Tua Tagovailoa and Play-action passing

Play action passing has become a staple of explosive NFL offenses. Here’s how Mike McDaniel will bring that to Miami and help Tua Tagovailoa.

Tua Tagovailoa has become a hot topic this off-season from pundits deciding if this would be his make-or-break year. Additionally, a recent article from PFT’s Mike Florio detailed that free agent acquisition Tyreek Hill had low expectations for Tua.

The third-year Dolphins quarterback has received the most criticism from the media, fans and throughout last season, even players. One man is here to change that narrative – new head coach Mike McDaniel.

How Mike McDaniel will help Tua Tagovailoa

The big thing is what new head coach Mike McDaniel wants to do. McDaniel comes from the Shanahan coaching tree, the ever glorious wide-zone, bootleg, play-action world with Kyle Shanahan that has made Jimmy Garrapolo, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins successful in the NFL.

Mike McDaniel with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay utilized 12 personnel mainly in their time with the now Washington Commanders. McVay now utilizes a spread concept using 11 personnel to maximize his players skill sets. Kyle Shanahan uses 21 personnel to maximize his offensive players skillset and utilizes the pistol formation.

McDaniel is able to use a combination of the two but put his spin on how he can maximize his players skill set; mainly, Tua Tagovailoa.

The easiest way to explain the offense McDaniel has helped culture through the past couple of years is to break it down into two parts. It’s a wide zone run scheme paired with a west coast offense passing scheme. 

In terms of the west coast passing scheme, it involves a lot of play action passes that can be deadly with a good running game. It is comprised of a lot of slants and crossing routes.

This is a perfect offense for Tua Tagovailoa. It truly does maximize everything he does well, while limiting the things he does bad. Tua will be asked to make quick reads, and throw the ball primarily to the middle of the field.

Slants, crossing routes, screen passes, and dig routes are gonna be the bread and butter of this offense’s passing plays, and Tagovailoa excels at those routes

Play-action passing

This off-season the hottest name is Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who understands the the vast superiority of the play-action pass.

Simply put, play action is the easiest way to scheme quarterbacks more time and create big plays downfield.

At the heart of it all is the outside zone run, a very popular run concept in the NFL today. Not only is it effective, the play action off outside zone affords the quarterback more time than a normal dropback when passing.

The biggest question heading into the 2022 NFL season is if Miami’s new offensive line can block decently for Tua. Play-action passing provides Tua more time to maneuver the pocket and throw the ball down the field.

More and more teams are beginning to buy in to this line of thinking, for instance, with the play action rate in the NFL in 2018 reaching 24%. Expect the Dolphins to be one of them.

Per PFF, Tua Tagovailoa has a 80.3 grade on play-action passes and the offense as a whole has a 82.3 grade. In other words, when there’s a successful fake, he usually makes magic happen.

Flood Concept

A staple of the 49ers offense McDaniel is from is using the fullback or tight ends to condense across the formation, kick out in a split zone concept that allows for cutbacks, and take advantage of overflowing defenses. 

This play action flood concept aims to put the flat and deep third defender in conflict

With the 49ers run game’s reputation and established tendencies, this leaves the window open for play action off of it.

This play action flood concept aims to put the flat and deep third defender in conflict. If #33 stays deep under the corner by Dwelley, QB can hit the 10 yard dig route to Emmanuel Sanders or dump it down to Juszczyk in the flats. If #33 comes up, QB can throw one over his head and in front of the FS occupied by the skinny post ran by Deebo Samuel.

The beauty of play-action is that it can create simple reads and make them even easier.

Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan did an amazing job of giving Garoppolo easy reads and setting him up for success by scheming guys open and allowing for easy completions.

Boot-action and roll-outs in play action passing

Bootlegs are nothing new. Yet the rebirth of the outside-zone-then-boot idea has led to one specific change: the boot-action is no longer a specific down-and-distance call.

It’s no longer about moving the chains on third down, or bluffing on early down to steal ten yards. The boot-action and roll-out has become the go-to way for the league’s most prominent offenses to hit explosive plays.

The NFL is a league of explosives. Hit as many as you can; stop as many as you can. That’s it. In the passing era, that’s the entire ball game.

I believe this may be the key to unlocking an explosive Miami Dolphins offense.

How it works

Bootleg passes have several advantages, but one major disadvantage: they only attack one side of the field.

All play-action bootlegs are built around the same principals and are designed to achieve the same goals. These plays use misdirection to confuse defenders.

In other words, they look like running plays, slowing the pass rush and drawing linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to open passing lanes.

The run action also slows the pass rush, and the movement of the quarterback forces defensive linemen to change their pass-rush angle.

Finally, play-action bootlegs usually move one side of the field with receivers while putting the quarterback in position to execute short, easy throws.

The use of the boot has steadily trickled up across the league. The quarterback, offensive line, and running back are set up like it’s outside zone. Everyone kicks one way. It looks like outside-zone.

However, only the quarterback keeps the ball, rolls to the outside, away from the pass-rush, and then surveys the landscape.

Traditional boot-action concepts are built like any old “flood” concept: there’s a deep route, an intermediate route, and a short route.

In the modern game, with almost all just about quarterbacks mobile enough to be a perimeter threatthe quarterback is his own option. If nothing is open, he can run the ball himself.

