PHILADELPHIA — Facing a first-and-10 from their own 25-yard line, the Miami Dolphins set up to run their first offensive play against the Philadelphia Eagles and their defensive front on Sunday night. The Eagles’ thunderous crowd attempted to will its way into the game through a combination of cheers, chants and a whole lot of booing. The Dolphins broke the huddle and were ready to try and accomplish what they have most weeks this season — leaving their opponent in a cloud of dust and scoring touchdowns at the speed of sound.
Then, they were hit with an unfamiliar outcome for a team with the level of polish and detail they exhibit on a routine basis:
A delay of game. On the first attempted play.
It ended up foreshadowing how the game, a 31-17 loss to the Eagles, would go for the usually high-octane Dolphins. Their first 15 plays accumulated just 21 yards before they pieced together a touchdown drive going into halftime. Instead of being able to move the ball up and down the field at will, the Dolphins were at the mercy of what the Eagles’ defensive front allowed them to have.
“We were behind the chains more than we’re used to,” Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said. “We had some small, nuanced details of some plays. Hats off to the Philadelphia Eagles, because they made us pay every time. You know, maybe our track was a little too tight or too wide, or an offensive lineman was a hair off.”
The Eagles spent most of this game punishing a beleaguered Dolphins offensive line that was already missing left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams, and lost Isaiah Wynn early in the game. That result was almost expected, considering Philadelphia’s defensive line featured Jalen Carter, Fletcher Cox, Haason Reddick, Jordan Davis and Josh Sweat. The flow of the game and the Dolphins’ injury situation up front boxed in their league-leading rushing attack, churning out just 3.8 yards per carry after averaging 6.5 yards per carry the first six weeks.
“We rely on the running game to have a successful offense,” McDaniel said. “We got it going a little too late in the game. That’s something that we take pride in and we’ll be sure to get better from moving forward.”
The Eagles made the Dolphins one-dimensional in a way that they weren’t even in their 48-20 loss against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. In that game, they at least had contributions from explosive rookie running back De’Von Achane, who is currently on injured reserve with a knee injury. Raheem Mostert carried the load for the Dolphins’ ground game Sunday, but he had only nine carries as a whole. Running back Salvon Ahmed and Tagovailoa combined for three more carries — and zero rushing yards.
“In a way, it does change how we go about playing out there,” Tagovailoa said. “There’s actions off of those runs that we’d like to get and when the run game’s not going the way you would expect it to go, that mitigates the way we run-pass. It’s more just a dropback sort of game.”
Tagovailoa said Miami made some adjustments in the second half to get things moving in the run game, but it ultimately wasn’t enough.
An underrated difficulty of shuffling around and loss of depth across the offensive line is readjusting the communication standards for new players in the lineup or entrenched players playing new positions. The relationship between a quarterback and his offensive line is one that heavily relies on clear verbal communication from the time the play call is distributed in the huddle to the point of the ball being snapped. That can get muddied as different players are put into the starting lineup — and the Dolphins’ offense was visibly discombobulated with their patchwork offensive line.
“The communication up there and getting that orchestrated for those guys is not as easy as it seems,” Tagovailoa said.
How can Tagovailoa help? By doing a better job making sure players feel confident in their roles, he said, as new faces and bodies get introduced to a unit that is heavily influenced by the chemistry of the players they work with. Offensive line is a position group where one weak link can create a bad day, so the message is important.
“This is what the play is going to be,” Tagovailoa said. “Just be alert for this look or this look and they can communicate that on the sideline before we start drives.”
In the current NFL, finding quality depth along the offensive line is nearly an impossible task. Replacing those guys mid-game against the best collection of defensive line talent in the league can even handicap an offense that’s as mighty as the Dolphins’ group.
The mismatch in the trenches also popped up in the passing game for Miami. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Tagovailoa struggled when he faced pressure, completing 5 of 10 pressured attempts for just 20 yards and an interception. When Tagovailoa didn’t face pressure, he largely looked like his normal self, completing 81.8% of his passes for 8.9 yards an attempt in those scenarios.
Just like the Death Star, the machine known as the Dolphins’ offense has an open exhaust port right now that’s become a critical flaw against the caliber of teams that they’ll see in the playoffs.
There isn’t an offense in the league flashier and more exciting than the Dolphins — that’s still true even with this result in hand. What’s become apparent is that flash isn’t always enough, and the down-to-down substance of quality offensive line play is still key for this team.
If Miami can be turned into a one-dimensional, dropback offense like it were Sunday night, the Dolphins can become a vessel for empty yards instead of the scariest force of nature the NFL has to offer.