MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins‘ only viable path to the Super Bowl is for Tua Tagovailoa to continue playing like an MVP candidate.
And Tagovailoa’s only chance at winning MVP is by staying on the field — healthy and with time to throw.
Which leads us seamlessly to the second-most encouraging development of the Dolphins’ 2022 season (behind, of course, Tagovailoa’s star turn): Miami’s offensive line is actually pretty good — and getting better.
Miami Dolphins Offensive Line is A Lot Better in 2022
After getting sacked 40 times over 23 games in his first two NFL seasons, Tua has been sacked only eight times in all of 2022 — and just twice since he returned from a concussion in Week 7.
Given time to throw and talented weapons on the outside, Tagovailoa has blossomed into one of the league’s most dangerous players. He leads the NFL in a host of passing categories, including touchdown rate (6.9%), yards per pass (9.2), passer rating (115.9), and QBR (80.2).
Tua deserves a ton of credit. But credit should also be shared with the five guys blocking for him.
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After rolling out one of the worst pass-protecting offensive lines in recent memory last year, the Dolphins’ trench play is no longer a liability.
They’re ninth in sack rate (5%) and 17th in pressure rate (32.7%) after ranking 18th (6.1%) and 26th (37.3%) in those categories in 2021 a year ago. Tagovailoa told reporters Wednesday that he’s felt as comfortable on the football field as he ever has and pointed to his pass protection as one of the top reasons why.
“I think it’s everything,” Tagovailoa said. “Our protection up front, how our run game is going, how our play-action game is going. … It’s really a combination of all of that and defenses having to figure it out, ‘Is it this play or that play?’ That’s why we feel comfortable as a group going out there.”
Why the Dolphins’ Line Is Much Improved
The easiest explanation for the line’s improvement is that the Dolphins have better players this year than last. And that would be true.
They spent a ton of money to sign Terron Armstead and Connor Williams in free agency and made a savvy, under-the-radar roster pick-up in September. Veteran Brandon Shell was on the street despite starting 61 games in his first six NFL seasons. He’s now one of Miami’s best blockers.
Those three vets — the team’s starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle — have 246 NFL appearances between them. They’ve brought a veteran competence to an offensive line that started three rookies just two years ago.
“I played a lot of ball in my career,” said Shell, who has gone from practice squad to starter due to the significant ankle injury that has kept Austin Jackson out since the opener.
“I’m just here to help. Whatever I can do, talking to the guys on the field. off the field, just being there for those guys. I’ve been through a lot in seven years. I’m just here to share information.”
Shell and third-year guard Robert Hunt have anchored the right side of Miami’s offensive line, allowing just 24 pressures in 893 combined snaps.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Dolphins — who have started five different O-line combinations in nine games — do when Jackson returns. Do they move Shell to the bench or plug Jackson in at left guard?
Robert Jones has played left guard since Liam Eichenberg hurt his knee and has done a good job. So it’s entirely possible the Dolphins keep a healthy Jackson, a former first-round pick, on the bench, at least for the time being.
“I’m here just to do whatever they want me to do,” Shell said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to be mad because I’m not playing. I’m here to help the team. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m going to do my job.”
Miami Dolphins Coaching Upgrades
So Miami’s upgrade in talent and experience has gone a long way in improving the team’s offensive line. But that isn’t the whole story.
What we’re seeing on Sunday is how a professionally coached offensive line is supposed to look — which is a departure from the Brian Flores era. Flores went through four OL coaches in three years. You could tell when you watched the team’s performance on Sundays.
Mike McDaniel, meanwhile, has three offensive line coaches on his current staff: Frank Smith, Matt Applebaum, and Lemuel Jeanpierre. Together, they have hammered the basics that were a bit sloppy in recent years.
“It’s the least-appealing, most-real answer that exists, and it’s like the down to the bones, deliberate work, and intent on defensive specific techniques and how we execute our fundamentals and details,” McDaniel said.
“One of my favorite parts of the whole coaching staff is that my offensive coordinator, Frank Smith, has deep O-line coaching roots and was a center himself,” McDaniel continued. “I think he spearheaded that charge and really led in a moment that, there was a young group that was a little uncertain of themselves. That along with Matt Applebaum and Lem and Mike Person, there’s no quick and easy way to have success in the National Football League.”
There was nothing quick, easy, or cheap about the Dolphins’ approach to fixing their O-line, which had been an issue for the better part of a decade.
And it’s not a final product. Far from.
But in years past, a showdown with the Cleveland Browns — and their uber-talented pass-rushing duo of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney — would be a crisis.
And to be sure, the Dolphins aren’t overlooking them. But after handling Aidan Hutchinson and A.J. Highsmith in recent weeks, they’re as prepared as they’ve been in some time for such a challenge.
“There are so many things at stake every week, so every week is a challenge,” McDaniel said. “This one, in particular, is a lot greater than people realize.
“This Cleveland Browns team is no joke. They are a good football team,” he added. “… I can promise you this; we comb, tape week-in, week-out, and we are definitely not sleeping on this team. This is a good football team that if you aren’t detailed and technically sound, they will expose you in a harmful way.”