This week we were joined by Kevin Knight of The Phinsider, our Dolphins community here at SB Nation, to help us preview this week’s Sunday Night Football matchup.
As most of our guests seem to do, Knight wrote a legitimate novel in a response to my questions so let’s just go ahead and jump right in.
1.) The Dolphins went out and got one of the best receivers in the NFL this past offseason in Tyreek Hill to team up with their young quarterback. How has that move paid off for Miami and are there any other additions (or subtractions) made by the team during the offseason that you’ve seen pay off so far this season?
Somehow, adding Hill has gone even better than Dolphins fans probably expected. First, taking a receiver away from a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes always leads to a step back for the receiver. That did not happen this year. Second, the Dolphins have a tradition of adding a top-name wide receiver, like Brandon Marshall and Mike Wallace, only to see them not perform up to expectations. That is not to say they have been bad - Marshall was over 1,000 yards in both of his seasons with the Dolphins - but it just never worked out. Adding Hill has been something different. Obviously he brings an ability that not a lot of players in the league have. Everyone knows about his speed, but it might actually be the fact that he does not have a gradual acceleration, he just is at top speed. I know you have experience watching him when he was in the AFC West, and of course we all saw him as the Chiefs were on national broadcasts or in the playoffs, but it was always just the speed that stood out. Now watching him every week, you realize just how easily he goes from stationary before the snap to running at full speed on his first step, or how he makes a spin-move and cut but never slows down. Speed obviously translates because that is not a system thing, but I do not think Dolphins fans really expected him to come in and have success like this.
Honestly, I think the subtraction of Brian Flores has paid off for the Dolphins. The on-field results with Flores were good, and he seems like an incredibly knowledgeable coach. It was the off-field, background things that seem to have fallen apart for him in Miami. He did not like players with strong personalities, so he either traded them or let them leave in free agency (players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Kenyan Drake, etc.). Communication within the Dolphins offices, based on things said after Flores was fired, completely broke down. He was constantly undercutting Tua Tagovailoa from almost the moment the team drafted the quarterback in 2020 - and Flores was the coach when they made that pick. There were always rumors of Miami trading for or signing a new quarterback because Tagovailoa was struggling - but it now feels more like Tagovailoa was struggling because the Dolphins were constantly trying to get rid of him. Mike McDaniel coming in and just being a breath of fresh air for the franchise, taking time to work with the players, and recognizing that he needed to rebuild Tagovailoa’s confidence to get him playing more like the Alabama quarterback has been huge for this team. It felt like Flores wanted to be Bill Belichick and have all that power while McDaniel wants to just be himself.
On the field, adding Terron Armstead has been critical for the Dolphins. When injuries have forced him out of the game, the offensive line struggles have been amazing. One player should not have that much of an impact, but Armstead does. He is battling through a pectoral muscle injury right now, but he is hoping to play on Sunday, and the Dolphins will definitely need him. Miami had the worst offensive line in the league in 2021, and this year, it has largely been solid. Not great, but from worst to solid is a huge move in the right direction. Even though Armstead is not a blind-side blocker for the left-handed Tagovailoa, he is absolutely the rock that is locking down Miami’s offensive line. And, I would be remiss to not mention Connor Williams, who Miami signed as a free agent this year, then immediately moved him from left guard to center. In training camp and the preseason, there were concerns about him in that role, especially with some shotgun snaps coming in too high, but he has cleaned that up and he has been a player whose name is never really said - which is exactly what you want from an offensive lineman.
2.) Like the Chargers, the Dolphins have struggled to run the football this season. In an attempt to remedy the problem, the team went out and traded for former 49ers back Jeff Wilson. However, the duo of Wilson and Raheem Mostert has yet to jumpstart the ground game. Why do you think this problem continues to exist? Is there anything else the team should try to remedy the problem?
Run the ball. Just every now and then, they should try it. Against the San Francisco 49ers last week, they threw the ball 34 times and ran it eight. Against the Houston Texans, who have the worst rush defense in the league, two weeks ago, they threw the ball 41 times and ran it 26 - and they were up 30-0 at the half and pulled Tagovailoa in the third quarter. You would think that would lead to many more rushing attempts down the stretchI am not going to say they are doing it wrong, given the success the offense has had this year, but they definitely are not afraid of being a pass-first, pass-often, and nearly-pass-only offense. On the season, the team has 430 pass attempts and 269 rushing attempts - and that is including scrambles and broken plays that probably should be listed as passing plays but officially become rushing attempts.
Mike McDaniel was the run game coordinator for the 49ers before becoming their offensive coordinator. The offense is built to use play-action and run-pass options, but they do not necessarily use the running game as a major part of the offense.
Adding Wilson has been another great move for the Dolphins. Chase Edmonds, who signed with Miami this offseason and was expected to pair with Mostert as a strong duo, just never seemed to get going this year and Miami used him as part of the trade with the Denver Broncos that added Bradley Chubb to Miami’s roster. Wilson has provided a spark to the run game - but obviously the Dolphins are not necessarily worried about turning that spark into a full, raging fire.
