The Mike McDaniel Offense Makes the Run Game Cool Again

The Miami Dolphins have hired Mike McDaniel as their new head coach, and his scheme brings a potentially dangerous run game to Miami.

Miami Dolphins new HC, Mike McDaniel (Photo via Getty Images)
Miami Dolphins new HC, Mike McDaniel (Photo via Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins have just hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to be their new head coach, and their offense will be receiving a much-needed makeover.

The Niners focused on running the ball through zone blocking schemes and pulling linemen from a Kyle Shanahan system. This has led to top-end production, as San Francisco ranked seventh in rushing yards this year.

However, compared to the power schemes found in New England and elsewhere, McDaniel’s system is much more entertaining. The explosion and variety of looks they run the ball out of is a breath of fresh air from years past.

Miami has seen a bland run game for the better part of the last 20 years, with struggles on the offensive line and backfield. Since 2012, Miami has only had two 1,000 yard rushers in Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi. In Brian Flores’ first year as Head Coach, Miami’s leading rusher was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It was clear that Miami needed to address one of their most prolonged stretching issues with those previous struggles. Thus, he will present the Dolphins a chance to bring an actual presence in the backfield they haven’t seen since the Ricky Williams era.

Outside zone overview

While many offensive systems involve the power run philosophy, the scheme McDaniel brings has consisted of primarily outside zone runs.

As opposed to blocking the nearest defender, the idea of this scheme is to secure a “zone” of the field. Linemen typically work together to double-team the defenders labeled most likely to engineer a big stop. In doing so, they can get out on the edge quickly and stress defenses out horizontally. This opens up various holes and cutback lanes for the backs to run through.

Outside zone-blocking diagram from Youthfootballonline.com

The 49ers have been among the pioneers of the modern zone offenses, using a variety of formations, personnel groupings, and pre-snap motion to make sure the defense doesn’t know what’s hitting them.

Pulling blockers role in OZ concepts.

McDaniel’s scheme utilizes among the league’s most pulling blockers to get outside as quickly as possible. Rather than having the lineman go directly to the lineman, a pulling tackle may attempt to get after the next level of defenders. These blocks are crucial in setting up big plays, freeing up the second level with open lanes.

Another crucial aspect of the pull block is the idea of misdirection. The outside zone scheme that McDaniel and the Niners run relies heavily on reading leverage and light boxes. To get these looks more often, they will often bring pre-snap looks that give the appearance of a different play, such as a run to the opposite side. Once they get the look they want, the lineman will pull from across the formation and get up the field.

Trent Williams, now on the 49ers, is among the league’s best pull blockers at tackle.

Now more than ever, Miami will be utilizing pull blocks, and they’ve brought in the right coach for those philosophies. There will undoubtedly be concerns about whether their current personnel can run this scheme, but the ideas fall into place.

The Deebo element is an extra layer.

While their ZBS is among the league’s best, the Niners have added another layer in their comprehensive rushing attack.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel provided 502 rushing yards for San Francisco last year, but the threat he instilled in defenses is just as significant.

Many teams around the league run different wide receiver run plays. End-arounds and jet-sweeps are commonplace in a league looking for the next excellent rush concept. However, what McDaniel has done with Deebo is quite different. With rookie standout receiver Jaylen Waddle, he possesses another weapon that can be just as explosive as Samuel.

The Mike McDaniel offense can maximize workhorses in the backfield.

San Francisco has employed Samuel in the backfield rather than out wide or in the slot. As a result, he comes out in a variety of motions and pre-snap looks as essentially another running back. By coming out of the huddle in the slot, defenses are best equipped to stop a lighter personnel package. This means fewer defenders in the box and more defensive backs along the boundaries. When they move him inside pre-snap, however, defenses cannot adjust.

Moving Deebo into the backfield helped the Niners run game against the Rams.

This means San Francisco not only has a weapon in the backfield but also faces defenses ill-equipped to stop them. In addition, Deebo will often have at least one other running back in the backfield, along with tight end George Kittle. This means that a look that defenses saw as 11 personnel quickly becomes a heavy 21 personnel set.

Samuel found his stride as the season went on and was in the backfield for an average of nine snaps per game since week nine.

Deebo Samuel is in the backfield often.

