Woke up still breathless from the Miami Dolphins’ thrill-a-minute 36-34 win win over the Chargers in the season opener at Los Angeles.
The numbers were staggering: 969 net yards by the two teams. There were nine lead changes. The Dolphins only punted once.
The Miami offense was a breathtaking journey on Mr. Tua’s Wild Ride with a heaping helping of Tyreek Hill.
The Dolphins put up 536 yards, including 466 passing by Tua Tangovailoa (28 of 45, three touchdowns, one interception, 110.0 passer rating.) He completed 11 of those passes to Hill, who with 215 yards and three TDs took a strong first step toward becoming the first receiver with 2,000 yards in a season.
Meanwhile, the Fins defense was a recurring gut punch that left you gasping for help.
Better late than never for Fins’ defense
Vic Fangio’s crew made its presence felt just in time to salvage the win and the new defensive coordinator’s esteem with two sacks and a forced intentional grounding.
Defensive tackle Zach Sieler, newly signed to a three-year, $30.75 million contract, got the first one. Then on fourth down, Jaelan Phillips and Justin Bethel met at the quarterback to end a day that otherwise belonged to high-falutin offense.
Kudos to them for that.
Usually what happens in these NFL shootouts is a very NBA-like result: whoever has the ball last wins.
It appeared headed that way after Jason Sanders missed the extra point after the Dolphins took the lead on Tagovailo’s last hook-up with Hill with 1:45 remaining.
The Chargers took over on their 25, needing just to advance into field-goal range. Their hopes died after five plays netted only eight yards.
An instant classic
It was another high-scoring classic that brought to mind the 1982 playoff epic won in overtime by the Chargers, 41-38.
An offensive shootout was not unexpected. What didn’t figure was that Chargers QB Justin Herbert’s handiwork would be mostly about handing off.
While Herbert threw for 228 yards and a touchdown (23 of 33), the Chargers amassed more yards (234) on the ground, and averaged more yards per play rushing than passing (5.9 to 5.5).
New Chargers OC Kellen Moore certainly brought a change in philosophy to the pass-happy Chargers, who in recent years lived or died wlth Herbert’s arm. They averaged just under 90 yards a game rushing last season.
In Moore’s first game in the role for L.A., he had Austin Ekeler (117 yards) and Joshua Kelley (91 yards) running roughshod over the Miami defense.
Pumped to watch the film of Dolphins-Chargers. The Tua/Tyreek Show was something else. Felt like they were even more aggressive going downfield. The deep one to set up winning TD was most clutch throw of the day pic.twitter.com/0QDDeWBezD
— Chris Simms (@CSimmsQB) September 11, 2023
Dolphins can’t stop the run
The Dolphins never really slowed them down, let alone stopped the Chargers’ rushing attack.
In the end those two sacks and an earlier one by Kader Kohou that set up a Tua-to-Hill TD, were just enough for Miami.
If this Dolphins defense is going to be good enough going forward remains to be seen.
Certainly, expectations were much higher after Fangio was embraced as the team’s most important offseason addition.
A more conservative, less risky approach on pass defense than in recent years under Josh Boyer comes with Fangio. The porous run defense was alarming.
As was allowing touchdown drives of 94, 75, 75 and 75 yards.
Tyreek Hill is on pace for 3,655 yards
— Five Reasons Sports 🏀🏈⚾️🏒⚽️ (@5ReasonsSports) September 11, 2023
Tagovailoa, receivers have field day
Exhilarating offense prevailed for Miami. Tagovailoa, Hill and Co. showed all they can be and that they can match scores with anyone if need be.
Tua’s performance wasn’t without flaws. He had two turnovers in the red zone, including a poorly thrown ball into the end zone that was intercepted.
But he came right back and hit Hill in stride on a streak along the sideline for a 35-yard touchdown. Rapid atonement has become a Tua hallmark.
He also showed a finishing touch by threading the winning 4-yard TD over a defender to Hill.
His most pressure-packed throw was the 47-yard completion to Hill on third-and-10 on that drive.
Also impressive was converting on third-and-15 with a pass on the run to Braxton Berrios. That jump-started a drive to a field goal that cut the Chargers’ lead to 31-30.
This play sums up the growth we’ve seen from Tua Tagovailoa over the past year:
Pressure from the edge, and he immediately looks to step up. Realizes it isn’t there and doesn’t panic. Reset, rollout and keeps eyes up
Then the arm strength to get this to Berrios off platform 🤌🏻… pic.twitter.com/cj9cMT8dXz
— Tyler DeSena (@DeSenaSports) September 11, 2023
This time Dolphins rule middle ground
The bigger picture was the turnaround from what happened when these teams met last year. Remember how an injury-riddled Chargers defense applied press coverage and clogged the middle of the field and held Miami to 219 total yards?
This time Tagovailoa thoroughly carved up the Chargers secondary in the middle as his speedy receivers turned the game into what Chargers coach Brandon Staley aptly referred to as “a track meet.” Miami had nine plays of at least 21 yards.
Impact by multiple receivers
Another good sign was Tagovailoa had multiple completions to seven receivers. Tight end Durham Smythe, best known for his blocking, had three receptions for 44 yards. Tua made good use of secondary wideouts River Cracraft (three receptions, 40 yards including a touchdown) and newcomer Berrios (three receptions, 42 yards). Fullback Alec Ingold also had two catches for first downs.
My favorite stat from the Dolphins-Chargers game:
Tua Tagovailoa was sacked ZERO times.
— Alfredo Brown (@ThePretendGM) September 11, 2023
Miami’s O-line stands tall
Perhaps most important, the offensive line didn’t allow a sack despite missing star left tackle Terron Armstead. Tagovailoa rarely felt heat from Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and other Chargers rushers.
The Dolphins’ run game showed promise early — Raheem Mostert had six carries for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first half — but then was abandoned.
Considering the Dolphins scored on seven of nine possessions (not counting a final possession of kneel-downs) it is difficult to find much fault with the offense or Tagovailoa’s performance.
It reiterated that as long as Tagovailoa, Hill and bookend wide receiver Jaylen Waddle are healthy, these Dolphins can be a force. But also that depth of talent on offense is more than star deep.
Going forward, an earlier wakeup call for the defense would be appreciated.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on the platform formerly known as Twitter @CraigDavisRuns