Dolphins film study: Where Miami’s offense needs to improve the most in Tua’s return

Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

The return of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa should help lift an offense that has struggled in his absence. The third-year quarterback’s accuracy, ball placement and timing in coach Mike McDaniel’s scheme gave Miami one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses before a concussion sidelined him for the better part of three games.

However, Tagovailoa can only do so much for a porous offensive line that has struggled to pass protect in recent weeks. Injuries have played a role in the unit’s problems. Left tackle Terron Armstead has been playing with a toe injury that limited him to just eight snaps in a Week 5 loss to the New York Jets and kept him out of the Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Right tackle Austin Jackson has missed the last five games on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Against the Vikings, Greg Little and Brandon Shell filled in at left and right tackle, respectively, in the Dolphins’ third unique starting combination this season.

McDaniel said he is hopeful his bookend tackles will play in the Dolphins’ Week 7 home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. If they do suit up, their presence — especially Armstead’s — should help settle a unit that has unraveled the past few games.

If one or both is unable to play, the offensive line will have to eliminate mistakes that led to constant pressure on Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater. The unit allowed a pressure rate of 43.6 percent against the Vikings, according to TruMedia, the second-highest this season only to the Jets game.

What is more concerning is that Minnesota, which entered the game with a middle-of-the-pack blitz rate, only brought extra rushers on 14.5 percent of dropbacks.

Though most of the pressure came on the left side, there was no common link to how it was allowed — for example, sometimes a lineman was beaten 1-on-1 and other times, good coverage forced the quarterback to hold onto the ball. But on each of the six sacks given up, the Dolphins had more blockers available than pass rushers.

Here is a breakdown of each sack:

1. First quarter, 8:48, third-and-9: Vikings rush four defenders with a tackle-end (TE) stunt, in which a defensive tackle gets penetration between the offensive guard and offensive tackle, and a defensive end loops around the traffic as a free rusher. Patrick Jones loops around and crosses past Liam Eichenberg to sack Thompson.

Armstead spoke about blocking stunts in training camp, saying it takes not only proper technique but good communication with the lineman next to him to make sure it’s blocked correctly.

“I’m working with Liam hand-in-hand, literally,” Armstead said in August. “What I do affects him. Today we had a play where they ran a stunt and I set out too wide and got picked, and the guy looped around and it would’ve been a hit or sack on Tua. That was 100 percent on me. It looks like Liam, but that was 100 percent on me. Those things, we are working together. We are working together. I’ve got to be more conscious not to get away from the protection, knowing it’s just me and him versus those two.”

2. Second quarter, 6:56, third-and-1: Vikings rush five, Dolphins have six blockers. Bridgewater trips on the dropback and is tackled at the line of scrimmage by Jordan Hicks after scrambling.

3. Third quarter, 10:08, third-and-8: Vikings rush five, Dolphins have five blockers. The pocket collapses on the left side but the Vikings are playing the first-down marker and nobody is open.

4. Third quarter, 5:11, first-and-10: Vikings rush four, Dolphins have six blockers: Little gives up the sack but he’s bumped by Hunter Long, who was moving across the line to block, and he can’t recover in time against Za’Darius Smith.

5. Fourth quarter, 7:31, second-and-10: Vikings rush four, Dolphins have five blockers. Little is beaten by Smith 1-on-1.

6. Fourth quarter, 2:01, first-and-goal from the 11: Vikings rush four, Dolphins have five blockers. Tight coverage forces Bridgewater to hold onto the ball and Little is beaten by Danielle Hunter.

Little has struggled since filling in for Jackson and had his worst game of the season against the Vikings. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up nine pressures, six hurries and three sacks, all season-high marks. If Armstead is able to play, he should settle the left side of the line. In 244 snaps, he’s only allowed eight pressures and no sacks, according to PFF, and could assist Eichenberg, who has also struggled (18 pressures, two sacks allowed).

While Jackson has faced growing pains in his first two seasons, he looked like an improved player in training camp before his ankle injury sidelined him 14 snaps into the season opener.

McDaniel said the offensive line often takes the longest to come together when installing a new scheme because of how difficult it is to get five players in sync. Whether the unit is at full strength or not on Sunday night, they’ll need to correct their shortcomings in recent weeks to ensure Tagovailoa has optimal time in the pocket.