Under the glare of the Sunday night NBC spotlight, the Chargers flummoxed the Dolphins quarterback, limiting him to 10 completions in 28 attempts for 145 yards, a dismal 65.8 passer rating.
No team before - or team after - did a better job of taking away the middle of the field against Tagovailoa, or harrassing Miami’s fleet-footed receivers, than the Chargers did in their 23-17 win that December night.
And the Dolphins could face a similar approach from Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s team when the teams meet Sunday at 4:25 p.m. in Los Angeles, on CBS.
Here’s how Pro Football Focus summarized what the Chargers did in limiting Miami to 219 yards, including 3 for 11 on third down:
“Every linebacker and defensive back — along with the coaching staff — for the Chargers should get a game ball in this one. They disrupted the explosive Miami wide receivers in press coverage and eliminated the middle of the field in the intermediate and deep levels.
“Tua Tagovailoa completed just two passes over 10 yards downfield inside the numbers. For reference, he had been completing seven such passes per game since returning from injury in Week 7.”
And there’s this, too: According to Next Gen Stats, Los Angeles pressed a season-high 35 percent of detached routes. Miami completed only one pass on eight targets in press coverage. The Chargers pressed Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at the line of scrimmage about twice as much as other Dolphins opponents did.
“Our secondary really answered the call,” Staley said after the game. “Our secondary was on them in a lot of different ways, and you’ll see that on the tape.”
Does Hill expect the Chargers to use the same defensive strategy on Sunday? “Those guys did a great job; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Hill said. “They do a great job of jamming receivers. This year will be a little different for both sides. It’s going to be fun.”
The Chargers placed three defenders in deep zones 26.5 percent of the time, unusually high, and played some version of zone defense more than 80 percent of the time on third downs, which confounded Miami.
So are the Dolphins better equipped to deal with that this week?
Coach Mike McDaniel on Monday praised the Chargers’ effort and game plan that night but also said: “It wasn’t like they reinvented defense. Their guys understood their issues in individual coverage and played with competitive spirit. There were a lot of 50-50 balls that went to the Chargers.
“You could see a unit that was well coached and well schooled on the opposing team’s offense. They did a very good job challenging things we were trying to do.”
Because the Dolphins had just 14 first downs, they held the ball only 20:22, combined for 39:28 for the Chargers.
Tagovailoa was sacked twice, and if you remove Miami’s one big play (a 60-yard touchdown pass to Hill), the Dolphins would have had 159 passing yards.
Waddle caught just two passes for 31 yards. Raheem Mostert ran for just 37 yards on 3.4 per carry.
Tagovailoa was one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks when he had time to throw last season, but that wasn’t the case against the Chargers on that Sunday night.
He was just 7 for 20 for 119 yards even when kept clean and just 6 of 19 for 66 yards when not blitzed. Play action backfired; Tagovailoa was 1 for 8 for no yards on play action.
Tagovailoa’s passing success, by distance, played out this way: He was 2 for 3 on passes behind the line of scrimmage for 8 yards; 5 for 8 for 52 yards on throws that traveled 0 to 9 yards; 2 for 6 for 25 yards on passes covering 10 to 19 yards; and 1 for 7 for 60 yards on 20-plus yard throws (the Hill TD).
“They did one of the better jobs all season, but this is a new year is the way I kind of look at it,” McDaniel said.
“We will be watching last year’s game but not [putting] too much weight” into it.
Incidentally, Renaldo Hill - who is now the Dolphins’ pass game coordinator and a defensive backs coach - was the Chargers’ defensive coordinator last season, though Staley’s fingerprints were all over the game plan.
McDaniel said Hill provided “good information” regarding the Chargers’ defensive approach against Miami’s offense.
The Dolphins worked on screens a lot through training camp and preseason, and more screens might help on Sunday. Miami attempted only one screen against the Chargers, and that was completed for an 8 yard gain.
Hill was relieved that the NFL decided not to fine or suspend him for his altercation with a man at a marina this summer: “I’m glad everything is behind me. Going forward I have to make better decisions, not only for myself but the team. Be smarter. Be a pro.... Sometimes we lose sight of who we are and that’s not the person my grandparents raised me to be. I’ve got to strive to be better.”
Hill joked that he avoided suspension by mowing commissioner Roger Goodell’s lawn.