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Did Mike McDaniel expose the Achilles’ heel of Brandon Staley’s scheme?

Mike McDaniel came out swinging against the Chargers for the second year in a row. This time, his offense set the tone for the game.

Miami Dolphins v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Note: if you’d prefer a video format, there is a video embedded at the bottom of this article covering the material, with some extras.

Last season, Mike McDaniel came out with a clear plan to exploit Alohi Gilman starting in lieu of Derwin James. Alohi set the tone for the game with a statement pass breakup against Tyreek Hill, and the defense had one of its best games of the season.

This past Sunday, Mike McDaniel opened the game just as aggressively, but targeted Staley’s scheme instead of a specific player. Below, Steven Ruiz (now of The Ringer, but this image was part of an article with USA Today), identifies the basics of how Staley operates by running two different coverage schemes on either side of the field.

I’ve shown this graphic before, but I think it’s key in understanding how this defense operates. Staley typically alternates between this type of coverage, a Cover-2 Zone, a Cover-2 Man, and a Cover 1 Man... but he’ll deploy all of this coverages from a Cover 2 shell as shown above to confuse offenses.

This is great when teams only field one receiver on the weak side of a two or three receiver set. However, Mike McDaniel brought a 21-personnel package, and Staley responded with his Tite-front on a Cover-2 shell.

Here was the pre-snap look:

McDaniel deploys his tight end, full back, and running back on the strong side of the football, and pairs two of the fastest recievers on the weak side to challenge Staley to show his coverage. What’ll it be, Brandon? Are you going to expose that you’re in man-coverage and bring J.C. Jackson over, or stay in your Cover-2 shell and expose either Alohi Gilman or Khalil Mack to Tyreek Hill’s wrath?

What happens next is disorienting, and I don’t think anyone can definitively say what scheme we were running.

The following occurs:

  1. Kenneth Murray and Eric Kendricks hand-motion to one another pre-snap, identifying the “strong side” of the offense.
  2. Khalil Mack motions Alohi Gilman towards the sideline, and lines up wide to match Tyreek Hill. Gilman acknowledges.
  3. Jackson, Michael Davis, and Murray immediately pick up man assignments post-snap.
  4. Derwin floats to cover the strong-side’s deep half. He does not float to centerfield, as one would expect if Alohi was designed to be on Hill in a Cover-1 scenario.
  5. Eric Kendricks makes one step towards the running back, and then steps back as if he’s playing a hook-zone. The running back is thus running free.
  6. Khalil Mack steps inside of Hill as if just trying to cut off a quick slant by Hill, and passes him off to Alohi who stays deeper and takes Hill to the sideline. It’s a reception, but damage was minimized considering the matchup.

It’s very, very hard to analyze exactly what happened on this play, because there’s an argument against every type of coverage Staley would call in this situation.

If Staley called Cover-2 Man

Khalil Mack is supposed to be keyed on Tyreek Hill with Gilman and James providing deep support, which makes might make sense if Staley was expecting the tight end or fullback to line up as a pass blocker before releasing, which they often do. If this is the case, it was an absolute mismatch that Mack identified and immediately asked Gilman to help cover... which would explain Mack patting his chest and dapping up Gilman after the play. But, if it were Cover-2 Man, why would Kendricks take one step towards his assignment (the running back) before stepping back into zone before Tua’s throw?

If Staley called Cover-1 Man

The same question still applies to Kendricks. We’d also have to ask why Derwin shaded to the deep half of the field, which the fullback, tight end, and running back were lined up tightly on, instead adjusting over the receivers or the center of the field?

If Staley called his split-field scheme

It should have been either Mack or Kendricks on Hill in man coverage. If it were a five-man rush, Kendricks should have been playing man coverage on Hill from the start. If it were Mack’s responsibility, Kendricks should have shaded towards the strong side immediately, and stayed there. Kendricks’ drop to a hook/low hole zone looks like a Cover 1 coverage, but Derwin’s positioning doesn’t support that theory.

How this affected the rest of the game

It appears this disoriented Brandon Staley and/or his defense considerably, as they opened the next drive with two back-to-back mishaps. The first mix-up was mild, as Kenneth Murray and Alohi Gilman both keyed the same man assignment and let the fullback release uncovered. However, the second play was an absolute cluster... you know what. The lack of assignment discipline suggests Staley was going off-the-cuff with whatever adjustments he was making, because his players looked lost.

There were a multitude of other things that went wrong in this game. It seems Staley was convinced they would try to run the ball down the Chargers’ throat, as he fielded more interior defensive lineman than his traditional norms, and everyone seemed to bite aggressively on every play-action thrown their way. The last time the Chargers played the Dolphins, Staley ran a NASCAR package featuring Morgan Fox, Khalil Mack, Chris Rumph, and Kyle Van Noy on the line 13 times. If you remove the Tyreek Hill fly-route where Michael Davis had perfect positioning until he tripped over himself, the NASCAR package allowed an average of two yards per play. Through the first half, I didn’t see this package deployed once... and I’m still struggling to collect data from the second half for personal, nausea-related reasons.

There are a couple more insights included in my video component posted below, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, BFTB family.