The only way the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins will face each other again after San Francisco’s 33-17 Week 13 win over Miami is if the two teams play in Super Bowl LVII. Which is not outside the realm of possibility.
If that happens, the 49ers’ defense, and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, will have some work to do. Sounds nuts to say after a game in which Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completed 18 of 33 passes for 295 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 79.7 (his second-worst game of the season by passer rating behind his 52.7 game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 4), but the stuff Tagovailoa left on the bone with hurried and errant throws should be serious cause for concern should these teams meet again.
This is not a slight to Ryans or his defense; they rank second in DVOA behind the Dallas Cowboys, and justifiably so. But a tape review of the game shows that had Tagovailoa played at the same level he has most of the season, the Dolphins might well have lit that defense up. They did so on the first play of the game, a 75-yard touchdown pass to receiver Trent Sherfield. Dolphins head coach and longtime Kyle Shanahan assistant Mike McDaniel was in his bag here. He had running back Raheem Mostert and fullback Alec Ingold run scissors out of the backfield, which forced linebackers Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair to cheat up, and Tagovailoa hit the easy button to Sherfield behind Warner.
But if you take that play out, Tagovailoa’s day looks a lot worse — 17 of 32 for 220 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 60.0. And again, with all due respect to San Francisco’s defense, this was more about what Tagovailoa didn’t do with open shots than the 49ers closing him off.
“I would say my spot in the pocket,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday, when asked what went wrong. There were many points in the game that I wasn’t in the spot that I told the guys up front I would be in and so therefore, I kind of put myself in bad situations. So doing that and then there were also some plays that were missed that I wish I could get back.
“I can’t be playing wishful football.”
This was not the Tagovailoa game anybody wished for, outside of the 49ers, who benefited greatly from missteps we really haven’t seen from Miami’s quarterback this season. As long as Tagovailoa is able to recover against the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday and beyond, we can call it a “Burn the Tape” game and move along.
More importantly, this game showed how the Dolphins are capable of turning any defense out with their passing game — even a truly great defense — and it augurs well for the Dolphins’ chances down the stretch.
Reacting to pressure that isn't actually there.
(Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports)
It should also be mentioned that the Dolphins rank second in offensive DVOA, and Tagovailoa ranks second in DYAR and first in DVOA among quarterbacks even after Sunday’s debacle. The Sherfield touchdown showed one way the Dolphins set their quarterback up for success — pre-snap motion and post-snap backfield action to disrupt a defense, and set up ideal one-on-one matchups. These are also hallmarks of Shanahsn’s offense, so you know the 49ers were expecting it.
Which doesn’t mean that they were able to corral it. This was more about what Tagovailoa didn’t do when he could and should have. Another reason for Tagovailoa’s success is that Miami’s offensive line has played very well of late. Against the 49ers’ ferocious pass rush, Tagovailoa was pressured on just 10 of his 36 dropbacks. When pressured, he completed three of seven passes for 38 yards, no touchdowns, one of his two interceptions, and a passer rating of 20.8.
That wasn’t the problem in this game. The problem in this game was how often Tagovailoa seemed to react to pressure that wasn’t there. I haven’t seen Tagovailoa anticipate pressure, drop his eyes when he shouldn’t, and throw before he should this often since his rookie season of 2020.
This throwaway in the general vicinity of receiver Jaylen Waddle with 4:12 left in the first quarter was especially frustrating. Tyreek Hill went in motion from left to right, and when you give Tyreek Hill a head start behind the line of scrimmage, the guy covering Hill is already starting to worry. The guy covering Hill in this case was cornerback Charvarius Ward, who had absolutely no shot to catch up to Hill. Tagovailoa sensed pressure from Nick Bosa, and yes, that’s always a scary thought, but I would have liked to see him re-set and find his best deep receiver for another shot play.
In Weeks 1-12, when under actual pressure, Tagovailoa completed 33 of 59 passes for 455 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 103.4, which is excellent. The difference against the 49ers was the pressure Tagovailoa perceived that wasn’t there yet.
Throwing his receivers closed.
