Recap: Miami Dolphins defeated their AFC East Rival

Credit: NBC Sports

On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins defeated their AFC East rival New England Patriots in their season opener. Last season, Miami lost their week 1 matchup in New England. This year, after barely missing the playoffs 9 months ago, they needed to get off to a fast start.

They got the job done. No one expected a pretty, high-scoring game. It was expected that it would be a defensive dog fight until the end, and that’s exactly what happened. A game that consisted of three turnovers and six punts ended in a 17-16 victory for the Dolphins.

OFFENSE

On the first play from scrimmage, Tua Tagovailoa hit rookie WR Jaylen Waddle for a gain of 17 on an RPO. RPO’s were a huge part of the Dolphins offense on Sunday.

Although the run game struggled a bit, Myles Gaskin had a 15 yard carry on that drive as well. The drive ended with a 3-yard TD run from Tua on an RPO. 

Unfortunately for Miami, the offense cooled off and punted three straight times. A big part of that was inconsistency from the offensive line. 

The Dolphins put together another good drive on their final possession of the first half. On the first play of the drive, Tagovailoa found Jaylen Waddle down the left sideline for a gain of 36-yards. They put together an 8-play 45-yard drive and let Pro Bowl kicker Jason Sanders tie the game 10-10 going into half.

On the very first drive after halftime, Miami faced a big 3rd & 8. The offense stepped up and Tua Tagovailoa threw a strike to Devante Parker for 30-yards. 

That gave Miami life, and the drive ended in Jaylen Waddle’s first career touchdown catch.

One of Miami’s most crucial drives resulted in 0 points. When Xavien Howard forced a fumble and gave Miami the ball back with 3:31 to go, the game wasn’t over. The Dolphins were at their own 9-yard line and had to drain more than 3 minutes off the clock to secure the win. That isn’t easy, especially against Bill Belichick. After a holding, they faced a 1st & 14 at their own 5. Tua delivered a strike to Devante Parker who picked up 13-yards. 

The Dolphins secured the win when short yard specialist and former Patriots SB Champion Jacoby Brissett took a QB sneak for 2-yards.

The Dolphins offense wasn’t always the prettiest on Sunday, but they stepped up when they needed to. 

Offensive Positives:

  • Once again, Devante Parker proved that when he’s healthy, he can be a huge part of the Miami Dolphins offense.
  • The Miami Dolphins have a plan for Jaylen Waddle. He was used in pre snap motion, and caught passes all over the field. 
  • Rookie Liam Eichenberg was a solid starter at LT in place of Austin Jackson.

Offensive Negatives:

  • The run game was inconsistent. Miami averaged just 3.2 YPC.
  • The offensive line was inconsistent. They showed they are very capable on some plays, but on others, it was a serious issue.
  • Tua Tagovailoa looked to be slightly uneasy when the pocket collapsed fast around him, but that shouldn’t raise any eyebrows at this point.

Defense

Knowing they were going to have to step up and be a big part of the reason Miami wins, the defense did just that.

On the first play from scrimmage, Miami was gashed by Damien Harris on a 35-yard carry. They bounced back and Christian Wilkins caused a Mac Jones fumble. The Patriots were taken out of field goal range and forced to punt.

On the ensuing possession, they did what they do best. They forced a turnover. Sunday’s game was Miami’s 23rd straight game with a takeaway. 

The Dolphins bend but don’t break defense and allowed a Patriots field goal, but held up very well in the redzone.

On the next drive, the Dolphins allowed their first touchdown of the season. All Dolphins fans will agree, this should have ended in a field goal at best. On 3rd & 1, Elandon Roberts sacked Mac Jones for a loss of 12, but was flagged for a questionable roughing the passer. The Patriots ended up scoring. 

The defense allowed two more field goal drives, but their best sequence came on New England’s final possession of the day.