Usually that quarterback rolls, opens up his hips and fires to a receiver swooping across the field. The defense bites one way, the ball is thrown the other way.

How a “flood” bootleg pass works

How Mike McDaniel can utilize Boot-action and Play-action passes to help Tua

By many, Tua Tagovailoa is seen as a one-read quarterback who is heavily reliant on RPO’s.

While it might be true that the Dolphins led the league in RPO passes down the field, many forget about Tua’s play-action game. Per Pro-Football reference, Tua Tagovailoa had the 11th highest play-action pass attempts (113).

Play-action passing with Jimmy Garrapolo

Assuming RPOs are considered play-action, the San Francisco 49ers had a 31% play-action usage in their pass attempts, with Jimmy Garoppolo accounting for 147 passes on 441 pass attempts.

Most of the 49er’s play-action passes in 2021 came from under shotgun compared to the usual Shanahan system. The quarterback under center, him turning and handing off or throwing a play-action pass or bootleg.

The play-action pass from under center in particular was the staple of the Shanahan offense.

Shanahans usual way is not the best play-action system for Tua, neither for Jimmy Garropolo.

2021 became the year where, with McDaniel’s help, Shanahan changed his philosophy.

From Week 8 onward, the 49ers were exclusively in shotgun instead of under center.

Per Sharp Football stats, the 49ers were in shotgun on 67% of all passes in 2021, coming in at 13th overall of all NFL teams, an increase from 20th in 2020.

When asked about the change from under center to shotgun, here’s what McDaniel had to say:

“Well, Jimmy’s a lot more decisive in the gun. He likes to see it while he’s delivering tight window throws… minimizing pass exclusive situations, which on first and second down, you can do if you have the threat of (run out of gun). And we’ve just kind of evolved. Kyle in 2019, really started noticing that and put pressure on us to evolve. And every week you figure out different ways to do some of the same things, maybe a couple of wrinkles.” 

Mike McDaniel

Jimmy Garropolo’s efficiency and decisiveness went up towards the middle weeks of the NFL season, a huge part in driving San Francisco to the playoffs.

This is not something new to Mike McDaniel. As an offensive assistant with Washington, McDaniel and Shanahan took the league by storm by utilizing read-option plays to capitalize RGIII’s effectiveness in the run game.

Play action passing with Tua Tagovailoa

Similar to Jimmy Garropolo is Tua Tagovailoa. We’ve seen how decisive Tua can be in no-huddle, up-tempo, shotgun based offense. It’s one of his biggest strengths.

In the play seen above, the Dolphins are in a condensed 11 Personnel formation with Isaiah Ford motioning to the right side of the field.

Jaylen Waddle runs a “go” route and looks to be Tua’s first read. Tua identifies the bracket coverage on Waddle and shifts towards Devante Parker, his second read.

Tua moves LB Rashaan Evans with his eyes and holds him towards Waddle. This creates an opening to fire a pass down the middle to Devante Parker on a post route.

This is the type of play-action sequence Tua is successful at.

New Play-action sequences for Tua Tagovailoa

One of the most used play-calls used by the San Francisco 49ers under Mike McDaniel was the “DRIFT” concept.

 It is a quick-hitting play that hits in the zone vacated by linebackers flowing toward the run action.

The run fake draws up the linebackers and opens the zone behind them for the quarterback. This most basic of play-action of concepts opens some of the biggest throwing lanes in any offense

I do expect this “DRIFT” concept to be utilized for the Dolphins offense in 2022, especially for Tua Tagovailoa.

How the RPO gives a boost to play-action passing

Per PFF, the Dolphins had 63 downfield RPO’s thrown beyond three yards, which was the highest figure since 2016.

These downfield RPO’s generally enhance a teams play efficiency in the run game, giving a boost to play-action passing.

In addition, the 2021 Dolphins RPO system was generally a “one-read” system as plays were meant for one person.

This will change as McDaniel brings a different philosophy in terms of RPO’s and improvements along the offensive line.

It all starts with a concept called “WANDA”.

The biggest difference is that if the football is not given to the running backs as the quarterbacks first read, the running back himself can become another outlet instead of pass blocking.

By providing another read to the quarterback, the running back runs a “wheel” concept giving another downfield passing threat if the blocking is solid.

The threat of the pass will open up running lanes for running backs in RPO’s and Tua in play-action passing concepts.

Fortunately, Miami signed running backs in Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds who have ample experience in this type of offense.

Will these play-action passing concepts work?

“One thing I know about you is you have the ambition to be great. My job is to coach you to get all that greatness out of you”

These words were uttered by Mike McDaniel in his first phone call to Tua Tagovailoa.

McDaniel has success with quarterbacks with similar skill-sets like Tua, however the young man must put in the work to silence his critics and improve.


“What I’ve seen is a skill set that I’m familiar with, that’s very successful in this offense, you’re seeing a very accurate passer that receivers love to catch footballs from — tight spirals and accurate throws, which are huge for run after the catch and YAC yardage. What that means for an offense is if you have people who can run after the catch, that’s an outstanding skill set for him.

Mike McDaniel on Tua Tagovailoa

It’s time for Mike McDaniel to tap into Tua’s skillsets and Tua to put in the work to make the Miami Dolphins offense successful in 2022.

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Author: Hussam Patel

Head Contributor for Dolphins- Around the Block Twitter: HussamPatel

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