MIAMI — Tua Tagovailoa‘s pocket collapsed before any of his receivers’ routes could fully develop.
The Miami Dolphins quarterback executed a play-action fake against the New York Jets in Week 11, but quickly found Jets defensive end John Franklin-Myers giving chase. It was a familiar sight for Tagovailoa; Miami’s offensive line ranks dead last in the NFL in pass block win rate — it’s part of the reason the Dolphins have run play-action on a league-high 45% of plays since Week 10.
But also considering his familiarity with facing pressure, Tagovailoa knew how to evade it. He stepped up in the pocket and hurled a pass that traveled 44.5 air yards to wide-open receiver Mack Hollins, who had slipped past a busted coverage for a 64-yard touchdown.
It’s a microcosm of Tagovailoa’s maturation in his second NFL season.
“I would say I learned a lot more being able to play and then also being on the sideline,” Tagovailoa said. “Understanding a little more of the protections, understanding where guys need to be within their route distribution and then also for myself, stepping up in the pocket, maneuvering my way throughout the pocket and then finding the open guys.”
Miami is on a four-game winning streak, in large part due to a defense that ranks second in the NFL in expected points added over the past four weeks. But Tagovailoa has done his part after a rough start to his season.
He was knocked out of the Dolphins’ game against Buffalo in Week 2 with fractured ribs, missing the team’s next three games. He also missed the game against the Houston Texans in Week 9 with the fractured finger on his throwing hand, which kept him out the following week against Baltimore until he entered the game in the second half in relief of an injured Jacoby Brissett.
Tagovailoa threw for 158 yards in the second half against the Ravens and scored the game-sealing TD on a 1-yard dive.
The good vibes from that win have continued. Over the past two games, he has completed a league-leading 84.4% of his 64 passes with three touchdowns and one interception. On Sunday, he picked apart the NFL’s best pass defense in a 33-10 win against the Carolina Panthers, completing 27 of 31 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown. That came after a similar performance against the Jets — 27-of-33 for 273 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.
“He’s getting better every time he steps out on the field. I think he made a lot of good decisions today,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said after the Jets game. “I thought we moved the ball pretty efficiently, especially in the second half. … Tua is leading the way.”
Factoring in Miami’s struggles in pass protection, Tagovailoa has had to get the ball out at the third-fastest rate in the NFL — 2.53 seconds, trailing only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. He’s been excellent when he’s been able to make quick throws, throwing for six touchdowns and no interceptions when getting the ball out within 2.5 seconds, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
And although Tagovailoa’s 5.25 air yards per attempt since Week 10 ranks last in the NFL among qualified passers, his playmakers have averaged 6.1 yards after the catch in that same span — the seventh-highest mark in the league.
— NFL (@NFL) November 28, 2021
Rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa’s former teammate at Alabama and his go-to receiver, has 17 receptions on 19 targets over the past two games for 202 yards (11.9 per catch) and a touchdown.
On Sunday, Tagovailoa found him over the middle on a second-quarter throw against the Panthers. Because Tagovailoa hit him in stride, Waddle turned a 20-yard catch into a 57-yarder that put Miami at the Panthers’ 14-yard line and led to a rushing TD for running back Myles Gaskin four plays later.
The four-game winning streak has put the Dolphins (5-7) back in the AFC playoff discussion, and their next two games are at home — on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against the New York Giants (4-7) and Dec. 19 against the New York Jets (3-8). The defense has clearly carried the Dolphins during this stretch, allowing 11.5 points per game. But the efforts on that side of the ball would be for naught if the offense didn’t hold up its end — it’s the complementary football for which every team longs.
“We look like the team that we kind of wanted to be at the beginning of this year,” Tagovailoa said after Sunday’s win. “You know, it looked like a lot of guys went out there confident knowing what to expect offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game. I would say this is the best that we’ve played complementary football yet, but there’s still some plays that were left out there on the field that we can fix.”
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