The Patriots took over at the 50-yard line down by 1. After a 4:36 drive, they had a 1st & 10 at Miami’s 11-yard line. The Dolphins were on the verge of losing in New England, again. That’s when Xavien Howard happened. Damien Harris ran up the middle and the Dolphins star cornerback forced a fumble. Miami recovered

Defensive Positives:

  • Xavien Howard. They reworked his contract to bring him back this summer, and he forced and recovered the game-sealing fumble
  • Rookie Jevon Holland played less than 50% of defensive snaps, but was great when he was on the field. He was ranked PFF’s highest rated rookie.
  • The Dolphins didn’t miss many tackles. Missed tackles have been a major issue in the past, and they were much improved on Sunday.

Defensive negatives:

  • The Dolphins lack of pass rush was concerning at times. Letting Josh Allen stand in the pocket for what feels like an hour on Sunday could be a disaster.
  • The Dolphins run defense, which has been an issue in the past, was an issue on Sunday. The defense allowed over 4 YPC.
  • The Dolphins heavily relied on zone coverage when most of their cornerbacks are tremendous man to man players. Whether it was a lack of trust in the linebackers to cover, or an effort to make Mac Jones play checkdown football, it’s something to monitor.

Overall

The Dolphins in previous years would’ve found a way to lose this game. The team played complimentary football and beat a Belicheck coached team in New England to open the season. Improvmets need to be made, but the Dolphins are 1-0 and off to a good start.

Miami Dolphins: Know the opponent

Bengals QB Brandon Allen faces the Dolphins for the first time since their 2020 matchup.

Ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, I collaborated with Bradley Davies at Dolphins ATB to profile the team the Bengals will be hosting in Cincinnati this week. Although we aren’t likely to see a true representation of the team the Dolphins want to present in the regular season on Sunday, there will still be plenty of storylines developing and key players to watch.

Q: Who has been the biggest standout in camp and the preseason so far? Any particular roster battles that are shaping up to produce a different result than would have been expected a few months ago? Anyone we should be keeping a close eye on in the final preseason game?

If you would have asked me this question 2 weeks ago there would have only been one answer and that would be Albert Wilson. Throughout the early weeks he was everywhere and seemed to have seamless chemistry with Tua. From a potential cut candidate to starting receiver on the first depth chart, Wilson had a very impressive camp before being sidelined with injury (as is the case with nearly every Dolphin’s receiver). Ever since I would have to say the camp standout would most likely be either Holland or Waddle, both rookies have hit the ground running with their explosiveness and play making ability. 

Bradley Davies

In relation to the positional battles, the biggest surprise is what is happening with the offensive line. Coming into camp everybody believed that the starting line was set in stone. It was presumed that it would be: Austin Jackson (LT), Solomon Kindley (LG), Matt Skura ( C), Robert Hunt (RG) and Liam Eichenberg  (RT). Since then both Kindley and Skura have had spells with the 3rd team, while Jackson has been bullied throughout joint practices and preseason. Furthermore, Michael Deiter, a player who did not start a single game for the Dolphins, has transitioned from left guard to be the starting center.

The biggest factor going forward is what to do with Liam Eichenberg. After starting camp as starting RT to then starting LG, he is now back at RT in the second team behind Jesse Davis. However with a strong performance against the Falcons he is knocking on the door once again for a starting position.

Going into the final preseason game it is likely that we will not see many starters at all including Tua. The game will primarily focus on players that are on the bubble of the roster and practice squad players. Given the vastly changing nature of the Dolphins wide receiver room on Tuesday, I would keep a close eye on Kirk Merritt for one last push to make the roster. He has been productive throughout camp after failing to break in to the team last season

Bradley Davies

With Joe Burrow seeing his first live-game action since his gruesome knee injury, it’s probably best to protect him. No one wants to see him put his body on the line for a game that doesn’t count. That said, as I referenced in last week’s review, preseason does matter for those fringe roster players. So, it’s interesting to see how guys like Jalen Davis and Eli Apple fare against hungry Miami Dolphins receivers. Wilson and Merritt, in particular, are good ones to watch. Also, I am fascinated to see how Jackson Carman plays this week in comparison to Liam Eichenberg. Eichenberg was a player many Bengals fans were hoping the Bengals would target at 38.

