1. Tua is having a great year. What has allowed him to take that next step this year? Are you confident with him as the franchise QB going forward?
I think hiring Mike McDaniel as the team’s head coach had the biggest impact on his development and growth. Tagovailoa is literally the video that is used on how to operate the run-pass option system at the college level and he fits McDaniel’s scheme perfectly, but it is not the system that has made Tagovailoa into an MVP candidate.
It is all about confidence. Former head coach Brian Flores broke Tagovailoa. From the moment the Dolphins selected Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL Draft, Flores was trying to replace him. He did not trust Tagovailoa, to the point that the team went to a “closer” system where Tagovailoa would start the game, but Ryan Fitzpatrick would be brought in late in the game. Flores is a good coach, but he was not ready for a head coaching position because he believed he could be Bill Belichick and it would instantly work. Instead, he alienated players, including trading away talented players like safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and he seemed to believe the best way to improve a player was to consistently focus on their flaws. Flores’ name is starting to creep into head coaching talk again and it would be interesting to see him get a second chance. Did he learn from what went wrong in his first experience?
Ryan Fitzpatrick, now working as an analysts with Amazon Prime Video pre- and post-game on Thursday nights, was asked about New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones before this week’s Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers game. In his response, he pointed to Tagovailoa, Flores, and McDaniel. “[Mac Jones] is definitely broken, mentally, emotionally, he’s broken,” Fitzpatrick explained. “You know, I look to a few similar examples of first-round quarterbacks that have gone through their struggles.Jared Goff being one of them and then Sean McVay comes in and they are able to fix him. Tua Tagovailoa, who I was with, Brian Flores, same New England way (as Jones), he was broken for Brian Flores, the way that he treated him, the way that he coached him. And what happens? Mike McDaniel comes in, he restores his confidence, he gets it back and he’s now an MVP candidate.”
One of the first things McDaniel did when he took the head coaching position with the Dolphins was put together a film of over 400 throws from Tagovailoa to reinforce that Tagovailoa can play at the NFL level. And it was not just Tagovailoa. Right tackle Austin Jackson, a fellow-2020 first-round pick with Tagovailoa, this week signed a three-year contract extension after it appeared he was going to become a draft bust. He has found his confidence, and his play is matching the potential that had Miami select him.
Tagovailoa, spoke of Jackson after the contract was announced but may as well have been speaking about himself. He stated, ”To sit in those meetings, have things told about you that, you know, aren’t true, but they get planted in your head, and you have the media on you as well. And then you have someone like Mike and his coaching staff come in, and basically just build you back up. And it’s not just Austin. It’s really everyone that’s been here for some time, and kind of gives you that renewed confidence in yourself to just go out there and be yourself and play the way you’ve played. That’s why the organization chose you. You see the fruits of his labor. So I’m very happy for him.”
2. Tyreek Hill is on pace to set the single-season receiving yards record. What has Mike McDaniel done to help him take his game to the next level? Is there any way to stop him?
I would probably stay away from one-on-one, man-to-man coverage with no help over the top. For some reason, the Washington Commanders tried that last week. Hill relishes the ability to just run past people, and the Commanders let him do it.
Hill has just been ridiculous this year. I know he loves to praise Tagovailoa as the “most accurate quarterback” and, when you have played with Patrick Mahomes, that comes across as saying Tagovailoa is better than Mahomes. But I think the accuracy is what is helping Hill. Tagovailoa is a master of putting the ball exactly where it needs to be, either to the spot where the receiver will be, or away from the defenders to give the receiver a chance to turn a pass into a huge gain.
Last week, there was a long pass to Hill where the receiver looked back over his left shoulder as he ran what appeared to be a post route. The pass was thrown outside, more like a go or corner route. Hill had to flip his head, find the ball again, and make the catch. The initial reactions had Tagovailoa throwing a bad pass and Hill reacting to make up for it. Even Hill had that reaction when he came back to the sideline. But, after seeing the film, Hill admitted Tagovailoa threw the right pass, and Hill ran the wrong route.
Bad take I ran my route wrong Tua threw that ball exactly where I was suppose to be . He noticed my angle put enough air time on it just to give me time to adjust https://t.co/C0b9Q5y4h3— Ty Hill (@cheetah) December 4, 2023
McDaniel’s system is designed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers - with Hill leading that group - as quickly as possible, letting them make people miss and make plays. He uses crossing routes and slants to get the ball out of Tagovailoa’s hands, then uses those to open up the deep shot. Hill excels in those routes, and it perfectly combines McDaniel’s system, Tagovailoa’s accuracy, and Hill’s speed.
All of that said, it is also extremely helpful for the Dolphins, and Hill individually, that they have players Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert, and De’Von Achane, who also demand attention, so even if you focus on Hill, they can still attack in other ways.
