Opinion & Analysis

The Breakdown: Miami Dolphins vs Baltimore Ravens

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Dan YeatesOpinion & Analysis
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After a crazy good Week 1, you could have been forgiven for expecting Week 2 of the NFL season to be a letdown. But no, the NFL had other things planned and we got one of the best weekends of football in September that I can remember.

There have been 17 games since 2002 where the winner had a 2% or lower chance of winning at some point in the game, and we had 3 of them on Sunday. The Raiders, Browns and Ravens decided that they just didn’t want to win football games anymore and let the Cardinals, Jets and Dolphins respectively back into games they had no right to win. The worst bit is that they were all crushing home losses.

After just two weeks of the regular season action, we only have 6 undefeated teams left in the league (and 2 of them are in the historically bad NFC East!!!) The ’72 Miami Dolphins should be feeling pretty good about keeping their only undefeated record early on this year.

For this week’s Breakdown, there is only one game I could look at, a game with 2 teams that pride themselves on stout defence, being tough to play against and grinding out results. And yet they had the highest scoring game of the week, with a total of 80 points, it is of course the ridiculous Dolphins @ Ravens.

How on earth did this game end up the way it did, when straight after Lamar Jackson scored on a crazy 79-yard TD run with 26 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, the Ravens had a 21-point lead, with the score 14-35 in their favour? Well, I am going to dig into the All-22 film and try and come up with an answer.

As always, all takes are my own and I say it as I see it on film, so come at me in the comments with your thoughts.

Before I dive into the tape, here are my 4 key takeaways from the game:

  1. The hype around the 2022 Dolphins offenceis real. We know their defence was one of the best in the league last year, but their offence is going to cause people problems all season. Head Coach Mike McDaniel’s scheme is such a good fit for the personnel on this squad, using pre-snap movement and disguises to make the absolute most of the track monsters on his team. With Mostert, Gesicki, Hill & Waddle all able to run away from any DBs out there, teams will play man coverage against them at their peril.
  2. Tua looks full of confidence and was almost perfect in this game. With an aggressive mindset and the confidence to keep slinging the ball, we got a glimpse of the Tua we hoped he could be coming into the league. Despite the fact his arm strength is a limitation (and was the cause of both INTs in the first half), he never stopped pushing the ball downfield and was rewarded in the second half. Combined with the best decision-making game we have seen and his usual outstanding accuracy (see Gesicki TD to make it 28-14), we might have a top 10 QB on our hands this year.
  3. The defensive play-calling for Miami needs to improve. The Dolphins defence caused themselves a huge number of problems on Sunday by not adapting their play-calling as the game went on. DC Josh Boyer was retained by Mike McDaniel from Brian Flores’ staff last year and kept the same game plan for this game as they used to flummox Jackson and co last season. But the Ravens were ready for it and took full advantage of a defence that blitzed too much, running a huge amount of man coverage (both Cover 1 and Cover 0) – the result was a record day for Lamar, 3 TDs and 0 sacks when blitzing. By the time Boyer finally adjusted in the 4th quarter to make the stops needed, he had given up 28 points on defence, which is a quick way to get fired in the NFL.
  4. The lead was flukier than the comeback. I firmly believe that the best team in this game was the Dolphins and they win this game 9 times out of 10. 21 points were gifted to the Ravens on a kick return TD and 2 long plays that were a result of an obsession with playing Cover 0 against a team that can’t run the ball and aren’t known for a consistent short-medium passing game. I know the stats say Lamar had a great game, and the film agrees, but in my humble opinion this is more to do with Miami’s gameplan being awful and not adjusting than it is anything to do with the Ravens. Outside of Bateman & Andrews, they have no weapons on the field and cannot rely on Lamar being perfect every week as a gameplan. They could come back down to earth quickly, with a horrific schedule coming up (@Patriots, Bills, Bengals, @Giants, Browns @ Bucs.) The Ravens need JK Dobbins and Ronnie Stanley back ASAP.
  5. The Ravens defence is shaky. Now, they did have injury problems in their defensive backfield, finishing this game with 1 of their 3 top corners, but that doesn’t hide the fact that this group has a long way to go. They have no outstanding players on the line, so struggle to get pressure on the QB with 4 rushers, and then on the back end they need first round rookie Kyle Hamilton to get up to speed quickly. He did not have a good game against the Dolphins, occasionally looking lost in what is a complicated scheme, and he was at fault for several big plays. One bright spot was Patrick Queen – he was flying around out there, playing on instinct and is a beast in the run game. He got abused on one passing down in single coverage against Tyreek Hill, but then what middle linebacker wouldn’t?

