The Tua train rolls on.
That would be the simplistic take on the 6-3 Miami Dolphins. It tells only a piece of the story — albeit an important one — though of a team that won all of five games a year ago and now in this very different season is on a five-game winning streak and stands a mere one-half game out of first place in the AFC East.
Much was made ahead of Sunday’s 29-21 Dolphins win over the Los Angeles Chargers about the first meeting between the quarterbacks drafted one pick apart this past April. So give the decision to Tua Tagovailoa (taken at No. 5 by the Dolphins) over Justin Herbert, if you must.
A better gauge is to look at how two teams that finished 5-11 in 2019 have done since that draft.
It is apparent that both teams have found their quarterback. Of greater significance, the Dolphins in their second season under coach Brian Flores have found how to win.
The Chargers, led by Herbert, have piled up impressive stats. Their offense came into Sunday averaging 420 yards a game, nearly 100 more than Miami (322.9).
But they left Hard Rock Stadium with a 2-7 record, all of their losses by a combined 29 points.
Tua puts up numbers that count
Some Dolphins fans seem bothered that Tagovailoa doesn’t have more gaudy numbers after three starts. They want 300-yard games (he has yet to produce one). They want Marino numbers.
What they are getting with Tagovailoa is of greater consequence: efficiency, effectiveness.
On Sunday, two touchdown passes, 169 yards, 106.9 passer rating, no interceptions.
In three starts, he has thrown five touchdown passes — to five different receivers — and has yet to throw a pick.
Tua joined Carson Wentz (2016) as the only quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to win their first three starts without throwing an interception.
There were no sacks Sunday. A reflection on the pass protection, to be sure, but also on Tua displaying a quick release and ability to escape the rush.
After Sunday’s win Flores was asked about whether this is the style of play he’s seeking from his team — the implication being that the Dolphins are winning without dazzling.
“I’m not really into style, fashion … but playing team football — offense, defense, special teams — if that’s what you mean, everyone involved, everyone’s role is important, good fundamentals, good technique, and just trying to grind out wins in a tough league, every game’s hard.”
Regarding Tagovailoa, Flores said:
“We’ve talked about this. We have a lot of confidence in all our draft picks, that they’re going to develop and improve. He’s no different. That’s what we’re trying to do, develop and improve, and take it week-to-week.”
Many names add up to Dolphins’ win
On Sunday, the Dolphins won again not just because Tua did his part, but also because of names with less recognition like Andrew Van Ginkel (blocked punt that put them on the doorstep of the first touchdown) and Salvon Ahmed, an undrafted rookie who rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown in his first start at running back.
Jakeem Grant had a game-high 43 yards on four receptions and a touchdown, helping fill the void with Preston Williams in injured reserve. He also contributed to favorable field position by averaging 19 yards on three punt returns.
There was unheralded Zach Sieler, a waiver wire pickup last December, continuing to stand out on the defensive line. He had two tackles for loss. On one, he pressured Herbert, who threw short to a back. Sieler hustled back and made the tackle.
There was cornerback Xavien Howard, flagged four times for pass interference a week ago, with a fourth-quarter interception that took the starch out of any Chargers comeback hopes.
herbert to howard pic.twitter.com/ZUFtxuiUW1
— josh houtz (@houtz) November 15, 2020
There was defensive back Nik Needham, another undrafted player who has forged a key role in his second season. Needham had a sack and broke up a deep pass for three-time Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen.
The Miami secondary kept standout Charger wideouts Allen and Mike Williams mostly in check (combined five catches for 77 yards and a meaningless TD to Allen in the final two minutes).
Defense leads Dolphins’ resurgence
It was no accident Herbert had his worst statistical day in eight starts. The Dolphins defense kept him off balance by disguising their intentions on blitzes and coverage.
It is evident that while Tua may be the conductor, the Flores/Josh Boyer defense is the driving force in this run of seven wins in the past eight games.
Some post-mortem on what Dolphins did to Justin Herbert:
1. LOTS of extra DBs.
2. Full aggro w/ coverage disguises.
3. Constant switching man & zone.
4. Lots of backing into 7- and 8-man coverage.
5. Made them guess which 4 are coming every play.@3YardsPerCarry @5ReasonsSports
— Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot) November 16, 2020
“I think defensively we played, … We made it hard for them early in the game, getting off the field on third down. A lot of guys played well. I thought there was good communication, really across the board defensively, the kicking game, offensively,” Flores said.
Also notable was the response of center Ted Karras in standing up for the botched exchange with Tagovailoa as the Dolphins were on the verge of taking a 21-0 lead. Karras said his hands were wet with sweat in explaining why the ball squirted out like a greased pigskin and took full responsibility.
That one play swung the momentum to the Chargers and led to the outcome being in doubt until Howard’s interception.
It was Tua who chased down Nick Vigil and made the tackle on the fumble return.
“Well, that’s a gutsy play and one of the plays of the game and something that is just great team football and not on my part, on that play, and that hurts,” Karras said. “You want to always be the guy to be old reliable, but this team is so fun to play with and there’s a brotherhood here and I think that’s why it hurt me so much. But we rallied … We won the game and we’re going to keep rolling.”
"this team is so fun to play with and there's a brotherhood here. i think that's why it bothered me so much…we won the game and we're going to keep rolling." -ted karras pic.twitter.com/ummABkcrma
— josh houtz (@houtz) November 16, 2020
Just another indication that these Dolphins are buying into Flores’ message of everyone doing whatever it takes to grind out wins, whatever it takes.
Including Tua, who ended his postgame media session by declaring, “Go, Fins!”
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns