Dolphins quarterbacks absorbed eight sacks and 29 hits in the last two weeks. And in last week’s 24-16 loss against Minnesota there are very few snapshots of the Dolphins using six-man pass protections.
The question, considering quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returns from concussion protocol to start Sunday night’s game against Pittsburgh, is whether the Dolphins must beef up their pass protection to keep Tagovailoa upright.
It seems absolutely essential that the Dolphins do something aside from saying they just need to improve on their five-man pass protection fundamentals, which has been their refrain. Keep a running back or tight end in the backfield for extra muscle, for example. But, no, they’re sticking to their strategy.
“Ultimately you don’t look at it as pertaining to Tua,” offensive coordinator Frank Smith said. “You look at it as just making sure we protect all the quarterbacks because that’s an area we’ve been trying to improve with our fundamentals and just overall understanding of our launch points, timings and working as an offense.”
Planning on any such improvement is a dicey proposition.
Plus, Tagovailoa, because he’s already had a concussion, might be watched more closely this week by the concussion watchdogs – the UNC (Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant) and the spotter.
But Tagovailoa also plays a role in staying upright.
Coach Mike McDaniel said he loves Tagovailoa’s competitiveness, but he must make better decisions on getting rid of the ball instead of trying to extend plays. McDaniel said he’s talked to Tagovailoa about this subject.
“You just need to be able to understand your importance to the team and how sometimes the best play you can make is a throwaway,” McDaniel said.
Tagovailoa is trying to live that message.
“Throwing the ball away hasn’t been something that I’ve done in the past really well because I’m trying to make plays,” he said. “So just learning from that, if it’s not there, it’s OK to throw it away.”
To a certain extent, the Dolphins are correct in saying they just need to improve on the fundamentals. After all, they gain a huge advantage by using five eligible receivers to stretch the field horizontally and vertically in McDaniel’s dynamic offense.
And when you consider two of those receivers are lighting-fast Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, you begin to understand the pressured choice the Dolphins force on defenses. They can send six-man rushes if they choose, but that’s fewer people to cover, or tackle, Hill and Waddle.
On the other hand, it’s been six games and there’s been no improvement in the five-man pass protection fundamentals, only quarterbacks being knocked out of games, which has happened three times this season.
Something must change.
Defenses aren’t having a tough time mounting a pass rush.
Dolphins quarterbacks have been blitzed 43 times this season, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s tied for the third-fewest in the league.
However, Dolphins quarterbacks have been pressured 31% of the time they drop back to pass, which is third-most in the league. And Dolphins quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times, tied for ninth-most in the league.
In other words, teams are getting to Dolphins quarterbacks without bringing extra people.
That’s one reason, Dolphins players and coaches say, that using six-man protections isn’t necessary now or in the future. The Dolphins must be better at getting “a hat on a hat,” as the saying goes.
Dolphins players say they can run lots of different plays from the same formation, more than most teams, which helps to keep the pass rush at bay.
Beyond that, the Dolphins say they have the option of using an additional person for pass protection, that the running backs and tight ends make a read before going into their patterns. So the alternate plan exists, it’s just not enacted very often.
Pittsburgh is a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to blitzes. The Steelers blitz 24.5% of the time, 19th in the league. The Steelers’ 12 sacks are tied for 20th (with the Dolphins and Rams), and their pressures (16%) rank 29th, just ahead of the Dolphins’ defense (15.7%).
The fact Pittsburgh won’t have All Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt (pectoral) is a huge relief. But the Steelers’ pass rush, such as the Dolphins’ other opponents, will still pose a problem.
The Dolphins should get left tackle Terron Armstead back after an almost-two-game absence due to a toe injury. That’ll be a big boost. But every other spot on the offensive line is vulnerable, which makes Tagovailoa vulnerable.
That gets us back to McDaniel’s message to Tagovailoa that it’s OK to throw the ball away.
“It’s the longevity of me just being able to be the quarterback for this team and not try to make something out of nothing,” Tagovailoa said. “Plays will come to us, and that’s kind of what our mantra for our offense is.”
One thing to consider is the vast majority of Tagovailoa’s throws, such as the rest of the league, are no more than 9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which reduces the requirements for extended pass protection. Tagovailoa is 39 for 52 (75%) for 302 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on those passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Interestingly, Tagovailoa is also 11 of 13 on passes behind the line of scrimmage, meaning 65 of his passes (59%) are within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage.
So perhaps the facts say there’s no great need for the Dolphins to change what they’re doing regarding pass protection.
But at some point, after you have three quarterbacks knocked out of games, the facts should turn into a plea for change.