When they do run the ball, it can be hit-or-miss on how effective they will be. The ability to pick up chunks of yards is there, but it is not always reliable. The offensive line will have times where they look like they are dominating and able to get out in front, open holes, and get into the second level, and then they have times when players are bursting through on every run attempt and disrupting anything the running backs want to do. Mostert and Wilson are threats to break off a big run anytime they have the ball, but it is really a coin-flip on whether they will get the opportunity. Injuries to the offensive line probably are a big part of why the running game is not consistent, but the play calling does not really give us a large enough sample to confirm or deny that.
This week, against the Chargers, I do not think it matters. This feels like a shootout to me, with Tagovailoa and Herbert throwing all over the field. Next week, in a Saturday night game at the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins are probably going to need the run game a little more, especially if the wind and snow are factors, so Miami has to figure it out the ground game quickly.
3.) If you were Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, how would you try to exploit this Dolphins defense? Which matchups would you attempt to exploit?
Miami’s biggest issue on defense is stopping a running quarterback. Herbert can run, but he is not Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, so Miami does not need to worry about that as much. After that, the Chargers need to attack the Dolphins’ cornerbacks not named Xavien Howard. Just as the Chargers have been decimated by injuries to their wide receivers this year, Miami’s secondary has been crushed by injuries. Cornerback Byron Jones is on the physically unable to perform list following ankle surgery in the offseason, a procedure that was expected to have him ready for Week 1 but now feels like he is out for the year. Howard has missed time this year with injuries, but after a slow start, seems to be fairly well back up to speed; teams seem to be staying away from him for the most part, thus his low interception total this season, and he has been beaten more than we are used to seeing, probably because he has had issues with both groin muscles for most of the year.
After those two, there was a lot of excitement around Nik Needham coming into the year, working primarily as the nickel cornerback. He is on injured reserve now, as is cornerback Trill Williams. Safety Brandon Jones has come on as the perfect compliment to Jevon Holland, but Jones has landed on injured reserve. Miami has turned back to veteran Eric Rowe at safety, who is still a strong tight-end coverage option, but it felt like Miami’s secondary was better when he could be moved around on the defense and Holland and Jones would work behind him. Undrafted rookie Kader Kohou, out of Texas A&M-Commerce, and Keion Crossen, who really is a special teams player pressed into a big role on defense, have both been good this year, but they can make mistakes as well. Attacking them and making them prove they are up to the task is the key.
Miami’s defense is designed to utilize Howard and Byron Jones as man-to-man, island corners, freeing up the rest of the defense to blitz and provide confusing looks to opposing offenses. With all of the injuries to the secondary, they have been forced to keep more players in coverage this year, which has hurt the pass rush. Adding Bradley Chubb at the trade deadline adds to the pass rush ability for the team, and Jaelan Phillips, Melvin Ingram, and Andrew Van Ginkel are creating pressure, but it is not the same attacking defense we expected to see due to the injuries in the secondary.
4.) Same question but flipping sides of the ball. If you were Brandon Staley, how would you best attempt to stop this Dolphins offense? Are there any players (other than Hill/Waddle) that the Chargers need to keep tabs on?
Wide receivers Trent Sherfield and River Cracraft are not going to be players who put up giant numbers on the box score. They are not players you need to rush out and add on your fantasy team, but they are players who can make a big play when the offense needs it. Sherfield’s biggest game came in Week 10, when he caught four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown and he has only caught more than two passes in a game four times this season. Last week, he was targeted three times, with one reception - but that was a 75-yard touchdown.
Cracraft only has eight receptions on the year, but two of those were for touchdowns and all eight have resulted in first downs. He does not see a lot of action, but he is that guy who, in the one moment where a play is needed, he can keep a drive alive. He does not have the numbers to call him a possession receiver, but he does have the potential to fill that role for Miami.
I would love to tell you to watch for the running backs or for tight end Mike Gesicki, but we have already spoken about Mostert and Wilson, and Gesicki is just not a part of the offense this year. Over the past three seasons, Gesicki has had over 50 receptions each year, and he had 73 last year. This season, he has 24, though four of those have been for touchdowns. The Dolphins franchise tagged him for the season, and there was hope he would still be able to be a factor for the team, despite his limitations as a blocker, an important trait for a tight end in Mike McDaniel’s offensive system, but it just has not materialized.
And then there are the questions about the offensive line, especially if Armstead is not able to play. Stunts, crosses, blitzes from different locations, can all impact the Dolphins, especially if their left tackle is not in the game. It will be interesting to see how Eric Fisher, the former number one pick by the Chiefs back in 2013, who signed with the Dolphins this week, factors into the offensive line on Sunday.
5.) The Chargers are currently 3.5-point underdogs at home against the Dolphins with the over/under set at 52.0. Give us a few thoughts on how you see this game shaking out, a final score prediction, and whether or not you’re taking the over or under on Sunday night.
I am taking the over on this game, even at the 52 number. I think this is a shootout and it might just come down to who has the ball last. I am not used to the Dolphins being a favorite on the road, especially when it is against a team like the Chargers. I do think Miami wins this game, but it is probably a close one. I will probably say they cover, but I am not sure this is not a field-goal difference at the end of the day. I could absolutely see this becoming something like 42-38 as both offenses go crazy.