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
This was another huge issue for Tagovailoa against the 49ers — McDaniel schemed stuff that was designed to be open, his receivers executed those concepts correctly, the 49ers fell for the banana in the tailpipe, and Tagovailoa was not on time with his throws. Highly unusual for a guy who has shown the ability to throw well with anticipation going back to his days at Alabama, but this is what we’re left with in this particular game.
On this incompletion to Sherfield with 9:47 left in the first quarter, the Dolphins were in a 3×1 set with the strength to the right, and Tyreek Hill’s vertical seam route was designed to clear out the coverage. But Warner did a great job of staying disciplined, dropping to hook/curl coverage, and muddying the throw to Sherfield on the in-cut. Tagovailoa had two choices here: Throw earlier to Sherfield to hit the small seam in Cover-6, or extend his time in or out of the pocket to throw to Hill on what probably would have been a touchdown.
Instead, Tagovailoa threw late to Sherfield, and Warner was all over the deflection.
Missing wide-open shots.
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
There were other times against the 49ers where Tagovailoa had schemed-open shots and a relatively clean pocket, and just sailed balls as he usually has not this season. With 8:34 left in the first half, the Dolphins called a front-side flood out of 20 personnel (two running backs, no tight ends, three receivers), and the motion to the backfield by Ingold really set this up. Tagovailoa had Ingold on the flat route, running back Jeff Wilson Jr. on the vertical wheel route, and Jaylen Waddle on the skinny post — all to the back side. Tagovailoa had the start of pressure from tackle Hassan Ridgeway when he let go of the ball, but he could have waited a tick and had Waddle open downfield.
This is the only interception Tagovailoa has thrown outside the pocket this season — in Weeks 1-12, he completed 25 of 37 passes outside the pocket for 236 yards, 141 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, and a league-best passer rating of 121.0.
So, again, we’re dealing with a lot of outlier stuff here.
All is not lost, except what might have been.
(Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
On Wednesday, Tyreek Hill was asked how he was responding to Tagovailoa’s unusually bad game.
“I pretty much can’t say too much. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to play with one of the best quarterbacks in this league. We all have bad games. We’re all human. We all go through certain stuff. My message to him is just come out refocused and a lot of people forget about what you did last game when you go out here and throw for six touchdowns or something crazy, and it all be forgotten. I’ve dropped a crazy amount of passes in my career, but my whole focus and the way that my parents raised me is you can’t be great and dwell on the past or whatever. You got to be able to move on. Tua has been great about that. He’s definitely a hard worker.”
There’s no reason to believe, based on Tagovailoa’s entire season, that this was more than a weird event against a great (but as it turned out, entirely vulnerable) defense.
The good news for the Dolphins is that this might have been McDaniel’s best game as a passing game designer. He took what might be the NFL’s best defense from an assignment perspective, and put it on a string with his own schematic and spacing brilliance, and the specific talents of his players.
As great as that 49ers defense is, even an average performance by Tagovailoa (who has played like an MVP candidate through a lot of this season), would have resulted in a very different story.
McDaniel accentuated the positive on Wednesday, which makes sense.
“I think this is such a cool opportunity for each and every player that this is part of the NFL experience, is you can have some hot streaks where you’re doing well more often than not, and then you can have a game that there’s a lot more plays that you’d like to have back. From a football perspective, that’s not – everything that went wrong wasn’t a direct result of the quarterback. It never is exactly like that.
“However, we all know that he wants to play as well as he can and he thinks that he could have done better in that game. So that is life in the NFL and whether you have seven Super Bowl rings or you haven’t been to a playoff game yet or you’re a rookie, you’re a 10-year vet, you’re a five-year vet; you will always – player, coach, anybody involved – be going through that experience, so that it is not something that, hey, it doesn’t happen to the best ones ever to do it. Every person has to go through that and so your objective is to get better from it, and that’s the that’s the world we live in.”
The world the Dolphins live in now is a world in which they can demolish any defense as long as everyone is in point. Maybe this bump in the road happened at the perfect time, and it will be the catalyst for this team to round back into shape, and beat the daylights out of every opponent — at least, on the offensive side of the ball.
Maybe it leads them to a Super Bowl rematch with the 49ers. Wouldn’t that be fun?