Q: The big talk in the Draft surrounded the Dolphins’ decision to trade down and back up in the Draft. There were a lot of opinions surrounding this decision. But, it seems like they have found a solid player in Jaylen Waddle. Was accumulating picks and drafting Waddle the right move? Should have stayed put and selected Florida TE Kyle Pitts, popular among Florida-based Dolphins fans?

Absolutely. There is no doubting Pitts’ ability, he is a freak athlete that would have created a matchup nightmare. However the Dolphins are not short of contested catch specialists with a strong TE room. As for Waddle, his speed, explosiveness and what he brings to this offense is invaluable. He is just special and has shown that comparisons with Tyreek Hill is no exaggeration. To come away with Waddle and another first round pick from one of the picks robbed from the Texans is nothing short of remarkable. The Dolphins are much further ahead in their rebuild now than anybody could have imagined. They are a legitimate playoff contender already, and their added draft capital over the coming years gives them the flexibility to really build something special.

Bradley Davies

Of all the top pass-catching prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, Chase seemed like the obvious target for the Bengals. But, many fans were hoping for Pitts. Few made the argument for Waddle at the time. However, so far Waddle has been the most impressive of the bunch for the Miami Dolphins. If you believe everything the national media tells you, Chase looks like the most disappointing of the bunch so far. But, he’ll likely have an opportunity to influence that narrative this week as both rookies could get some playing time.

Q: What is going on with Tua Tagovailoa? He had an up-and-down rookie season and that appears to be continuing this preseason so far. What is the general feeling around his potential as the Dolphins’ long-term solution at QB?

It is no secret that Tua’s rookie season was somewhat underwhelming, it wasn’t great but at the same time he didn’t stink like many would lead you to believe. Let us not forget prior to making his NFL debut, Tua was less than a year removed from a potentially career ending injury. I’m sure Bengals’ fans can now sympathise with the ups and downs that you endured throughout Joe Burrow’s return.

I personally believe that the Miami Dolphins had their hand forced into playing Tua before he was fully ready. With the strong starts made by Burrow and Herbert, if the 5th overall pick did not see the field over the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen, scepticism over his potential would have been even more rife across the NFL. By allowing Tua the opportunity to make his mistakes in a weakened AFC East, with both the Jets and Patriots very much below par, meant any rookie mistakes that made did not come at the expense of winning in the moment.

Any notions of his rookie struggles continuing this offseason are incorrect. Tua has come on leaps and bounds. Throughout camp the Dolphins’ passing game has improved tremendously. Despite the likes of Will Fuller and DeVante Parker not being on the field, Tua has had no issues in being able to push the ball down the field against an elite Dolphins’ defense. Tua has done this with consistency throughout camp with around 7 times more touchdown passes than interceptions throughout the entirety of camp.

Coming into the preseason games there was much anticipation as to how he would perform in a game setting. When evaluating his rookie season there were a few holes in Tua’s game: elements of his mechanics, decisiveness and confidence in the playbook. Throughout preseason Tua has been efficient with the ball, getting it out quickly with his feet set. In addition his pocket presence has come on enormously, as he has not been afraid to climb the pocket whilst his receivers get open. From what we have seen so far, everything is set for a big leap in 2021. Whether he is the long term solution we will see. A sample size of 9 games in an unprecedented season is not enough to make any judgement whether good or bad.

Bradley Davies

For a large chunk of 2019, a lot of Bengals fans thought the Bengals should target Tagovailoa in the Draft. I know because I was one of them. However, as Burrow’s legend grew, and Tua’s faded after his injury, it became clear who was the obvious choice. The Bengals will likely be seeing Jacoby Brissett and Reid Sinnett taking all the snaps this week. But, understanding the situation around Tua is essential to understanding the Dolphins.

