In joint practices, Dolphins get a taste of how opponents might defend their new-look offense

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Chris O'Meara/AP

The first of two joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a productive morning for the Dolphins offense — even if it didn’t feature a single touchdown or the type of deep completion that was the norm for the first two weeks of training camp in Miami Gardens.

For the first time all summer, the offense got to line up against an opposing team and get a sense of how their new-look scheme under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel will be defended.

While media guidelines prohibit reporters from stating specific strategies from either team, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa gave insight into Tampa Bay’s defense after Wednesday’s practice.

“Tampa’s technique is different than the technique that we face a lot in camp where we get a lot of press man [coverage],” the third-year quarterback said. “Tampa has a lot of off man [coverage], off zone [coverage]. They have a fair amount of disguises with what they do, but they’re a really good team. We’re very fortunate, as a team, to come out here and be able to compete against some of the guys that played on the Super Bowl team two years ago. So it’s good work for us, and we’re looking forward to [Thursday].”

The Buccaneers have a strong secondary, with players such as cornerbacks Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. But, according to Tagovailoa, they often played in an off man technique that has corners lining up multiple yards off the ball, insurance against the speed of receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

With Tampa Bay seemingly protecting themselves against deep completions, Tagovailoa had an efficient day orchestrating the offense with short to intermediate passing attempts. In various 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, he routinely attempted a handful of passes and rarely missed on more than two attempts.

In one 11-on-11 drill, Tagovailoa began the session with the type of completion that could be frequently available in 2022. Tagovailoa dropped back and found Hill settling over the middle of the field for an intermediate gain and space for yards after the catch. It was a sequence that could be a revelation for Tagovailoa given the struggles he has shown in his young career.

Tagovailoa made good work in the short range of the middle of the field in 2021. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he was 37 of 49 for 369 yards, one touchdown and an interception in passes that traveled 1 to 10 yards in the middle of the field. However, on passes that traveled between 10 to 20 yards in the middle of the field, Tagovailoa completed just 15 of 36 passes for 267 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

With the presence of Hill now complementing Waddle and the threat of their speed, those numbers figure to improve if teams play the type of off man coverage Tagovailoa referenced.

“Everyone loves Tyreek in the organization,” Tagovailoa said, “and I think him and Jaylen do a really good job complementing each other by one goes deep, if they’re doubling him, then we’ve got another speedster coming across and vice versa. But those guys also help other guys get open on our team.”

To this point, not only do the depths of McDaniel’s scheme remain a mystery but the ways defenses will defend an offense that has arguably the two fastest receivers in the league and a famed outside zone running scheme that has had success in several organizations through the years.

In 2021, with a limited receiving corps, stagnant rushing offense and porous offensive line, Tagovailoa often dropped back to pass against defenses in single-high safety looks, in which one safety drops back deep into coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, against single-high looks — Cover 3 and Cover 1 — Tagovailoa completed 135 of 206 passes (65.5 percent) for 1,606 yards (7.8 yards per attempt), three touchdowns and four interceptions. He was also sacked nine times against those coverages.

Against two-deep safety looks, where both safeties drop deep into coverage, Tagovailoa was less efficient. Against Cover 2, Cover 2 Man and Cover 4, he completed 76 of 113 passes (67.2 percent) for 738 yards (6.5 yards), one touchdown and four interceptions. He was sacked eight times against those looks.

NFL defense’s usage of two-deep looks has increased recently in an attempt to offset dynamic passing offenses, and the Dolphins could see more of those coverages with so much speed added to their team.

And if teams do decide to drop their safeties further back to stymie the passing game, McDaniel — who made his mark as run game coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers — likely won’t hesitate to run the ball with fewer defenders in the box.

But even with the additions of veterans such as running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert and offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, the Dolphins’ running game remains a work in progress. In Wednesday’s practice, several runs were stopped for little to no gain. One such run in a two-minute drill forced the Dolphins to bring out their kicking unit with time expiring on the clock.

Improvement in the running game is the kind of asset that could benefit an offense that added so much talent in the passing game.

“[Hill is] a different kind of receiver all around,” Davis said. “He brings something to the game that no other receiver does, so to be able to go up against him in practice, especially early on in camp, just helps you fine-tune your skills and your technique. It was pretty good [Wednesday]. I’m excited to go back up against him [Thursday], him and Waddle. They’re just two fast, twitchy guys that you’ve just got to love and embrace going up against them. Like I said, there’s no other receivers in the league that can do what they do.”