INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The last time in the same stadium was an embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that was part of a downward spiral in a winless December last season.
The Miami Dolphins avenged that defeat to start the 2023 season with a scintillating victory that saw Mike McDaniel and Tua Tagovailoa significantly outdo their counterparts, Brandon Staley and Justin Herbert, respectively.
It’s a conference road win against another team with similar aspirations to compete for the ultimate prize, and who knows how pivotal it could be later if a tiebreaker comes into play from this Week 1 decision?
Here’s how the Sun Sentinel grades the Dolphins’ performance in key areas of Sunday’s 36-34 win over the Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
Passing game: A
Sensational. Tagovailoa was 3 yards off his career high, but this was a much sharper overall performance than that 469-yard, six-touchdown Week 2 afternoon last year in Baltimore where the Ravens had busted coverages galore.
This was Miami’s fourth-year quarterback delivering the throw where it needed to be even when the Chargers had it well defended — even when he faced pressure and had to buy time.
There was the 35-yard touchdown strike to Tyreek Hill, beating J.C. Jackson, the long third-and-10 for Hill’s sliding grab, Braxton Berrios’ key third-down receptions and the game-winner to Hill, among several others.
Hill, by the way, had his best receiving performance as a Dolphin, and the tackle combination of Kendall Lamm and Austin Jackson did not allow a sack against Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and the Los Angeles pass rush.
Running game: C
Not too much going here, but with the way Tagovailoa and Hill were going, it was very understandable to let them do their thing.
With Jeff Wilson Jr. out and De’Von Achane a healthy inactive, Raheem Mostert rushed for 37 yards on 10 carries. Salvon Ahmed spelled him for three carries and 11 yards, and undrafted rookie Chris Brooks didn’t get an offensive snap. Is Erik Ezukanma a low-key Deebo Samuel replica for McDaniel? He picked up 17 yards on his two carries.
Defending the pass: B+
If Tagovailoa won the quarterback comparison, it was also going to take Miami’s pass defense limiting Herbert. As Tagovailoa threw strike after strike in a back-and-forth game, he wasn’t actually dueling against Herbert, but rather the Chargers run game.
Herbert was just 23 of 33 for 228 passing yards, less than half of the total for Tagovailoa, who was selected one pick before Herbert in the 2020 draft. Only 10 of Los Angeles’ 30 first downs were picked up via the pass.
And when it was on Herbert just to drive the Chargers into field-goal range to win the game — after Tagovailoa needed to score a go-ahead touchdown before him — he had an intentional-grounding penalty to back his offense up, was sacked by Zach Sieler and, on the final fourth-and-12, sacked by Jaelan Phillips and Justin Bethel. Two of Miami’s three sacks (Kader Kohou had the other) came in crunch time after there were a lot of instances of minimal pressure earlier.
Xavien Howard was called for pass interference twice and another illegal contact penalty. Some of those were questionable calls, but something Howard will have to correct as he’s the No. 1 cornerback until Jalen Ramsey can debut for the Dolphins.
Defending the run: F
While Vic Fangio was hired to fix all the deficiencies the defense had in pass defense and its lack of takeaways, it’s mildly concerning early on that the area the Dolphins ranked fourth last year was where they struggled in his debut as Miami coordinator.
The Dolphins’ normally stout defensive line wasn’t getting the push up front. Linebacker David Long Jr. had a bad run fit on a big Ekeler run, and safety DeShon Elliott missed an open-field tackle on the play, allowing it to break loose. When a safety combination of Elliott and Jevon Holland combine for 27 tackles in a game where the opponent ran the ball 40 times, compared to 33 pass attempts, that means Chargers backs spent the afternoon in the second level.
Special teams: C
Kicker Jason Sanders made his three field goals, but that failed extra point in the clutch would’ve been disastrous had the defense not come through with a stop. It made it so all Herbert needed was a field goal for the win.
Punter Jake Bailey punted just once for 38 yards, and all Braxton Berrios had to do was secure a couple of fair catches. Kelvin Joseph, recently acquired in the Noah Igbinoghene trade with the Dallas Cowboys, saw plenty of special teams action in his Dolphins debut. Rookie cornerback Cam Smith did too, although he didn’t get a defensive snap. Same for outside linebacker Cameron Goode, elevated from the practice squad. Brandon Jones played 18 special teams plays to just two defensively.
McDaniel schemed up the game plan to get all those Tagovailoa-to-Hill hookups. He had the right situational play calls on big third downs. He made adjustments from last year’s loss where Staley stuck it to him with his defensive game plan, and unlike that loss, the middle of the field was open plenty thanks to the play designs he devised. And he changed it up when needed. Hill’s 35-yard touchdown down the sideline was set up from him going inside release all game.
Fangio, the new defensive coordinator, didn’t have a strong Dolphins debut, but I’m giving the veteran coach the benefit of the doubt to get things fixed.
Stock up: Tua Tagovailoa
Tagovailoa’s stock is up nationally, now a betting co-favorite with Patrick Mahomes for league MVP, according to DraftKings.
His Week 1 performance was a byproduct of the way McDaniel said Tagovailoa “didn’t waste a day” in the offseason. Handling everything in his control to present the best version of himself, Tagovailoa made the throws required of him, was well-prepared knowing the game plan front to back and understood what the Chargers were going to try to do against him. And he knew when to live to see the next play, dumping off a throwaway one time with nothing there and knowing to slide on his one scramble.
Stock down: David Long Jr.
The touted off-ball linebacker acquisition saw just 17 defensive snaps. He was burned early, somehow matched up on wide receiver Keenan Allen when the Dolphins went away from nickel for a 3-4 look. By comparison, Andrew Van Ginkel, who added inside linebacker play to what he was already doing on the edge, played 51 snaps. Safety DeShon Elliott looked lost at times, out of position and missing open-field tackles. Running back De’Von Achane is also down right now as a healthy inactive. The third-round pick had undrafted rookie Chris Brooks on the game-day roster over him Week 1, but Achane recently had a shoulder injury.