Q: Opinions about head coach Brian Flores have generally ranged from highly impressed to somewhat skeptical. It was an impressive turnaround from the 5-11 team he coached in his first season. But, is there significant pressure to make the playoffs this year? What happens if they don’t?

People should not forget the position the Dolphins were in 2019. With what was considered the worst NFL roster of all time, calls for the league to investigate whether Dolphins were tanking and putting their players at risk. From starting 0-7 the Brian Flores has since gone 15-10 all in one year of a rebuild. Very few of Belichick’s coaches have been successful since leaving New England, Brian Flores is certainly one. The culture that he and Chris Grier have built in Miami is something truly different to what the Dolphins have had in some time and it is refreshing. While missing out on the playoffs this year will inevitably be a disappointment, if the team continues to develop in their rebuild and improve on both sides of the ball, Flores will be just fine. 

However as Tyler DeSena said in one of his articles, there is pressure on Flores to ensure that he has finally sorted the offensive coordinator position at the 3rd time of trying. From Chad O’ Shea’s highly technical and confusing offense, to an archaic offensive system designed by Chan Gailey specifically for Ryan Fitzpatrick, all eyes are now on George Godsey and Eric Studesville to modernise the Dolphins’ offense. However, so far so good. Pre-snap motions are being used to create separation, creating leverage allowing them to beat the defenses.

Bradley Davies

There are actually quite a few similarities between the Miami Dolphins’ turnaround and the Bengals’ rebuild with Zac Taylor. Both teams are run by young, first-time head coaches and both looked bad enough to draw tanking claims in 2019. Each targeted a franchise quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft. Both teams hope to have found a game-breaking wide receiver with their top pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. Each head into 2021 needing to prove the rebuild is working.

The biggest difference? The Bengals have a 6-25-1 record in that time frame and the Miami Dolphins are 15-17. In fact, the Dolphins just barely missed the playoffs. Flores’ job could be in jeopardy if the Dolphins put together an abysmal season. But, Taylor is under pressure to show progress now. Another sub .500 season with no hope of playoff contention would absolutely be a death knell for this regime.

Austin Jackson: Allowing Pressure?

From a historically bad 2019 season, the 2020 Miami Dolphins’ offensive line made considerable strides towards improvement, nevertheless question marks remain. One particular uncertainty is that of the position of Austin Jackson. Despite what can only be regarded as a trying season, having been asked to be the starter from the outset, Jackson appears to have his position locked down heading into 2021, with there being no heir apparent at the position. If this is true, it is Jackson who needs to make the biggest jump in his second year to live up to the expectations of the 18th overall selection.

From a historically bad 2019 season, the 2020 Miami Dolphins’ offensive line made considerable strides towards improvement, nevertheless question marks remain. One particular uncertainty is that of the position of Austin Jackson. Despite what can only be regarded as a trying season, having been asked to be the starter from the outset, Jackson appears to have his position locked down heading into 2021, with there being no heir apparent at the position. If this is true, it is Jackson who needs to make the biggest jump in his second year to live up to the expectations of the 18th overall selection.

Coming out of the 2020 draft we knew that Jackson was a very raw prospect. Aged only 20 he was a great athlete with all the physical traits required, but needed to refine his technique to make it in the NFL. Not to mention the obvious challenges that all rookies faced last season, that have been repeated endlessly, it would be unfair to think that those concerns had just gone away and he was NFL ready week one. Contrast this with the analysis of Liam Eichenberg, the Notre Dame, NFL ready tackle who hasn’t allowed a sack in his last 33 games; the positions of the two are very different indeed.

