Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa: The Tape Don't Lie, observations from Patriots win

Joe Schad
Palm Beach Post
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) celebrates a fourth quarter touchdown at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

The Dolphins beat the Patriots, 22-12, on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium. 

Miami maintains the seventh and final spot in the AFC Playoffs. 

Among the players who stood out in this game were Salvon Ahmed, Matt Breida, Durham Smythe, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jerome Baker.

Ask any coach and he's likely to agree, "The Tape Don't Lie." Here are some things we noticed after watching Sunday's victory again:

• When tight end Adam Shaheen bounced off three Patriots' defenders after a first-quarter catch, it was eye-opening for a few reasons. One, it's been a while since Miami had a big, strong tight end capable of dragging a dude or two or three. And two, Shaheen really isn't the total bust he was perceived to be in Chicago. This guy (6-foot-7, 257 pounds) is flourishing with a change of scenery. He is a competent pass receiver, a legitimate red zone threat and a solid blocker. 

Miami Dolphins tight end Adam Shaheen (80) avoids a tackle in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

• Salvon Ahmed and Matt Breida is a really nice complementary duo of backs. Ahmed is quick and shifty. Breida is explosive and dynamic. They're both capable pass-catchers. It makes one wonder how Chan Gailey will incorporate Myles Gaskin back into the equation, as early as this week. Gailey really trusts Gaskin and he's been the workhorse when healthy, so the guess is he gets another crack. But Ahmed and Breida are capable and valuable assets, too.

Miami Dolphins running back Salvon Ahmed (26) runs for a two-point conversion during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

• When Tua Tagovailoa threw an interception in the end zone intended for Lynn Bowden near the end the first quarter, he had an opportunity to step up into the pocket before passing or taking off to run. If Tagovailoa had not been hit from behind by Chase Winovich (blocked by Robert Hunt) he certainly would have had a chance to complete the pass to Bowden. On that third-down play, Tagovailoa's targets were: Mack Hollins, Isaiah Ford, Adam Shaheen, Patrick Laird and Bowden. Not ideal. But Tagovailoa also said he forced the play under pressure. Tagovailoa has the tools to be an effective red zone passer in the NFL. He should improve with more experience under pressure in the pocket and when more top targets return to the lineup.

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• Linebacker Jerome Baker has really seemed to surge in recent weeks. He's playing assertive, aggressive football. He's been a very active and effective tackler. His arrow seems to be pointing in the right direction. Baker has seemed to improve against the run. He says he's picked the brain of Elandon Roberts, who is strong against the run, and realizes now he doesn't need to make every tackle, sometimes he just has to make sure he's a part of a solid wall. Baker also had a sack and forced a fumble in this game. He's playing with more confidence and less hesitancy.

Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Jerome Baker (55) forces a fumble with a tackle in the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

• What can't Lynn Bowden do? He can make tacklers miss. He has good hands. He can even break a tackle. At this point, it would seem Bowden is a favorite to play the slot for Miami in 2021. If the Dolphins draft a receiver in the first round, he can compete with Bowden and Preston Williams for playing time. But Bowden is surging fast. This is a player who seriously reminds of Michael Vick when he has the ball and potential tacklers and slipping and sliding around him.

Miami Dolphins running back Lynn Bowden (15) looks for running room in the third quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

• Jason Sanders has missed a field goal in two consecutive games and that certainly could halt any claims ofa Pro Bowl snub. 

• Dolphins center Ted Karras cited blocks by Miami's tight ends as key factors in Miami's 250 rushing yards against New England. And he's absolutely correct. Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen are more than average, capable blockers. They have the size, strength and smarts to make a real positive impact on Miami's run game. They did just that against the Patriots.

• Salvon Ahmed ran behind defensive tackle Christian Wilkins for a touchdown at the start of the second half. It interests perhaps only me that Wilkins is ahead of Elandon Roberts in the rotation of defensive players who can play fullback for the Dolphins. I suppose one might say Miami has depth at that position.