Mike McDaniel’s offense was at the forefront of a movement that has changed a league. More and more teams will be looking for the next Deebo Samuel, and it feels good knowing that the new trend started with the Miami Dolphins’ new head coach.

The fullback revival will happen soon.

When the news broke of Mike McDaniel being hired in Miami, one of the first to sing his praises was fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Juszczyk has been among the league’s best fullbacks for a while in a league running low on the position. However, as teams move away from run-heavy systems and towards air-raid or spread systems, fullbacks have lost much of their former glory. In McDaniel’s approach, however, the position serves a crucial role.

As mentioned earlier, the outside zone scheme prioritizes getting out in front of defenders and the importance of lead blockers. Therefore, the fullback is among the most significant components in effectively operating the Mike McDaniel offense. In addition, Juszczyk and others have been used a variety of looks, getting outside and up to the second level, further sealing off second-level defenders for the backs. When combined with pulling blockers and strong wide receiver blocking, San Francisco provided a barrage of explosive run plays.

This new Miami offense will be to get to the second level, and finding a fullback capable of handling these responsibilities will be among the first steps of the rebuild.

An important role for WR’s in the Mike McDaniel offense.

Throughout McDaniel’s press conferences, it’s clear that one of the core values of this scheme is timely blocking from wide receivers. With a unit that prioritizes getting outside, it only makes sense that they expect nothing from the best from their perimeter blockers.

Their draft philosophy has consisted of getting big, physical receivers like Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, who thrive in run-blocking. In doing so, they can get out on tosses, zone runs, and screens, out-muscling the smaller DB’s.

The lanes opened up by these bigger receivers are just one small part of the big picture, but they play a crucial role. Miami already has big receivers such as Mack Hollins and DeVante Parker and very well may target more this offseason.

The bottom line on the Mike McDaniel offense.

The 49ers’ run game has been a top-flight unit since Kyle Shanahan, and Mike McDaniel arrived. Likewise, the attention to detail on their outside zone scheme has been second to none and has many different components.

Whether it’s the pulling blockers, maximizing weapons such as Samuel, the use of the fullback, or perimeter blocking, they have always been at the forefront of run-game innovation.

Miami has lacked a consistent running game for the better part of two decades, and it only got worse under Flores. It was clear a change was needed on offense, and Mike McDaniel shows promise of being the guy who can bring that change.

Nothing is set in stone, but the system he brings is proven to work, and Miami may just see a dominant rushing attack sometime during his tenure.

How to Tell When the Miami Dolphins are Running Wildcat

The Miami Dolphins came out in the Wildcat often on Sunday, with little success, and it may be due to this tell in their formation.

Miami Dolphins huddle
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins are, for the third week in a row, winners after defeating the Jets 24-17. After starting slowly, Miami was able to put up 17 second-half points, largely due to Tua Tagovailoa and his ability to shake off an early interception.

Although, the most interesting part of the game might have been the offensive gameplan. The Miami Dolphins consistently came out in Wildcat formation, where either a running back or wide receiver would take the snap. Then, they would choose to either hand off to another playmaker or keep the ball on a run up the middle.

The Dolphins, although coming out in Wildcat several times, were unable to find much success with the formation. A majority of their runs were stopped in the backfield or only gained a few yards.

A major possibility for Miami’s lack of success, along with mediocre offensive line play, may be a tell that signals when the Dolphins will motion into Wildcat.

While watching the game, I was able to uncover a small change in Miami’s pistol formation when they plan on motioning Tua out wide.

Below is a side-by-side photo of Miami’s pre-snap look in a pistol formation (in which the QB is not under center, and a running back is behind him). The play on the left is a reverse pass to Albert Wilson, while the one on the right motions into Wildcat.

The left is a Miami Dolphins pistol reverse play, while the right is a wildcat run play.
The left is a pistol reverse play, while the right is a wildcat run play.

The difference between the two, although subtle, is noticeable.

Tipping Their Hand.

When Miami plans on putting Tua in motion, they bring him closer to the line of scrimmage by a yard. The play on the left (a Wilson reverse) has Tua about three yards behind the center. On the other hand, the play on the right (which becomes Wildcat) has Tua only two yards behind.

Throughout the game, it was easy to tell if Miami was going to run Wildcat or not. If there were three yard markers in between Tua and the center, it was pistol. Only two yard markers, on the other hand, meant Wildcat motion was coming.

