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Dolphins film study: What worked, fell short in debut of Mike McDaniel’s offense

After a night to sit on his first game calling plays as head coach of the Dolphins, Mike McDaniel self-graded and gave himself a C.

There was much to like in the Dolphins’ preseason-opening win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday night. An offense led by rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson in his NFL debut didn’t turn the ball over and mainly ran a smooth operation, though McDaniel urged the seventh-round pick to get players in and out of the huddle quicker. There were also no penalties called on an offense primarily made up of reserves throughout the night.

With his first game out of the way, McDaniel said he can now work on “getting a B or an A someday, if you guys allow it.” As the team transitions into its second preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders at home, it will have firm building blocks, especially if key starters see the field. They’ll also have clear areas for improvement.

Drive starters

McDaniel came from Miami after multiple seasons as run game coordinator — and one year as offensive coordinator — with the San Francisco 49ers. His background in San Francisco often gave the idea in the offseason that the Dolphins would be a run-first team that kept its quarterback out of harm’s way. But when the Dolphins wanted to start their drives on a high note, McDaniel seemingly used that reputation to catch Tampa Bay’s defense off guard. Six of Miami’s 10 drives began with play action and it was more often than not successful. On six play-action dropbacks, Thompson completed four of five pass attempts for 88 yards. The following is how the Dolphins began each of their drives:

First half

Play-action rollout pass to tight end Mike Gesicki for 11 yards

Play-action pass to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr. for 15 yards

Play-action pass to wide receiver Trent Sherfield for 33 yards

Shotgun pass to wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. for 22-yard touchdown

Handoff to running back Myles Gaskin for 5-yard gain (end of half)

Second half

Play-action pass to wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. for 29-yard gain

Incomplete play-action pass to wide receiver Erik Ezukanma

3-yard scramble for Thompson after play-action drop-back

1-yard run by running back Gerrid Doaks

Incomplete shotgun pass to Doaks

The team’s first-down strategy on Saturday aligns with comments he made to the Miami Herald at the NFL Scouting Combine in early March about the ability for explosive plays on early downs. “If you can keep them guessing ... and they have to honestly defend all eligible [receivers] and how you set stuff up, you can have safe protections with high probabilities of explosive pass plays if you’re confident enough in your players to execute them.”

Rocky run game

While the Dolphins had success with their early-down passing, they didn’t fare nearly as well running the ball. The offense totaled 49 yards on 14 carries and if you exclude a 20-yard run by Gaskin and a 21-yard scramble by Thompson, the figure decreases to 8 yards on 12 carries. McDaniel said after the game the Buccaneers were committed to stopping the run and his assessment matches the film. On 11 of the team’s non-scrambling running plays, Tampa Bay often placed eight defenders in the box, giving the Dolphins a numbers disadvantage. Condensed formations that placed wide receivers in tight splits didn’t help to free space for running backs, though.

The run game, which has struggled to gain traction in training camp, should be a bit improved with more starters likely to return for the second preseason game. And if defenses continue to hone in on stopping it, McDaniel shouldn’t be afraid to attack defenses through the air with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle lining up at receiver.

Gesicki’s role

With so many starters sitting out the first preseason game, the decision to play tight end Mike Gesicki was notable. His fit in an offense that requires tight ends to block has been questioned and he has seen diminished targets in camp. He played nine snaps Saturday, giving a look at how McDaniel could use the talented pass-catcher — and limited blocker — in 2022.

Gesicki lined up as an inline tight end on five snaps, in a tight slot alignment for four and out wide on the other snap. He ran a route on five snaps, pass blocked once and run blocked three times but none of those run plays were in the direction of Gesicki’s side.

Play 1: First and 10. Lines up as inline tight end next to right tackle Austin Jackson. Runs a drag route and catches a pass for a 13-yard gain.

Play 2: First and 10. Lines up inline next to Jackson. Helps Jackson with double-team block on 1-yard run by Sony Michel away from Gesicki’s side.

Play 3: Third and 6. Lines up in a tight slot alignment. Not targeted on a crossing route.

Play 4: First and 10. Lines up inline next to left tackle Larnel Coleman. -3-yard run by Sony Michel away from Gesicki’s side.

Play 5: Second and 13. Lines up out wide to the right. Not targeted on a go route.

Play 6: Third and 9. Lines up in a tight slot alignment. Runs a route over the middle of the field and Thompson is sacked.

Play 7: First and 10. Lines up inline next to Jackson. Pass blocks on Thompson’s 15-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson Jr.

Play 8: First and 10. Lines up inline next to Jackson. 3-yard gain by Salvon Ahmed on run away from Gesicki’s side.

Play 9: Third and 6. Lines up in tight slot alignment. Not targeted on a crossing route.

“It is not an easy job to play tight end in the offense,” McDaniel said after the game, “so we thought that it would benefit him to get him in a little bit, but again, we’re trying to protect people too so you’re just trying to manage all of those things. Having a scope for the whole preseason, we thought it would be good. We wanted to get him a touch and get him orchestrated in hearing the offense, but also protect him, so I was happy. Before watching the tape, I was happy with the way he played and how he approached it – again, it’s not a punishment at all.”

This and that

The Dolphins were just about split on plays ran from under center (23) and shotgun (22), according to Next Gen Stats.

McDaniel utilized pre-snap motion on all but six offensive plays, according to Next Gen Stats. Last season’s San Francisco 49ers, with McDaniel as offensive coordinator, had a league-leading usage of pre-snap motion on 76.9 percent of plays, according to ESPN.