• When Xavien Howard poked the ball away from a receiver for a turnover in the third quarter, it got me thinking more about turnovers. The Dolphins repeatedly went after the ball on Sunday. They were as annoying as a kid brother on holiday break. It's one of the biggest reasons Miami has been so good on defense this season and one of the biggest reasons they're so much better in 2020 than 2019. The Dolphins are tied for second in the NFL with 16 interceptions. And they're tied for fifth in the NFL with 10 forced fumbles. Miami now has a quarterback, Tua, who protects the ball almost at all costs. And for the season, the Dolphins are +10 in turnover margin.

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) forces a fumble as he tackles New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) in the third quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

• Matt Haack was so calm, cool and composed on a fake punt pass to Kamu Grugier-Hill. It's such a shame that Grugier-Hill did not report as an eligible receiver. Coach Brian Flores says that reflects on the coaching staff, namely Flores. It will be interesting to see what special teams coach Danny Crossman, who has had a good year, has to say. It's the second time in recent weeks that a fake was negated by failure to report. On a somewhat related note: would the play have worked if Grugier-Hill reported? 

• Bobby McCain missed an open-field tackle on a long completion in the third quarter, but was backed up by cornerback Nik Needham. McCain played limited snaps, largely due to an ankle injury that had limited him all week. While McCain will be expected to be a contributor against Las Vegas, it is imperative that he be feeling closer to 100 percent against Buffalo, Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs on Jan. 3. 

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• On a 31-yard run by Salvon Ahmed in the third quarter, when Miami was trailing 9-7, Isaiah Ford contributed a key block on a safety to help spring the running back. It was Miami's longest rush of the year. Right guard Jesse Davis and right tackle Robert Hunt were also doing work. Miami's offensive linemen have the size, power and pedigree to help lead to a more effective rushing attack then we've seen this season. Flores also accurately highlighted wide receiver blocking as a factor on Sunday.

• When Matt Breida ripped off a 24-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, he followed an excellent block by the tight end Shaheen, and again, Davis and Hunt, the right guard and right tackle. Even receiver Mack Hollins got in the action with some downfield blocking.

Miami Dolphins running back Matt Breida (22) rushes for a long gain in the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, December 20, 2020.

• Guard Michael Deiter executed some solid blocks in the run game after entering for injured Solomon Kindley. Deiter probably has some pent-up frustration and plenty of energy after not playing all season. He is a more-than-capable reserve. And if he has some fire to bring to the lineup, that will boost his stock further.

• Durham Smythe has emerged as a valuable check-down target for Tagovailoa. Smythe has improved as a receiver and he showed some toughness on Sunday, attempting to barrel over defenders as he tasted the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Smythe also used power to gain extra yards on a fourth-quarter scoring drive.

• On a rush at the start of the fourth quarter that capped a 14-play, 85-yard touchdown drive, Tagovailoa stepped up in a way he had not in the first quarter and scrambled for a score, barely escaping one blitzing cornerback who grabbed a piece his jersey. Tagovailoa is never going to be a dynamic scrambling threat. But the ability to run when needed is essential in today's NFL. Tagovailoa did have nine rushing touchdowns in 32 college contests.

• New England settled for four field goals and scored no touchdowns. Who was in coverage on the third-down passing failures by Cam Newton? Byron Jones on N'Keal Harry (incomplete), Xavien Howard on Jakobi Meyers (tackle short of sticks) and Eric Rowe on Dalton Keen (incomplete).  Why is Miami the best third-down defense in the NFL? All of their defensive backs cover well. All. Of. Them.

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• Even though Tagovailoa passed for only 145 yards, with no passing touchdowns, the positives should not be overlooked. First, rookie quarterbacks don't beat Bill Belichick. Tua did. And second, Tua led touchdown drives of 14 plays, 90 yards and 11 plays, 75 yards in the fourth quarter. Each drive was capped by a touchdown run by Tagovailoa.

And while it is true that Miami's offense was spear-headed by the rushing duo of Ahmed & Breida, Tagovailoa did complete 77 percent of passes. And on Miami's two long touchdown drives, he was 4-for-5 (and a two-point conversion) and 3-for-3. Tagovailoa is 5-2 as a starter. It is true his longest completion on Sunday was for 15 yards, and that is something to monitor.

But Tagovailoa played without DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant, Mike Gesicki, Myles Gaskin and Ereck Flowers. And he lead a victory. And that's what matters most right now. He found a way to help his team win.