When people praise the Dolphins’ offensive system under Mike McDaniel, there’s a short answer to why. It’s that first game on Sunday against San Francisco. He highlights how well the strategy fits in with the staff.
For starters, it showed good thinking over the week and how coaches found ways to move their chess pieces after watching San Francisco’s top-rated defense. There were three main components:
A. Tyreek Hill is the player every defense fears for good reason and it’s obvious because he got in motion on this play and became the bright, shiny object for the 49ers to watch. Cornerback Chavarious Ward, who was pressuring slot receiver Trent Sherfield, left him in the blink of an eye to cover Hill. Equally important, safety Talanoa Hufanga immediately moved to Hill and Sherfield had open ground ahead of him – all thanks to Hill.
B. At the same time, there were sleights of hand going on in the backfield. Running backs Raheem Mostert and Alec Ingold crossed in front of Tua Tagovailoa after breaking the shotgun. Tagovailoa offered a fake transfer to one or the other. That froze linebacker Fred Warner the half time needed to keep him out of the passing lane that Tagovailoia would throw.
C. Sherfield ran a simple tilt and Tua made a simple 9-yard pass down the middle. An easy pitch-and-catch. The 49ers’ other safety, Tashaun Gipson, misstepped in reaction, and Sherfield beat the only player he needed to beat for the touchdown.
This is how good coaching works with good staff for great results. The Dolphins had open receivers Sunday in the way the No. 1 defense rarely yields. Hill had nine catches for 146 yards, again confirming why he’s the main interest for defenses. This first game also highlights why he’s my vote as team MVP. Even when he’s not catching passes, he’s changing the way defenses play and opening up space for his teammates.
2. Speaking of defense change, San Francisco linebackers seemed to drop a yard or two deeper than most defenses against the Dolphins on regular occasions. I don’t watch them enough to know if these are their normal drops, but maybe it’s the subtle change that affected Tagovailoa’s passing angles? If so, it will be interesting to see if other defenses change that.
3. There were some good front-office decisions to build this list. The verdict remains on left tackle Terron Armstead. It’s not his talent. He is part of the elite. But do you have to spend a lot of money on a player who hasn’t played a full season for 10 years? Who has only played 18 games in total in the previous two years? You want to win in January and want your best players to play then. The easiest prediction to make is that Armstead were going to miss games this year and therefore a vital decision was who would be the backup left tackle.
4. The racing game? Clearly, the Dolphins didn’t think they could run on the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked point defense (75 yards per game) and instead went for their No. 12-ranked pass defense. They only ran eight times for 33 yards. The numbers are skewed, as the Dolphins only went 45 plays on turnovers, their 0 for 7 on third downs — and San Francisco’s defense is top-rated for a reason. Now comes the Los Angeles Chargers defense and it’s generally awful as its 30th in points against (25.8 ppg) and 25th in yards allowed (371.7). This game should get the Dolphins offense back to the confident group it was in November to prepare for the showdown against Buffalo. Speaking of what…
5. The NFL did the Dolphins a disservice moving Sunday’s game to a nighttime kickoff (8 p.m. EST) and Buffalo’s next game to Saturday night. It looks a bit like the 1999 season playoff schedule when the Dolphins won in Seattle in a late Sunday afternoon game and kicked off Saturday at noon in Jacksonville. Veteran NFL writer Peter King called it the worst job of planning for the playoffs the NFL has ever done. That didn’t explain the 62-7 loss to Jacksonville. But that didn’t help. This calendar is no better.