There are 3 yard markers in between Tua and Reiter on the left, only 2 on the right.

This clear tell, while not the only reason, may have contributed to Miami’s lack of success in the formation. In combination with poor offensive line play and an inability to create holes, Miami tipped their hand to the Jets’ defense.

Another interesting element, shown in the photos, is the difference in Tua’s foot placement.

On the Wildcat play (shown on the right), Tua’s feet are noticeably more flat and parallel to each other. The left, on the other hand, has his left foot much farther in front. This may have shown the Jets’ defense, in combination with the distance from the center, that motion was coming.

Through simple cues in body language and distance, it was easy to tell if the Wildcat formation was coming. This could be concerning for the future, as Miami continues to use the formation to establish the run. If teams know that the motion is coming, it becomes far easier to eliminate the idea of the pass and sell out against the run.

The Bottom Line

Miami must work on eliminating the simple tells in the Wildcat if they are to use it more often. They ran more Wildcat in this game than any other game this season, and teams will pick up on this trend.

If the formation is to be successful, the Dolphins will have to learn to not give away what’s coming, along with opening holes for their ball carriers.

It will be interesting to see if this tell continues to show in the coming weeks, and how defenses react to the Miami Dolphins Wildcat runs.

NFL Trade Deadline: Dolphins on the Move?

As Tuesday’s trade deadline rapidly approaches, the Miami Dolphins may be looking to move players. There are two players whose names have come up as tradable pieces.

Dolphins Trade Deadline
Credit: Phin Phanatic

As Tuesday’s trade deadline rapidly approaches, the Miami Dolphins may be looking to move players. Two players whose names have come up as tradable pieces are Albert Wilson and Devante Parker. Miami, whose season is likely over, might be looking to move high salaries or under performers and gain draft capital for the coming years.

Albert Wilson

Albert Wilson might have been the Dolphins best player during camp. Wilson and 2nd-year QB Tua Tagovailoa were showing significant chemistry and were connecting all over the field. 

Wilson was expected to be a big contributor in the offense and have a lot of playing time. Unfortunately, he hasn’t seen the field much and has struggled to be productive when he step on the field.

This season, Wilson has just 7 catches for 45 yards. He is averaging 3.75 yards per target. In week 3, Wilson played 55% of the Dolphins offensive snaps. He hasn’t been close to that number again and played just 4% of snaps last week. Mack Hollins and Preston Williams (when healthy) are seeing more snaps than the Training Camp MVP. The Dolphins clearly don’t have a plan to use Wilson this year and should look to trade him for a position of need (OL, LB) or future draft picks.

Wilson is set to hit free agency after this season, so the Dolphins moving him before the trade deadline and collecting assets instead of letting him walk for free may be the best option. Trading Wilson will also save the Dolphins $3.8 million against the cap and they’ll take on just $1.3 million in dead money.

Devante Parker

Parker’s career has been plagued by injury since he was drafted by Miami in 2015. In 2019, Parker was healthy for all 16 games and put up 1,202 yards and 9 touchdowns. It seemed like a breakout year and his career was reaching the tipping point. In 2020 though, he missed 2 games due to a hamstring injury, which has been an issue for the majority of his career. He still put up respectable numbers with 793 yards and 4 touchdowns. 

Through the first 4 games of this season, Parker was a key part of the offense with 17 catches for 242 yards and 1 touchdown. Unfortunately, he has missed the last 3 games and is in danger of missing his fourth straight this Sunday in Buffalo.

Parker’s inability to stay healthy may be the driving force to trade him. According to reports, the Dolphins have discussed trading Parker. 

There have also been talks about Parker not being fully committed to football. Nagging injuries can take a toll on a player, and it wouldn’t be shocking if Parker is growing increasingly frustrated.

A trade would give Parker a fresh start to his career which is something he probably needs.

For Miami, a Parker trade would clear cap space for the 2022 season. The Dolphins are projected to have the most cap space in 2022. However, only 19 players from the current roster are under contract for next season. The cap availability is going to diminish rapidly and they need money to re-sign big money players like Mike Gesicki and Emmanuel Ogbah.

Miami may try to trade for an offensive line piece, collect assets for next year, or both at once. Regardless, the Dolphins wide receiver room needs to be monitored with just 4 days until the trade deadline. 

