Dolphins film study: How a unique Chargers game plan stifled Miami’s offense again

Al Diaz/

The Dolphins’ opening possession against the Los Angeles Chargers — all 23 seconds of it — was a microcosm, and maybe an omen, for Miami’s night, another frustrating outing for its offense.

On the first play, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa targeted wide receiver Tyreek Hill, streaking down the sideline. But safety Alohi Gilman was step-for-step with the fastest player in the NFL and deflected the ball.

On the second, Tagovailoa tried to get the ball to wideout Jaylen Waddle, but cornerback Michael Davis was draped over him, preventing Waddle from completing the catch.

The third was a drop by Hill, but cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor was right by Hill with less than 2 yards of separation, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

The Dolphins’ 23-17 loss to the Chargers was again headlined by head-scratching issues for an offense that has been one of the league’s best this season. Miami continued to struggle on third down (3 for 11) and gained only 219 yards, its lowest total since Week 3.

Prolonged issues passing the ball — Tagovailoa only threw for 145 yards and completed a season-low 35.7 percent of his passes — prompted questions regarding whether the Chargers used the previous game against the San Francisco 49ers as a template for stopping the Dolphins’ offense.

After the game, Chargers coach Brandon Staley told reporters they had a different game plan.

“[San Francisco] didn’t play pressed up like we did tonight,” Staley said. They played quarters, off [coverage] most of the time, or two-deep, so their game plan was completely different than ours. Structurally, it’s not even close to being the same in the secondary. They use more of their linebackers to get it done, their pass rush. Our secondary tonight really answered the call. Our secondary was on them in a lot of different ways, and you’ll see that on the tape.”

From the opening snap, the Chargers had a clear vision on defense, centered on roughing up the Dolphins’ speedy receivers. According to Next Gen Stats, Los Angeles pressed a season-high 35 percent of detached routes. Miami only completed one pass on eight targets in press coverage.

So many Dolphins games have become track meets, with opponents afraid to get beat and allowing free releases into wide zones over the middle of the field. The Chargers decided to turn the game into a wrestling match.

“They executed a great game plan and really outphysicaled us, I thought,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said after the game.

In terms of coverage, the Chargers ran Cover 6 — a zone concept that combines Cover 4 and Cover 2, placing three defenders in deep zones — on 26.5 percent of Tagovailoa’s dropbacks, according to TruMedia, the highest rate the Dolphins have seen this season. But maybe more importantly is when Los Angeles decided to go zone versus man.

On early downs — first and second — the Chargers were in man coverage 13.2 percent of the time; only the Texans, Steelers and Ravens played more man coverage in those situations, all teams whose defenses have given Miami’s offense troubles at times.

On third downs, many of them long distances to move the chains, the Chargers dropped into deep zones where many teams have played man against the Dolphins. Los Angeles was in some sort of zone defense more than 80 percent of the time on third down; only the 49ers dropped into zones more often against Miami in such situations.

When Los Angeles was in man coverage, they made sure not to give much of a cushion to the receivers.

On 40 percent of Hill’s 22 routes, the Chargers pressed, meaning, they were within 3 yards of him at the time of the snap. He had an average separation of 1.8 yards on those routes. Over the course of the season, teams have been hesitant to play press coverage against Hill; he’s only seen it on 19.9 percent of his routes but has managed an average separation of 2.4 yards.

Waddle was only targeted four times on Sunday night but faced press coverage on 13 of the 26 routes he ran. This season, he has faced it on 25 percent of his routes.

The Dolphins’ struggles beating man coverage were reflected in the tight windows Tagovailoa had to throw into. 40 percent of Hill’s targets came within a tight window, defined as less than 1 yard from the nearest defender. During the season, only 14 percent of Hill’s targets have come within a tight window.

Even in the rare instances when receivers were running free, the Dolphins weren’t able to capitalize. On the second play of the third drive, Hill ran a deep post through the Chargers’ zone and past safety Nasir Adderley. But Tagovailoa’s pass fell several yards in front of Hill, who didn’t appear to realize the ball was coming until it was too late.

The Dolphins made some adjustments, but not enough, after trailing 17-7 at halftime. On Hill’s 60-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, Miami flooded the left side of the field and isolated Hill 1-on-1 with Davis, the Los Angeles cornerback. The Chargers were in single-high coverage and had one deep safety, Gilman. But with four eligible receivers on the left side, Gilman had to shade to the strong side of the field, leaving Davis on an island with Hill. It was a great play from Tagovailoa and Hill strolled into the end zone after Davis tripped.

Otherwise, Miami didn’t have enough solutions for a Chargers defense that forced the Dolphins out of their element for the second consecutive game.

“Everyone has laid back and played soft in zones and gives them all this space because they’re scared of their speed,” Chargers defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko said. “We weren’t scared. We played press man-to-man on their receivers. We didn’t give them any space for their speed to run. And up front, we didn’t blitz much, did we?”