Ok before all the Ravens fans go crazy at me for saying they were the worst team on the field – let me show you what I mean, and then we can finish on how well Tua played.

The first play comes with 10:54 to go in the second Quarter. Miami have just scored to make it a 7-7 game and the Ravens get the ball for a first and 10 on their 25 after a touchback from the kick-off. They line up in 12 personnel, with Bateman and Duvernay the twin receivers to the left of the formation, Bateman in the slot and Duvernay out wide. The Dolphins have a Cover 0 Blitz dialled up, meaning everyone is in straight-man coverage with no safety help, but there is some confusion about who should be covering who.

As you can see from the image above, star corner Xavien Howard is lined up opposite Duvernay, with undrafted rookie Kader Kohou on Bateman in the slot. This is clearly not the plan, with Kahou pointing out who he is guarding to Howard, as if asking Howard to move over to take the greater threat. (Howard followed Bateman for much of the game, so this was clearly a part of the gameplan and in this situation, they simply lined up incorrectly due to Bateman sliding inside.)

They decide not to switch, recognising that it is too late, but then Duvernay goes in motion to the other side of the formation and Howard makes the late decision to change coverage here, sending the rookie to follow the motion man and moving over to take Bateman.

However, he doesn’t get fully set before the ball is snapped, meaning he is not in the right position as Bateman releases off the line.

As a result, Howard isn’t able to impact the receiver at the point of attack and Bateman gets a completely free release at the line. Also, without his feet set, Howard is forced into turning his hips early when Bateman seemingly releases towards the outside.

This is great work by the second-year wideout, as he cuts back under Howard into a Skinny Post route that gives him the 3 yards of separation he needs. Lamar recognises this and JUST about makes the throw, giving him a lot of work to do on the catch, but Bateman secures the ball and is free.

At this point it’s a foot race to the end zone with no safety help over the top for the Dolphins and Bateman shows his speed to score. One of the easier 75-yard TDs he will ever score, and all because of a defensive confusion and an overly aggressive play call by Boyer.

The next play is just a great example of how this Miami defence can still improve its fundamentals. With 4:23 to go in the first half, Mark Andrews thinks he has scored, but Miami did a good job to bring him down at the 1. On the next play the defence calls a goal-line defence, but seemingly forgets about covering Andrews. He is CLEARLY the best red-zone weapon Lamar has, but yet is allowed the freedom of the end zone on a busted coverage.

I’ve watched this play a LOT. And for the life of me I cannot figure out what Josh Boyer was doing. He appears to have called (at best) a 9 man blitz, with two line backers covering middle zones, but reading run to pass. This is a complete sell-out to stop the run and they just don’t cover anyone – not a single defender even vaguely looks like they are in coverage. One defender even follows the motion on the offensive side of the ball, and then still blitzes! The result – 7 more easy points for Baltimore.

And then finally the 79 yard scamper by Jackson for their final TD of the game. Once again at the snap we have every Dolphins player within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

The defence all bite down on the Jet Sweep fake, and then over pursue so that when Lamar tucks the ball down and runs there is no one in the middle of the field.

With Baltimore pulling the Left Guard to seal that edge against the over-pursuing defenders, this leaves a huge hole for Lamar and no second level of the defence to stop him. Another easy 7 points for someone with his speed.

Yes, these plays required the Ravens to be able to recognise what they were facing, but in my opinion, they were 3 TDs that were easily avoidable with better play calling and more sound fundamentals on defence. The players are there for Miami to have a top 5 defence, but the coaching is letting them down right now. For players as talented as Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman, these were gifts, rather than the result of the terrific offence.

