Secrets of the Tua Tagovailoa Trio
NFL Week 9 – Tua Tagovailoa ranks first in the NFL in passing DVOA. Tyreek Hill ranks second to Stefon Diggs in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. Jaylen Waddle ranks third in DYAR and second to Tyler Boyd in DVOA.
The stats are speaking to us about the Miami Dolphins. But what are they saying?
a) DVOA proves that Tagovailoa is a great quarterback, far superior to (say) Justin Herbert, and therefore should immediately be signed to a fully-guaranteed $300-million contract extension;
b) Tua’s high DVOA proves that analytics are meaningless and that no one at Football Outsiders actually watches games;
c) DVOA does not “prove” anything, but it does indicate that the Dolphins passing game has been highly effective this season and that Tua must be contributing in some positive way;
d) Cake is delicious.
If you answered d), you are WRONG: cake is highly overrated. Seriously, when is the last time you ate a slice of cake in a non-birthday/wedding situation? We have moved beyond cake as a society.
No, the answer is obviously c), because moderation is the way of the warrior, and we are here today to dive a little deeper into the Dolphins passing statistics in search of wisdom.
Before we do that, let’s take another quiz. Watch the following video:
Tyreek’s always down there somewhere. @Cheetah
— NFL (@NFL) October 30, 2022
What did you see?
a) A gutsy game manager scanning the defense and delivering a catchable ball to an open receiver;
b) An All-Pro receiver saving the day on an underthrown pass by a quarterback with a pea-shooter arm;
c) An example of how the Dolphins have achieved a kind of synergy between Tagovailoa and his receivers; or
d) What the hell is your beef against cake?
The answer here is again c). The Dolphins highlight reel is loaded with apparent underthrows that turn into big plays for Hill and Waddle. But it’s also full of moderate-to-deep completions to wide-open receivers, whether they be Tyreek and Waddle or guys such as Trent Sherfield and Mike Gesicki.
Have the Dolphins really discovered a sustainable model for success with Tagovailoa at quarterback?
We’ll try to answer that question in a moment. But let’s start out by saying something certain: opponents play defense as if they are terrified of Hill and Waddle.
Tua, Tyreek, and Waddle: No Blitzing Allowed
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are so fast and elusive that they limit what opposing defenses can do against the Dolphins: blitzing is a bad idea, while aligning safeties in the box is almost unthinkable.
Dolphins quarterbacks have faced a three- or four-man pass rush on 259 dropbacks, the sixth-highest figure in the NFL. They have faced a blitz (five or more rushers) on just 58 dropbacks, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. The 18.3% opponents’ blitz rate against the Dolphins is the lowest figure in the league. All splits are courtesy Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
To gauge how often defenses play on their heels, Walkthrough filters the Sports Info Solutions database for Cover-2, Man-2, Cover-4, and Prevent coverage schemes. The Dolphins have faced such coverages on 134 dropbacks, tied with the Raiders and Buccaneers for the third-highest figure behind the Bengals and, surprisingly, the Steelers.
The Bengals cause many of the same problems for defenses as the Dolphins. The Buccaneers have attempted 48 more passes than the Dolphins, so naturally they rank above them in “two-deep” coverages and three-/four-man rushes (though not blitzes). The Raiders, like the Dolphins (and Bengals and Bucs), have dangerous deep receivers, and both the Raiders and Steelers have faced a lot of soft late-game coverage. The Raiders, for example, attempted 22 passes that fit our coverage criteria in their Week 8 shutout against the Saints.
Sports Info Solutions tracks zero coverage: man coverage with no safeties deep, usually due to a jailbreak blitz. The Dolphins have not faced zero coverage once this year. The Ravens, as you might have guessed, lead the NFL with 16 dropbacks against zero coverage.
The Dolphins have faced Cover-1—man coverage with one deep safety—just 46 times, the fifth-lowest figure in the NFL. The Falcons, Titans, 49ers, and Raiders rank below them. Those teams have thrown between 40 and 132 fewer passes than the Dolphins.
We’re getting a pretty clear picture of how opponents try to defend against Tyreek, Waddle, and the Dolphins: a steady diet of two deep safeties, four-man rushes, and little else. Let’s examine how Tagovailoa and the other Dolphins quarterbacks have digested all of this pudding.
Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater Versus Vanilla Defenses
Here is how the Dolphins quarterbacks (including Tagovailoa’s backups, Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson) have fared against three- and four-man rushes, including their rankings among quarterbacks with 25-plus attempts in such circumstances:
|MIA QBs When Not Blitzed|
|Comp%||70.8% (8th)||61.0% (35th)||59.0% (37th)|
|Y/A||9.3 (2nd)||8.5 (6th)||6.1 (38th)|
|INT%||2.1% (17th)||5.1% (42nd)||2.6% (25th)|
|aDOT||9.2 (6th)||8.9 (8th)||8.4 (15th)|
There are a few things to point out before we continue:
- Bridgewater and Thompson attempted many of their passes when Greg Little and Brandon Shell were filling in for Terron Armstead at left tackle. Armstead is so good, and the others were so terrible, that it drags down their numbers.