Follow Rishi Desai on Twitter

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DeVante Parker is hurt again, but Miami is Prepared

DeVante Parker sustained an injury against the Colts, but Miami has several receivers who could fill his role.

The Miami Dolphins’ receiver room has had as much shakeup over the last 3 days as any unit in the NFL. Following the trading of Jakeem Grant 3 days ago and the placing of Will Fuller on Injured Reserve on Wednesday, DeVante Parker has come down with a hamstring injury that leaves him questionable for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay.

Coming off of his best game of the season, Parker snagged 4 balls for 77 yards and a TD. Among these, multiple tough contested catches on deep throws, an element Miami hadn’t seen thus far.

Jacoby Brissett throws a TD to DeVante Parker.

This Dolphins receiving unit has been reminiscent of last year, which saw a myriad of injuries. With Parker and Preston Williams going down, Miami relied on unproven receivers such as Mack Hollins, Antonio Callaway and Lynn Bowden Jr. for production in 2020.

But, even through injures, Miami’s group this year is much deeper. After seeing an inability to separate in 2020, the Dolphins made a commitment to improving the group, adding the aforementioned Fuller as well as young QB Tua Tagovailoa’s collegiate teammate in Jaylen Waddle.

The Dolphins also had some notable returns in Preston Williams and Albert Wilson, the latter of which opted out of 2020 due to COVID concerns.

The bottom line is that Miami’s group is still deep, and more than capable of being good enough for Tagovailoa or Brissett to win games.

While they will be looking for contributions from their veterans, young speedster Jaylen Waddle is in a prime position for a bigger role.

Jaylen Waddle

Waddle has seen his fair share of targets, leading rookie wideouts in catches with 25. But even with the volume of touches, the scheming has been questionable at best, as many of his opportunities have come in situations where it has been different to get yards after the catch, something he flourished with at Alabama.

Jaylen Waddle scores an explosive TD.

But with the slot position open, Waddle is now undoubtedly the most explosive healthy wide receiver on the roster, and his usage rate will be increasing with him now being the number 1.

He should also see more downfield targets, as he has been open on several deep routes, but Jacoby Brissett has missed him. With Miami reviewing the film and ways to beat a high powered Buccaneers team, I expect more shots to be taken.

Jaylen Waddle was wide open…but Jacoby Brissett misses it.

The ever interesting aspect of Waddle’s game that we haven’t seen enough of is his ability to make quick cuts. Often times in college, a jet sweep, screen or slant route could turn into a 50+ yard score. It’s no question that Waddle has top end agility, but it’s also clear Miami is figuring out how to use him.

Tua Tagovailoa throws a TD to Jaylen Waddle.

While he only saw 3 catches against the Colts, his looks and routes were promising. He was often running farther down the field, and was able to average 11 yards per catch. That’s up from less than 5 in the previous game against the Raiders.

If Miami’s Offensive Co-Coordinators are able to figure out the learning curve of Waddle’s explosive playstyle, his production could grow exponentially, especially with the injuries to Parker and Fuller.

Williams and Hollins

As for other potential contributors, 2 receivers have a connection with Tua Tagovailoa, who should come back next week against the Jaguars.

Mack Hollins and Preston Williams were both some of Tagovailoa’s main targets in 2020, both catching a TD vs the Cardinals (widely looked at as Tua’s best game).

Mack Hollins scores a TD vs. the Cardinals.

After losing Williams to a foot injury, Tagovailoa looked significantly less comfortable, and he could look for his security blanket in his first weeks back from a rib injury.

Tagovailoa also showed some chemistry with Albert Wilson in camp, as the 2 connected on several deep passes in the offseason. Although Wilson has struggled of late, a push into the lineup could bring some of the explosiveness he showed in 2018 before a season ending hip injury.

Tua throws a BOMB to Albert Wilson

The Tight Ends

We could also expect a bigger role from the tight end group, namely Mike Gesicki.

Gesicki, along with Waddle, has seen a lack of manufactured space on targets, but with these injuries, he could see more target share.

Mike Gesicki catches a TD.

Synopsis

It’s going to take a group contribution to make up for the element DeVante Parker brings to this offense. His ability in 1-on-1 situations is elite, showing an ability to snag jump ball deep passes.

