Before the Dolphins’ season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, coach Mike McDaniel spoke about the novelty of Week 1, as teams get the opportunity to unveil new schemes after months of offseason practice.
And in Miami’s 36-34 road win over Los Angeles, the Dolphins offense showcased a host of wrinkles as they embark on Year 2 of McDaniel’s scheme.
One of the most notable changes was a shift to pre-snap motion. In 2022, the Dolphins had a bread-and-butter concept that called for a pass-catcher, often wide receivers Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle, to sprint across the formation before the snap before releasing upfield. From then, the receiver could run a variety of routes. With two of the fastest receivers in the NFL, the speed was troublesome for most defenses and they struggled to make snap decisions.
But in last year’s 23-17 road loss to the Chargers, Los Angeles countered that staple concept with press coverage and great communication in the secondary.
So in a rematch of that prime-time defeat, McDaniel eliminated the time the defense had to adjust with shorter motions.
Early in the second quarter, Hill was in a tight slot alignment on the right side of the formation. He then went into motion but didn’t cross the formation. He appeared to run a wheel route before cutting inward, separating from his defender for a 29-yard gain.
Miami ran it on other occasions, too. In the first quarter, Hill did the same, but on the left side of the formation, on a third-down conversion to receiver Braxton Berrios. And fellow wideout River Cracraft was put in a similar pre-snap motion on a second-quarter play that ended in a pass to tight end to Durham Smythe.
“We work hard here at the Miami Dolphins as a collective group,” McDaniel said on Monday when asked about the adjustment. “Coaches bring forth things. You see stuff on tape. Players bring forth things. I think it is important to be constantly pressing the envelope. I believe that players deserve schematic advantages. It’s hard enough to do their job and a coach’s job is to try to generate those. But man, I’ve drawn a lot of stuff on paper. It’s a lot harder doing it. So on the road, to execute that with the crowd noise on a silent [count] is a credit to a lot of people working deliberately. I think Tua [Tagovailoa] and Tyreek did a really good job with that as well as the rest of the offense that’s doing it in a noisy situation.”
Miami’s Deebo Samuel?
When the Dolphins traded for Hill in the 2022 offseason, he indicated that he could be used in a similar fashion as San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who under McDaniel’s watch moonlighted as a running back.
And though Hill set franchise marks for catches and yards, he carried the ball a career-low seven times.
But in last Sunday’s opener, a potential Samuel mimic emerged. Second-year wide receiver Erik Ezukanma lined up in the backfield twice. He picked up a first down on a toss from pistol formation, though it was called back because of a holding penalty on center Connor Williams.
Ezukanma also got a touch on an end around on the opening possession and he picked up 12 yards. And on Tagovailoa’s game-winning throw to Hill, Ezukanma was lined up in the backfield again.
It continued the trend of Miami finding unique ways to get Ezukanma the ball after he played sparingly as a rookie. In the preseason opener, Ezukanma carried the ball twice and gained 52 yards.
“That’s stuff that you try as a coaching staff to see and open your mind to the unique skillsets of certain players,” McDaniel said. “For that game, it made sense to try to introduce that a bit. Whether that’s something that we expand upon just depends on the opponent and the pros and cons of what that does, if anything. We felt like that was a good way to get him the ball that way and get him some opportunities and get the defense talking a bit.”
He added: “Those are fun things that you’re able to do, especially in year two where you can move people around a little bit more just because of the inherit understanding of what words mean.”
Defense steps up in pressure moment
The debut of the Dolphins’ new-look defense got off to a rough start under coordinator Vic Fangio, giving up 34 points and 234 rushing yards. And as expected, Fangio blitzed at lower rates than his predecessors Brian Flores and Josh Boyer.
But with the game on the line, Fangio had a curveball and called a few crafty pressure packages to seal the victory.
After an opening-drive completion that picked up a first down, Miami lined up in a two-high safety shell but rushed five defenders, one of whom was defensive back Justin Bethel, an untouched rusher who forced quarterback Justin Herbert into an intentional grounding penalty.
On the next play, the Dolphins once again lined up in a two-high shell and rushed five defenders, with defensive lineman Zach Sieler bringing Herbert down for another substantial loss.
Two plays later, facing fourth-and-12, Fangio went back to what had worked previously. In a pre-snap two-high shell, he dialed up another five-man pressure, which once again had Bethel blitzing. He and outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips converged on Herbert for the game-sealing sack.
The pressure looks were a shift from what Fangio called throughout the game. According to Next Gen Stats, the Dolphins rushed four defenders on 24 of Herbert’s 36 drop-backs, generating a pressure rate of 25 percent. Miami rushed five or more on 11 drop-backs, three of which came on the final possession.
In the fourth quarter, the defense generated six pressures and a 54.5 percent pressure rate in the fourth quarter. Half of those came on the decisive drive.
“Ultimately, say what you want, the game was won with the defense on the field,” McDaniel said.