- Several small-sample passers—Jameis Winston, Mitch Trubisky, Brett Rypien—rank ahead of Tagovailoa and Bridgewater on the average depth of target list. Marcus Mariota and Justin Fields are the only true starters ahead of the Dolphins two primary quarterbacks in aDOT, and both of them play in rather unconventional offenses that don’t take tons of deep shots.
- Yes, we all saw Tagovailoa throw a bunch of near-interceptions against the Steelers. We’re going with the data we have right now.
The numbers above demonstrate that Tua has been highly effective pushing the ball down the field against non-blitzes. But will a two-deep shell be the Dolphins’ KRYPTONITE? Again, we are using Cover-2, Man-2, Cover-4, and Prevent as our “deep coverage” definition. Thompson did not meet our minimum of 25 attempts.
|MIA QBs vs. Deep Coverages|
|Comp%||61.0% (23rd)||61.5% (22nd)|
|YPA||8.1 (8th)||8.3 (7th)|
|INT%||3.4 (16th)||7.7 (34th)|
|aDOT||10.6 (5th)||9.0 (15th)|
The deep-coverage rates paint a picture of a team that aggressively pushes the ball downfield, even with the safeties deep, and enjoys some success when doing so. It’s worth noting that neither Dolphins quarterback has been settling for dump-offs against deep safeties, despite their reputations: Tagovailoa and Bridgewater have been throwing downfield, sacrificing completion rate for high yards per attempt figures.
Shifting our focus to the wide receivers, Hill is 20-of-32 for 340 yards against deep coverage, with an aDOT of 14.8 yards. Only Chris Olave, Mack Hollins, and George Pickens have a higher aDOT against deep coverage on 20-plus targets, and Hill has 10 more targets than any of them.
Waddle is 14-of-23 for 226 yards with an aDOT of 11.4 yards. Trent Sherfield and Mike Gesicki have each been targeted 10-plus times against deep coverage, each with an aDOT over 10.0 yards.
Let’s blitz Tua and see what happens. Neither Bridgewater nor Thompson were blitzed enough for a meaningful sample:
|Tua Tagovailoa vs. Blitzes|
To clarify, Tagovailoa ranks 13th-best out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks at avoiding sacks against the blitz. Many quarterbacks—Justin Fields, Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco, Mac Jones, Matt Ryan—have sack rates against the blitz that are more than double Tua’s rate.
Tagovailoa does a very respectable job beating the blitz, in part because he knows who to look for. Hill is 13-of-18 for 184 yards and eight first downs against the blitz (no matter who is the quarterback), Waddle 8-of-11 for 116 yards and seven first downs. Hill’s average depth of target on these passes is 12.5 yards, Waddle’s 11.3. No other Dolphins receiver has been targeted against the blitz more than four times.
So if the defense sits back in soft coverage, Tagovailoa and the other Dolphins quarterbacks still look for Hill and Waddle down the field. If they blitz, Tua and the others look for Hill and Waddle down the field. Opponents understandably don’t tempt fate with the Dolphins receivers very often, so they sit back in deep coverage far more often than they blitz.
One last set of numbers before the next segment. Remember Cover-1? Opponents have only used it 46 times against the Dolphins. That may be because Dolphins quarterbacks are 26-of-38 for 394 yards and three touchdowns against Cover-1. Allowing 10.4 yards per pass attempt is bad. Opponents have managed to sack Tagovailoa four times and Thompson once playing Cover-1. Still, man coverage is a limited-use, high-risk strategy that has not produced results against the Dolphins.
Tua, Tyreek, and Waddle: Intermediate Overdrive
Combing through the stats and splits for the Dolphins passing game, it was as informative to discover what’s NOT going on as what is going on.
Dolphins quarterbacks are not unduly benefiting from tons of YAC. Dolphins receivers average 4.7 yards after catch per completion, the sixth-lowest figure in the NFL.
The Dolphins are no longer the RPO Speedwagon. Dolphins quarterbacks have attempted 22 RPO passes, including one sack: the fifth-highest total in the NFL, but well below the league-leading Eagles (39) and Packers (37). Roughly three RPO passes per game feels like a reasonable use of the tactic as an extension of the quick/play-action scheme. The Dolphins led the NFL with 89 RPO dropbacks in 2021, many of them clustered in Tagovailoa’s starts.
