5 Ways the Miami Dolphins Can Get the Most from Tua Tagovailoa When He Returns
The Dolphins opened the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and sparked intrigue when they transitioned to rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during their Week 7 bye.
Tagovailoa completed both of his pass attempts for nine yards before his first start, though he's put together efficient performances in three out of four outings as the primary signal-caller. In Week 11, against the Denver Broncos, the coaching staff benched him during the fourth quarter.
Last week, Fitzpatrick made the start against the New York Jets, throwing for 257 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-3 victory. Tagovailoa sat out because of swelling and weakness in his thumb, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
Yet head coach Brian Flores plans to give the reins of the offense back to Tagovailoa.
"If he's healthy, [he's] the guy," Flores said during his Week 12 postgame availability, per Kyle Crabbs of the Dolphins Wire. "I don't know how many different ways we have to continue to say that. You keep asking, I'll keep answering the same way. Again, he's dealing with something with the hand. We'll take it day-to-day."
Once Tagovailoa returns, he'll look to shake off a lackluster showing. What can the Dolphins do to help out their rookie quarterback?
Incorporate Full Running Back Committee for Ground Attack
Coaches can help a young quarterback develop with a balanced attack. Not putting the entire weight of the offense on his shoulders. An effective ground game can open up passing lanes downfield.
Through 12 weeks, the Dolphins' rushing offense ranks 30th in yards per game and 19th in total carries, which may encourage teams to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage and dare one of the running backs to beat them up front. That's a reasonable strategy with Dolphins lead ball-carrier Myles Gaskin still recovering from a sprained MCL on injured reserve.
Even when Gaskin comes back, Miami should commit to a well-rounded platoon that also includes Salvon Ahmed (when healthy), Matt Breida and DeAndre Washington.
Before Ahmed went down with a shoulder injury against the Denver Broncos, he played a major role in the Dolphins' Week 10 victory against the Los Angeles Chargers, logging 21 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown. He can split early-down rushing attempts with Gaskin when both tailbacks have recovered.
In the meantime, the Dolphins can lean on Washington, whom they acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs before the Nov. 3 trade deadline, and Breida. They combined for 85 rushing yards on 21 carries in Week 12.
Feature Running Backs in the Passing Game
If the Dolphins match up against a stout run defense, they can utilize the versatility of their running backs while providing high-percentage targets for Tagovailoa.
Both Matt Breida and DeAndre Washington have recorded more than 75 receptions and 625 receiving yards in fewer than 59 career games as backup running backs. They're solid pass-catchers out of the backfield with some wiggle in open space.
Before Myles Gaskin went on injured reserve, he hauled in 30 passes for 198 yards. He logged at least three receptions in all seven of his appearances this season.
As a collegian, Salvon Ahmed caught 50 passes for 331 yards through three terms at Washington.
Tagovailoa doesn't have a big strong arm, but he's a precision passer who can move the pocket. The Dolphins can help him increase his 61.9 percent completion rate with a focus on the short passing game, which would utilize a full group of dual-threat running backs.
Use More Multi-Tight End Sets
With a lack of high-end offensive weapons at wide receiver other than DeVante Parker, the Dolphins should lean on their tight ends to fill voids in the aerial attack.
They field one of the most productive tight end groups. Mike Gesicki, Adam Shaheen and Durham Smythe have racked up a combined 49 receptions for 637 yards and eight touchdowns.
Using two or perhaps three tight ends would give Tagovailoa another layer of protection against aggressive pass rushes. He took six sacks in his last outing against the Broncos.
On shorter third downs and in the red zone, he can look to his bigger receiving targets for conversions. He's already connected with Smythe (6'6", 260 lbs) for a touchdown.
Gesicki has served as the secondary pass-catching option, listing second in receptions (30)—along with running back Myles Gaskin—and yards (449) on the team.
Sign WR Demaryius Thomas
The Dolphins haven't released a recovery timetable for wideout Preston Williams, who went on injured reserve with a sprained foot. He's not a lock to return this season.
In Williams' absence, Jakeem Grant Sr. has taken on an expanded role since Week 10, playing at least 76 percent of the offensive snaps in two of the last three contests. He saw a drop-off against the New York Jets during the previous game, giving up some time to Mack Hollins.
Tagovailoa could build rapport with a big, natural target at wide receiver in Hollins (6'4", 221 lbs) rather than a tight end. On the flip side, the 27-year-old hasn't accomplished much at the pro level, hauling in just 31 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns in 43 games.
At 6'3", 225 pounds, Demaryius Thomas can serve in the same role, but he brings more experience and recent production. Last season, the four-time Pro Bowler caught 36 passes for 433 yards and a touchdown with a 62.1 percent catch rate in 11 appearances with the Jets.
Although Thomas turns 33 years old in December, he seemed ready to play in a complementary role when asked about a possible return to the Broncos during the offseason on 104.3 The Fan (h/t Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post):
"I was talking to Courtland [Sutton] about it the other day, and I was telling him, I'm not coming to try to be no No. 1 or whatever. I ain't trying to be that. I'm just trying to be a part of something I can help win. I ain't trying to be no big shot. I want to be a part of something that I can help win because I know I can still play ball. I still got good ball in me."
In need of a No. 2 wide receiver, the Dolphins can sign Thomas, who believes he has more solid playing days left in him.
Increase Lynn Bowden Jr.'s Snaps at Wide Receiver
The Dolphins have a wild-card option at wide receiver. They acquired rookie third-rounder Lynn Bowden Jr. from the Las Vegas Raiders in September.
Realistically, Bowden needed time to pick up the offense. He also landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in early November. He played a season-high 22 offensive snaps against the Jets last week, which may indicate the Dolphins' willingness to experiment with him down the stretch.
Coming out of Kentucky, Bowden had experience at quarterback, running back and wide receiver but spent most of his time in a pass-catching role. He recorded 114 receptions for 1,303 yards and six touchdowns through three terms. And the Dolphins see the potential in him as a wideout, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller highlighted Bowden's ability to win matchups when he's lined up inside on passing downs.
"Unguardable at times from the slot with good suddenness and an aggressive burst off the line," Miller wrote.
Miami can tap into Bowden's capabilities in the slot. He can take snaps at that spot when Mike Gesicki plays his natural tight end position.
After giving up a 2021 fourth-rounder for Bowden, Miami should at least try to make use of the rookie's strengths. Tagovailoa can target him on slants and screens to get the ball in the versatile playmaker's hands. Thus far, he has one reception for minus-one yard on two targets in addition to four carries for nine yards.