PFF ranked Jackson 78th out of 83 qualifying tackles, a rating is not necessarily a true reflection of his play. Jackson started 13 games, missing three games with a foot injury allowing 4 sacks. In fact 18 tackles allowed more sacks including Andrew Thomas, who the Dolphins were at a point rumored to be trading up for (farcical I know) yielding 10 sacks, whilst Mekhi Becton allowed 7 with the Jets. However, Jackson did allow a further 40 QB pressures, whilst his run blocking was nothing to write home about either, which was ranked 76th among 83 qualifying tackles. Jackson’s performance becomes more open to question following the relatively successful rookie campaigns of Solomon Kindley and Robert Hunt, who were both selected after Jackson. From week 12 onward, Hunt was the fifth best right tackle in the league with a PFF grade of 76.4.

Jackson’s worst performances unsurprisingly coincided with the offenses worst games, the matchup with the Broncos immediately comes to mind. Looking back it is almost painful to watch, as time after time Bradley Chubb dominated the rookie. There were several instances whereby Jackson would be beaten without actually ever getting his hands on the rusher, with Chubb merely running round him untouched. Coming into his second year, Jackson needs to work on his reactions; at times it seems like he focuses too much on where he is supposed to be blocking according to the playbook, rather than anticipating where the pressure is coming from in real time. Whilst all of this may seem like an indictment of Jackson, this is nothing that cannot be resolved with more and more reps. Let us not forget that tackle is one of the toughest positions to play as a rookie in a normal season, it is evident that at present the game is merely moving too quick for Jackson.

There were times throughout the season where it was a benefit that Tua is left handed, meaning that the left side was not his blindside.

Jackson appeared to play his best football when there was not as much space around him, in essence when he had tight ends blocking alongside him, making him more akin to a guard rather than a tackle. However, with Solomon Kindley the favorite to lock down the left guard position, whilst Robert Hunt has also moved from tackle to guard. It is expected that Hunt’s ceiling is much higher playing as a potential pro-bowl guard, so playing Jackson on the interior may not be an option. This is where the versatility instilled within this roster can be extremely beneficial and could potentially be season saving if things dont go to plan. If Jackson continues to struggle, the Dolphins do have the fallback option, if needed to shift Eichenberg to LT and then Hunt/Davis/Fluker or even Eluemunor back out to RT and then play Jackson and Kindley at guard. It is hoped that Jackson’s performances improve so that such contingency options are not required. So what is Jackson doing to improve?

“There’s a lot of new things, new adjustments from college to the pros, but one little thing I try to live by is I try not to make the same mistake twice. So whenever I come into a situation, make sure I do what I’ve got to do to get past it and get better, and make sure I’m getting better every single day.

The game slows down the longer you play. I think the first year, you learn a lot. The second year, you kind of handle more. So I would say I would expect to get a lot better next year, and then the year after that and then the year after that.”

Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson has been working on all aspects of his play throughout the offseason. One particular point of emphasis he states is in his knee bend and being able to get lower giving him more flexibility. Coming into his second year he acknowledges that he has seen strides in his development as a result of having a years playing experience under his belt. With the knowledge he has learnt from a trying rookie season, he is using that to put into his training, whilst refining his approach and technique to be consistent in his performances week in week out.

Whilst this tweet may not have aged well since Jackson was drafted, it is hoped that Jackson will be able to assert more dominance in his matchups in 2021 like he did for the Trojans.

Conclusion

While it may be Tua the highlighted player in the national media as being the Dolphins player under the most pressure to perform, it is the development and performance of Austin Jackson that will be just as vital to this offense. 2020 was not a disaster of a season for Jackson, but was very much below par of the 18th overall selection and pressure is mounting to show a quick improvement. Once again this article is by no means an indictment on Jackson or a call to move on. There is no doubt about it he is a stand out guy, an excellent character off the field and most importantly a team guy. He has everything Brian Flores and Chris Grier could want off the field, the question is can he dominate on it? Over the past three drafts whilst Brian Flores has been at the helm, the Dolphins have drafted 7 offensive linemen, signing 4 free agents this season alone on the line. Flores and Grier seem like men possessed to fix the holes within the line. Be in no doubt, Jackson will be under the microscope this season to improve, or risk looking over his shoulder next offseason for the next experiment on the line. Fins Up!

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