The best way to slow Miami’s offense, and Hill’s production, is to be able to get pressure with just four players, allowing seven players to drop into coverage. Disciplined linebackers who stay in the throwing lanes for those slant routes and clog up the middle of the field, impacting crossing routes, will force Miami to try to adjust their passing attack. If the Titans can keep extra defenders in the middle of the field, they can have success.
Finally, be disciplined when the Dolphins start using their pre-snap motions. Have those assignments worked out in the gameplan, because Miami will move people around multiple times before the snap. They will have Hill start inline looking like a tight end, then take off in motion so he is at top speed and just turning upfield at the snap. They want to create confusion and make the coverage breakdown before they even snap the ball. Make sure the defenders know how their assignments change as receivers move around.
3. How big of a loss is Jaelan Phillips for the defense? How will they replace him?
Phillips, who tore his Achilles against the New York Jets in Week 12, was finally looking like the dominant pass rusher he was expected to be this year after dealing with injuries early in the season. He was playing his best football of the season and he really did look like he was ready to be the breakout player of the year.
Losing him was a huge blow to a defense that has moved into a top-ten unit this season. The pair of Phillips and Bradley Chubb gave Miami a dynamic duo of pass rushers. Not having Phillips creates a hole the Dolphins will have to figure out moving through the rest of the season.
The good news is, they have a couple of players who should be able to keep up the pressure. Andrew Van Ginkel is a player who seems to make a play every time he is on the field. Last week, he had a play where he should have been credited with a sack, but it was split between other players, then he had a pick-six, and he was just a menace all game long. The Dolphins have been using Van Ginkel as an inside linebacker this year, giving him coverage responsibilities, but he is a natural outside linebacker/edge rusher and we should continue to see him slide outside into Phillips’ position.
Emmanuel Ogbah is a player who has been buried on the depth chart this year after injuries ruined his 2022 season. He is a pass rusher who led Miami in sacks in 2020 and 2021 and now could see an increased role down the stretch this year.
Counting Phillips, Miami has four players who have 6.5 sacks this year - defensive tackles Zach Sieler and Christian Wilkins and linebackers Phillips and Chubb. Ogbah has 4.5 sacks and Van Ginkel has four. The potential to cover for Phillips is there, but it will have to be several players stepping up instead of just trusting that Phillips will be in the right place to make a play.
4. Give us a player we have never heard of that will have an impact on this game.
Van Ginkel is normally my answer to this question but replacing Phillips, his Week 13 performance, and that we already discussed him rules him out of this response. On defense, cornerback Kader Kohou could be that guy. Everyone knows Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard, but Kohou has stepped up his game and is looking like he will be the nickel cornerback for years to come in Miami. An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M-Commerce last year, he was forced into a starting role as a rookie with the injury to Byron Jones last season. He appeared set to be the slot corner this year, then Ramsey was injured and Kohou was bounced back outside, splitting time with Eli Apple to fill the spot. Now that Ramsey and Howard are back and healthy, Kohou has moved back into the slot and he is shining. He is a sure tackler who seems to relish the opportunity to blitz. He works well out of the slot and he is someone who could make a play in this week’s game.
On offense, it is going to be the receiving options after Hill and Waddle. It is not always the same player, but someone will make a big first-down conversion or have a chunk play that seems to come out of nowhere. Tight end Durham Smythe, wide receiver River Cracraft, and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, Jr., have a combined 38 receptions this year, but they have 26 first downs and three touchdowns. Combined they are the “possession” type of receiver the offense needs. I would not be surprised if Tagovailoa turns to one of them at some point to make a big play right when it is needed.
5. The Titans are 13-point underdogs and the total is at 46 for this game at DraftKings Sportsbook. What is your favorite bet in this game? What’s your prediction for how it plays out?
I am definitely taking the over in this game. The Dolphins have the second-highest-scoring offense in the league, averaging 32 points per game. The Titans are only averaging 17.8 points per game, but Miami’s defense is allowing 22.2 points per game. If both teams just put up their averages, the over hits. I think 46 points, unless this somehow turns into a defensive slugfest, is easily within reach.
After 20 years of watching Miami love in the mediocre range of teams, it is still strange to see them listed as big favorites, and it makes me nervous every time. I absolutely understand they have a high-powered offense that can put up points at any time, but it is just not something I am used to seeing happen. That said, I do think Miami can win this by two touchdowns, if only because I think they will be able to matchup on defense and cause some confusion for rookie quarterback Will Levis. He has played well since taking over the starting role and he looks like he should be the franchise quarterback of the future for the Titans, but Miami’s defense has the ability to force turnovers or break up passes. They will try to bait Levis into making a questionable decision, then attack. I think something like 34-20 Miami could make sense.
A huge thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer the questions. Head over to The Phinsider to see his questions with my answers.