalized for illegal motion and twice flagged for illegal formation. And the team’s 22 false start infractions were tied for ninth.
The Dolphins’ struggles with the presnap operation were most problematic in their season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round. With then-rookie Skylar Thompson starting, Miami burned all three of its second-half timeouts with 4:13 remaining and couldn’t prevent a delay of game penalty before an unsuccessful fourth-down try on the final possession.
Throughout the season, McDaniel and the starting quarterbacks accepted the blame for alignment issues and not snapping the ball in a timely fashion. With a bevy of formations and a high rate of presnap motion, such issues can arise at times but it nonetheless needs to be cleaned up. A full year’s knowledge of the offense should, in theory, result in fewer presnap penalties.
McDaniel has publicly and privately spoken about how he wished he called more run plays last season. The Dolphins were tied for 18th in yards per attempt (4.3) but McDaniel has said he could have made a more consistent effort to prioritize running. Miami ranked 12th in pass attempts but 31st in run attempts, despite Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. both averaging at least 4.7 yards per attempt.
The Dolphins aren’t going to philosophically change who they are. And while McDaniel might want to run the ball more, he has made sure not to speak in absolutes on reaching a target number.
“You just try to have things work and not turn the ball over, and then the game progresses in whatever way it wants to progress after that,” McDaniel said last September.
But better balance is needed, especially as defenses focus efforts to contain Hill and Waddle. Just as important is efficiency and more so in high-leverage situations. The Dolphins ranked last in third-and-short situations with a 45 percent conversion rate and were even worse when attempting runs (44 percent).
Attacking all parts of the field
With the downfield threat of Hill and Waddle and defenses playing high rates of zone coverage, the Dolphins thrived in the intermediate part of the field, particularly between the numbers. According to Sports Info Solutions, Tagovailoa attempted 120 passes between 10 to 19 yards last season, which ranked ninth among quarterbacks with at least 135 total attempts. 78 percent of those intermediate attempts were in the middle of the field, which led the NFL.
It was mainly successful until the Dolphins’ five-game losing streak in the second half of the season and especially in losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers. With unique game plans, both teams made concerted efforts to prevent Hill and Waddle from getting open looks in the middle of the field. Miami should expect defenses to try to replicate those schemes in 2023 and one part of evolving the offense could be looking to lesser-targeted parts of the field.
If linebackers get more depth to shrink throwing windows, the short middle range of the field could be an effective counter. 170 of Tagovailoa’s attempts came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, according to SIS, and 55 percent of those short attempts were in the middle of the field, both of which ranked in the bottom half for qualified passers.
But as I also mentioned, there was a specific area that Miami didn't attack: the short middle of the field.
As we see in this heat map (credit to @PFF), Miami was below average in targeting the 0-10 yard MOF range, also having below average execution behind the LOS. pic.twitter.com/aTe3pOE0zF
— Tyler DeSena (@DeSenaSports) May 3, 2023
Two offseason additions could make that a trusted area for Tagovailoa. Wide receiver Braxton Berrios’ best season came in 2021 and although his 4.7-yard average depth of target ranked third-lowest in the NFL for receivers and tight ends, he averaged 5.2 yards after the catch, which ranked in the top quarter of the league.
And De’Von Achane, the fastest running back in the 2023 NFL Draft, could factor in as a receiver. During Tuesday’s practice, he caught multiple short passes in team drills.
“Stay tuned, man. He’s going to [be] one to watch,” Waddle said after practice.
If Tagovailoa can stay healthy, the Dolphins should have the makings of a top-10 unit again. But even then, Miami will have to address the problems that plagued the unit in 2022 and add wrinkles.
“I felt like we had gotten into a groove mid-season and then fell off from it later on,” Waddle said. “So really just finding that groove again, staying consistent throughout the whole year each and every week so just getting that groove and staying consistent with it.”