The Dolphins offense is not a screen-o-rama. Tagovailoa and the others have attempted 169 passes to targets within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, 17th in the NFL. They have attempted 53 passes to targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, 23rd in the NFL. They are a more-or-less average dink-and-dunking team, not remotely close to screen-and-flare-happy teams like the Cardinals and Packers. Entering the season, I expected Mike McDaniel to build half his passing game around RPOs and shallow drags to Hill. That has not been the case at all.
After watching lots of Dolphins games and scouring the stat sheet, it was time to play a hunch. The Dolphins want to throw deep. But Tagovailoa simply cannot throw that deep. Hill and Waddle can both beat man coverage in their first few strides and force zone or off-coverage defenders to give them ridiculous cushions. Therefore, the “sweet spot” for maximizing the value of Tyreek and Waddle should be in the 10- to 25-yard range: far enough downfield to make best use of their skills, but not in the “Tua needs a running start” range.
Let’s run Tagovailoa’s numbers in that 10- to 25-air yard range. Remember: he missed two-and-a-half games.
- Attempts: 66 (T-6th)
- Completions: 47 (1st)
- Yards: 904 (1st)
- Comp%: 71.2% (1st)
- Y/A: 13.7 (2nd)
- Int%: 0.0% (T-1st)
- Average Throw Depth: 14.7 (29th)
Check out all the first-place finishes in this admittedly homebrewed stat split. Tagovailoa has thrown as many 10- to 25-yard passes as Josh Allen; Tom Brady leads the NFL with 70 but has completed just 42 of them. A 71.2% completion rate on passes well down the field is downright remarkable. Bailey Zappe leads the NFL with 16.6 yards per attempt, but on just 24 plays.
Hill leads the NFL with 36 targets and 25 catches in this range. Waddle is fourth in targets with 30, second in catches with 22, and first in yards with 484. Hill is second to Waddle in yards. Gesicki and Sherfield combined for 15 catches and 257 yards in this range; remember that the passing statistics above do not include Bridgewater or Thompson.
We have honed in on what is unique about the Dolphins passing game this year. Hill and Waddle are constantly open on intermediate passes. If the defense is giving them too much cushion, Tagovailoa is capable of getting the ball to them underneath. If they win off the line against tight coverage, Tua can deliver a touch pass in the 20-yard range. Throw in Tyreek out-leaping defenders for the occasional 20-plus-yard can of corn and you get an offense that can both light up the scoreboard at times and light DVOA’s fire. And it’s hard to figure out what defenses can do about it, because no secondary since the Legion of Boom was even remotely equipped to deal with the Tyreek/Waddle combination.
Tua Tagovailoa and Sustainability
There is no question that the Dolphins offense has performed well with Tagovailoa under center this season. There are legitimate questions, however, about the short- and long-term sustainability of what the Dolphins are achieving.
Six games’ worth of DVOA cannot answer any long-term questions. Watching Tagovailoa take a running start and launch the football from behind his ear like a Little League outfielder and still underthrow his deep targets, it’s almost impossible to project him into the top-tier, first-quartile, win-because-of rank of quarterbacks, now or ever. But that doesn’t mean he cannot have a career like Alex Smith or develop into someone a healthy notch better than Jimmy Garoppolo. Tua looks significantly better than Bridgewater this year, something not all of us assumed would be true in the summertime. We’re probably doomed to years and years of circular Tua arguments, most of which stem from our obsession with circular arguments about B-tier quarterbacks.
In the short term, however, there is no reason to doubt that the Dolphins can sustain their current success, so long as Hill and Waddle stay healthy. There’s nothing here to “figure out,” no secret strategy at play. Hill and Waddle are quicker/faster/better than everyone else’s cornerbacks. Tagovailoa is accurate and decisive enough to get the ball to them, with enough touch and anticipation to make up for his lack of a fastball. The Dolphins running game and tertiary receivers are fine. Defenses have little choice but to rush four, keep two deep, and hope for protection breakdowns and misfires. The “dropped interception” concerns have some merit, but let’s see where Tua’s interception rate really lands in this new offense; a quarterback throwing downfield a lot can expect (and afford) a slightly elevated interception rate.
Bottom line: the Dolphins offense dictates the terms of every engagement, which automatically puts them in better position than the defense.
The Dolphins also just added Bradley Chubb on defense, of course, plus Jeff Wilson to juice their running game. They have already beaten the Bills and Ravens. They could and should be 7-3 entering the bye after they face the Bears and Browns. The Dolphins will never be Super Bowl favorites in a conference with the Bills and Chiefs. But their passing game gives them the potential to beat any team at any time, putting them in position to pounce if the top contenders falter. And that goes for this year and for 2023, when they can run back more or less the same lineup.
Quibbling about what the Dolphins might do ultimately detracts from what they are doing right now. Next time Tagovailoa connects with Tyreek on some unlikely, ungainly bomb, don’t scoff about how underthrown the ball was. Enjoy the highlight instead, and worry about what happens when opponents learn how to stop it if and when that happens.