The talk of the NFL as we enter week 11 are the surging Miami Dolphins. Winners of 6 of their last 7 games, the Dolphins have entered the playoff race and are a team that has given other playoff contenders trouble. Their aggressive defense, which has been developing since Brian Flores took over as head coach, has been playing at a high level during their 5 game win streak. Flores also made the choice to start rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa over incumbent starter Ryan Fitzpatrick which was a questionable decision, but one was made with the future in mind. The Dolphins are definitely progressing quickly through their rebuilding process, but do not need to tank this year like they did last year due to the fact they have the Texans’ first round pick which will likely be in the top 10. Currently the 6 seed in the AFC, the process has been long but rewarding for Miami:
This offseason for the Dolphins was a very busy one. They entered free agency with $94 million in cap space which allowed them to be aggressive in negotiations with big ticket free agents. The Dolphins mainly focused on their defense. GM Chris Grier and Flores attempted to sign players that fit well in Flores’s man-to-man scheme. As a result, the Dolphins signed players like CB Byron Jones (5 years $82.5 million), OLB Kyle Van Noy (4 years $51 million), and extended CB Eric Rowe. They also made it a point of emphasis to improve their defensive line by getting Emmanuel Ogbah (2 year $15 million) and Shaq Lawson (3 year $30 million). Offensively, they added Ted Karras (1 year $3 million) and Ereck Flowers (3 year $30 million) to improve the league’s worst offensive line in 2019. They also had 11 picks in the draft including 3 first rounders and 2 second rounders. Tua was the prime jewel of their draft and someone they hope will be their franchise QB for the next decade or so.
This offense was good with Fitzpatrick, but hasn’t been on the same level after Tua got named the starter in week 8.
Through week 7, the Dolphins had the 11th best offense in terms of offensive EPA/play. With Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins had the 9th best EPA/dropback at 0.212 and the 18th best EPA/rush at -0.067. However, ever since Tua took over as QB, these numbers have fallen.
From weeks 8 to 10, the Dolphins have fallen from the 11th best offensive EPA/play to the 29th best offensive EPA/play. Additionally, their rushing attack has faltered, and over this 3 week span, they have had the worst EPA/rush in the league at -0.392. Tua’s EPA + CPOE composite score from weeks 8-10 is 0.075, but Fitzpatrick’s was 0.160 in comparison. Tua’s stats so far haven’t been pretty. It is a small sample size and Tua can definitely improve on those numbers as the season goes on. However, there have been some moments where he looks like a rookie and this will hinder the Dolphins this year. He should’ve had a couple picks vs the Chargers this past week. One went straight through Kenneth Murray’s hands and Denzel Perryman dropped an easy one. Against the Rams in week 8, Tua had a -0.45 EPA/play. In comparison to his Tua, his fellow rookie QB’s first starts ended with Justin Herbert having a 0.13 EPA/play and Joe Burrow having a -0.20 EPA/Play. Overall, this offense is still a work in progress, and they need to get healthy again for the Dolphins to have any chance of making the playoffs. Losing Preston Williams was huge because he was a 6’5 target for Tua to look for in the red zone. In weeks 8-9, the Dolphins had 5 red zone trips with Williams healthy and scored TD’s on all of them. They only converted 3 of their 5 trips to the red zone into TD’s this past week and 1 of these red zone drives ended in a turnover as well. The offensive line still isn’t very good as Ereck Flowers is the highest graded offensive lineman on the team with a measly 65.2 PFF grade. The two rookie OT’s in Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt have grades of 57.3 and 52.4 by PFF respectively so there is definitely room for improvement.
This Dolphins defense is what the team is built around. Flores tried using his aggressive defensive scheme last year, but it was a crapshoot. He simply did not have the personnel or talent to execute his scheme. Star CB Xavien Howard missed 11 games last year, and they had no talent in their LB or DL room to generate pressure:
In 2019, the Dolphins had the worst defense in terms of EPA/play allowed. However, with a couple key free agent signings, and having the right players to use in this scheme, the Dolphins have turned it around in 2020:
They have jumped up from 32nd in EPA/play allowed to 7th this year. Their EPA/dropback allowed is 3rd in the league as of week 11. The Dolphins are also one of the most blitz heavy teams in the league. Before week 10, the Dolphins ran cover 0 8.6% of the time which is 2nd in the league and blitzed at a 36.2% rate which is good for 5th in the league. On top of that, they also run cover 3 31% of the time. Flores has done a tremendous job in mixing up his coverages and knowing when to blitz and when to play zone.
There’s a terrific article by Ted Ngyuen from The Athletic which talked about how the Dolphins have been disguising their coverages using a variety of formations including showing the offense 8 defenders in the box, as well as an amoeba look. An amoeba look can pretty much be summarized as when 0 defenders have their hand on the ground before the snap, and there is a lot of movement along the defensive line. Ultimately, the goal of this is to cause confusion between the offensive line and the QB. The Dolphins want opposing teams to think that they may be blitzing while in reality they are playing cover 3 and only rushing 4.Keenan Allen said the Chargers were “pretty confused” when playing the Dolphins defense.The confusion has worked for the Dolphins as they lead the league in having 15 straight weeks with a takeaway dating back to last year. It might’ve been ugly in 2019, but Flores’s scheme is finally showing results.
Another area of triumph for the Dolphins is special teams. Through week 11, the Dolphins have the #1 special teams DVOA per Football Outsiders. They have been on point throughout the whole season and is another reason why they are sitting at 6-3 this year. They are second in the league in punt return yard average at 14.7, and they are one of two teams to have a punt return touchdown. They also have an average starting position of their own 33 yard line which is second best in the league. This should be attributed to having a great special teams as well as a stellar defense which helps to put their offense in position to succeed. Kicker Jason Sanders is 20/21 this year as well as 5/5 from 50+ yards and 23/23 on extra points. All in all, a tremendous job of the Dolphins making sure that they are sound on Special Teams, and it shows in their record.
This Dolphins team has done a great job rebounding from last year’s 5-11 performance and already beating their win total from last year in only 10 weeks. They are still in year 2 of their rebuild, but Dolphins fans and their front office have to be pleased with where they are at. They have their franchise QB, 10 draft picks in the upcoming draft, with 4 of those being in rounds 1 and 2. And most importantly: a coach with a killer instinct and who believes in his team and his scheme. The team under Chris Grier also has a very healthy cap situation as they should have around $28 million in cap space per OvertheCap. Miami is ascending, and with the AFC east up for grabs with the Patriots faltering, the Dolphins could be the team that takes over the division if things fall their way eventually. Ultimately though, this inexperienced offense with a ton of young pieces will make it difficult for them to contend for a Super Bowl, let alone make the playoffs this year. However, with a defense that has most of its stars locked in for 2021 and beyond, the Dolphins could find themselves in the Super Bowl hunt in years to come.