Now, turning our attention to the other side of the ball. Throughout the game Tua was aggressive and accurate, but one area where he truly shone was third down – he went 9 of 10 for 152 and 4 TDs. In the 4th quarter, that became 3 of 3 for 112 and 3 TDs. You read that correctly – Miami had 3 third downs in the 4th quarter, and they scored TDs on all of them, including a 60-yarder and a 49-yarder to Tyreek Hill.

However, those long throws are not where I am going to focus for Tua, because frankly, they were both busted coverages by the Ravens, who seemed to confuse themselves with exotic coverages whilst simultaneously forgetting that Tyreek Hill is really really really quick.

Very briefly though, here you can see Kyle Hamilton following the motion across the formation and changing the play as he does so. I believe he is supposed to be the deep half safety on this play over the top over Tyreek. He changes the play but the new play call doesn’t get to rookie corner Armour-Davis at the top against Hill.

Instead, what we get is the rookie playing underneath, still believing he has safety help over the top and an easy TD for Tyreek.

Instead, I am going to look at the other touchdown throws from Tua on Third down. The first one was in the third quarter to bring the score back to 28-14 to the Ravens.

Its 3rd and 13 from the Baltimore 15-yard line, Miami come out in spread with 11 personnel – Gesicki is split out in the slot on the right hand side of the formation. Baltimore play a good situational defence, with a 3 safety package playing Cover 2 and protecting the end zone, just rushing 2 and dropping 9 into coverage.

Initially everyone is covered by this blanket defence, but because of the two man rush Tua has all day in the pocket. A lot of QBs at this point get panicky and would think about trying to scramble, but Tua stays in there and goes through his progressions nicely.

His first two reads are Hill and Waddle to the left, but the Ravens have great coverage on them. As he comes back across the formation, he sees a tiny window over Safety Chuck Clark in the back of the end zone for Gesicki and throws a dart that only his guy has a chance to haul in.

The ball is so good that Clark doesn’t even jump for it, as it is over his head and he thinks there is no chance that Gesicki can make a play on it.

This type of throw is SPECIAL in the NFL – before this weekend not a lot of people would have put Tua in the category of QBs that could make this throw. It is normally reserved for the likes of Justin Herbert, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes and yet Tagovailoa executes it perfectly in a highly pressured environment and gives his guy a chance to make a play.

The last play I will break down is the 2-yard TD to River Cracraft at the start of the 4th quarter to spark the comeback. It’s 3rd & goal from the 2-yard line, with the Dolphins down 21 and needing to score to have a chance.

For once, the Ravens get pressure on Tua, collapsing the pocket in the middle and his first read is not there, forcing him to hold onto the ball. At this point it looks for all the world like a sack is coming and a desperation 4th and 12+ needing a TD. And in the past, that is exactly how it would have played out.

But on this occasion, Tua sees the free rusher and shows off his athleticism, spinning out of the sack and extending the play.

He then goes on a run towards the left sideline, keeping his eyes downfield rather than staring at the rush, which he has done previously.

He then flicks a good ball on the run, without resetting his feet, firing a dart in to his tight end who has come all the way across the formation to help out his QB

And this is where his accuracy comes in – it is so so easy for a QB to miss that throw while on the run, with a rusher in his face, running away from the target. He doesn’t – the ball is perfectly on target and makes it an easy catch for Cracraft, who doesn’t have to break his stride to make the completion.

Overall, this was one of the best games of the season so far, with a lot of dynamics offensive players on show taking advantage of some questionable defences. At this stage of the season there are a lot of adjustments to make for either of these teams to get where they want to be.

But by far the biggest story is Tua Tagovailoa, who is demonstrating clear growth in this Mike McDaniel offence that is making life as simple as it can be for the QB, with pre-snap motion on almost every single play from scrimmage. If McDaniel can keep dialling up creative ways to get his weapons in space and Tua can continue this growth trajectory we have seen so far, then it could be that Miami is the surprise AFC representative in the Super Bowl in February. We will have a much better idea after they match up against the superstar Buffalo Bills on Sunday – a game that just jumped to the top of most people’s watchlist.

For the Ravens, they have severe questions to answer about their ability to run the football and their defensive plan. If they can’t run the ball, can’t get pressure on opposing QBs without blitzing and Kyle Hamilton doesn’t emerge as the premium safety they need him to be, then they could easily finish bottom of a rugged AFC North.

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