But after seeing this situation play out last year, Miami is much better prepared. Explosive slot players in Waddle and Wilson hope to bring speed and agility, while Hollins and Williams bring an element of chemistry to a returning young QB. It will be interesting to see how the Dolphins distribute snaps and who gets a lion’s share of the targets on Sunday and beyond.

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An Underrated Piece of the Dolphins’ Offense

The Miami Dolphins stocked up on weapons ahead of the 2021 season, but Wide Receiver Mack Hollins is looking to make his presence felt.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins dedicated this offseason to revamping their offense, after going 10-6 behind the 4th ranked scoring defense.

Adding playmakers in Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, they hoped to improve a receiving core that had already Red-Zone threats DeVante Parker and Preston Williams.

But with the overwhelming amount of weapons, there is one player that isn’t being mentioned enough:

Wide Receiver Mack Hollins.

Early Career

After being drafted in 2017 by the Eagles, Hollins was looked at as a mix of size and athleticism. But even with his raw talent, he received very little playing time, only logging 22 targets while being behind Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith, and Alshon Jeffery on the depth chart.

Mack Hollins scores a TD in his rookie year.

The following year, Hollins looked to take the next step, honing in on his technique and skills at the next level. But as he looked for an increased role, tragedy struck, as he suffered a groin injury that knocked him out for the whole 2018 season.

This would start the downward trajectory for his time with the Eagles. He only saw 22 targets in 2019 with them and was waived on December 3rd, 2019.

Picked Up Off Waivers

Following being cut, Miami claimed Mack Hollins off of waivers. Looking for someone to fill a role on special teams and offense (due to several injuries), they figured the 26 year old was their guy.

While Hollins only had 1 target in 4 games, the little things were where he shined. Crucial to the blocking and kicking game, he excelled in acting as another big body in run sets while being a highly effective gunner.

With head coach Brian Flores’ roots in special teams, his affinity for high effort players spread to Hollins, who showed the skill and willingness to move around that this team desperately needed.

2020

Hollins’ second season with Miami is where his impact was truly recognized. He remained the an ace on special teams, making several key plays. But his role as a receiver and a blocker continued to expand.

With injuries to key contributors such as Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker, and Preston Williams, Hollins elevated up the depth chart and played a few games as the number one receiver. In those games, he put up solid numbers, including a game against the Chiefs where he hauled in 5 catches for 66 yards.

He also had his fair share of big plays. Notably, the infamous Hail Mary pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to keep the Dolphins playoff hopes alive.

Ryan Fitzpatrick throws a Hail Mary to Mack Hollins.

On top of the receiving production, he was moved around a lot on offense. One of his roles consisted of him moving in line to run block – much like a TE. He consistently played any role asked of him and became a “glue guy” both on and off of the field.

Hollins’ improvement and continued success on special teams as well as offense led to him receiving a 1 year contract extension on last March.

Training Camp and Preseason

Coming into this season, Hollins’ role on the team was in question. Having newcomers in Waddle and Fuller with Wilson returning after opting out, Hollins looked to be on the bubble. An improvement in the passing game looked necessary for his future.

But throughout camp, that’s exactly what happened. With more injuries to Miami’s starting receivers, Hollins stepped in and delivered, showing a more of the chemistry that flashed with Tua Tagovailoa last year. Tua and Mack connected on plenty of big plays throughout camp, and kept their connection strong in the preseason.

Tua finds Mack Hollins in Training Camp.

Through 2 preseason games, Hollins had 6 receptions for 69 yards, including several crucial first downs to keep drives alive. Without Parker or Fuller, Mack Hollins showed the ability to compliment Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki as an X reciever.

But his improvement wasn’t just at receiver, Hollins work on and off the field led to him being the only captain on the field for coin tosses against the Falcons and Bengals.

The Future

Flores and Tagovailoa clearly are both impressed with Hollins, leading to his promotion and continued success on the field. His role should grow this season. In his limited opportunity, he has continued to show high effort and character, with notable improvement as a receiver. Coming from someone who struggled to get playing time, Hollins will be hard to keep off the field in 2021.

Hollins’ story has been one of adversity, but his continued improvement and dedication will be crucial with his future in Miami. It will be exciting to watch how he performs this season and beyond as his role continues to grow.

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