Justin Herbert’s real winner against Tua Tagovailoa was the LA defense

The war for the soul of football on Twitter unfolded Sunday night between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Miami Dolphins. SoFi Stadium was the battleground and the main stars were Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa, same-class QBs who caused divisions among friends and created many heated family discussions.

However, as the dust settled on the game, it was Brandon Staley and the Chargers defense that stole the show. The Chargers won 23-17, but the game has never been closer. Tagovailoa threw for just 145 yards on an abyssal 10-28 clip, and the Dolphins’ signal caller posted an EPA/game of -0.085, putting him below Tyler Huntley and Sam Darnold. The Dolphins’ explosive offense was thwarted again, and the way Staley and the Chargers did it was extremely interesting.

The Chargers played great men’s coverage on the Dolphins. The Dolphins don’t normally see a lot of men’s coverage — before the Chargers game, they were 29th in the NFL in setbacks against men’s coverage, but the Chargers played man on the majority of coverage. Not only were they playing man, but they were pressing receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. It always poses a risk with their speed, but what they did was disrupt the timing of all of the Dolphins’ concepts.

Let’s start with the Dolphins’ favorite passing concept, that flat RPO. RPOs normally work very well against zone coverage as they go after a player in conflict, normally a defender or an overhanging slot linebacker. In the cover of men, there is no man to conflict, because they keep a man. RPOs are built on timing, and with the Chargers rushing and playing man, there’s no man of contention or proper timing – the Chargers have the advantage.

When the Dolphins would try to stretch the field, the media coverage would negate the timing again, but what the Chargers did was play a lot of Cover One Robber. That drops a safety right in the middle of the field, where the Dolphins love to attack. Essentially, this creates a double team on any breakout route and forces Tua away from the throw.

On that Kyle Van Noy sack, LB Drue Tranquill goes from the line of scrimmage to deep midfield, and both safeties play Robber in midfield and Tyreek Hill. The Chargers massively changed the image while removing midfield which resulted in a sack (soft spin move from KVN as well).

This is another example here of the Chargers playing tight coverage and forcing the problem on Miami. The Dolphins put Jaylen Waddle in motion and watch how effectively the Chargers cross those routes and cut the airspace for all routes to develop. Add thief cover and you have another perfect defensive rep.

Up front, the Chargers won for a large majority of the game. When passing, the Chargers would use the threat of Khalil Mack and exploit the weak points of the Dolphins on their OL.

On this Morgan Fox sack, the Chargers are in a loose 4-man front, with edge rushers Khalil Mack and Kyle Van Noy lined up on the OL right side. Because it is Khalil freaks out Mack the Dolphins slide their protection to the right. The Chargers know they’re going to slide him and ask Kenneth Murray to step up to the left side and fake a blitz, forcing the center to make a choice. The center slips past Mack as Murray falls, leaving Fox with left guard one on one. Fox wins this match and gets a sack.

Drue Tranquill also made some impressive plays as a blitzer, including forcing that intentional groundout. The Dolphins slide their protection to the right, expecting the left side of the line to sort out anything weird. Well, Tranquill adds as a blitzer, but Van Noy drops on the other end, which means the numbers are stacking up nicely for Miami. However, the nose guard holds the Dolphins LG back enough to let Tranquill pass and cause disturbance, and then he finds himself free.

The Niners game for Miami could be brushed off as a bad game, but this Chargers game is just weird to watch again. If the teams are more than willing to press and play the man (which I think should have been the idea all along), it forces Tagovailoa to create off-rhythm and off-schedule. RPOs don’t work as effectively, and if the Dolphins can’t (or choose not to) run the ball effectively to replace their quick play (0.1 EPA/attempt on 16 attempts), they could struggle.

Los Angeles has potentially found the formula to slow Miami’s offense, and it could be something teams copy as Miami moves forward. Saturday’s game at Buffalo now looms large not just for the division, but in the grand scheme of the NFL playoff picture.


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