Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has certainly taken his share of criticism throughout his career. After a less-than-stellar rookie season, Tagovailoa is looking to grow as a decision maker in 2021.
I love watching young quarterbacks and getting a feel for where they are as prospects in the NFL. After evaluating players, it’s vital for an NFL Draft analyst to constantly assess the pro-level prospects. When I do this, it allows me to tweak my grading system and grow as an evaluator. Tua Tagovailoa is no exception to the rule.
The Miami Dolphins did not rush Tagovailoa into game action, mostly because he was recovering from a major hip injury suffered in college. When he did take the field, as the Dolphins tried to stay relevant in the playoff hunt, there were clear discrepancies to his game. When I went back and looked at his game, I saw promise among the mistakes.
For starters, clearly, Tagovailoa’s body was not in prime shape. Building back muscle from a devastating injury like he suffered takes time. On top of that, the league had an estranged season that limited his ability to prepare for the season. Already from the pictures coming out of camp this spring, Tagovailoa already looks much bigger and stronger.
Much of what the Dolphins asked Tagovailoa to play within the scheme was complex but relied on accurate pre-snap reads.
The play that defined Tua Tagovailoa’s struggles
When watching the Dolphins’ week fourteen matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dolphins’ defense gave Patrick Mahomes a lot of competition early in the game, intercepting him twice in the first quarter. The Dolphins failed to capitalize on those two gifts, coming away with just three points.
On the third and goal after the second interception that led to the field goal try, I noticed that Tagovailoa had a wide open receiver who could have easily scored a touchdown on the play. Obviously, that intrigued me so I had to figure out what happened.
The Dolphins ran an interestingly complex concept
Let’s break down this play and talk about what the Dolphins wanted to do with this concept.
This is a play exclusively designed for the red zone. The idea is to get the defense to clear the back of the end zone where the slot receiver runs a corner route. The Dolphins put their big man, DeVonte Parker, in the slot for this concept to use his size as an advantage. The curl keeps the defender covering him in the flat. The slant takes that defender out of the flat. Now, realistically, no one can jump the corner route in the end zone, and Tua needs to deliver a good, high ball.
If the Chiefs are playing cover two, this isn’t going to work because of the deep halves. Someone would be there and Tua would be throwing into double coverage.
What Tua Tagovailoa thought he read
From the pre-snap look that the Chiefs are giving Tua, it appears they are playing cover one man. That means there is one deep defender with everyone else playing man coverage across the board. The diagram below shows that the red box represents the deep coverage zone, and the blue lines represent the man-to-man matchups.
The only question mark on this play is if the Chiefs will blitz their outside linebacker, Daniel Sorensen. He’s circled in yellow with a question mark. The “free” defender (Sorensen in this case) has one of two assignments in a cover-one concept. On a blitz, he attacks the C-Gap outside of the tackle. If the Chiefs play coverage, he drops into the middle of the field and plays a zone/spy role.
Sorensen is the key defender in this play. If he blitzes, Tua is going to throw the slant across the middle. In that instance, Tua has a quick option to get the ball out to, and the middle of the field is vacated. If he drops into coverage, Tua knows that he has the one-on-one matchup up top with Parker in the back of the end zone.
What the Chiefs actually played
Unfortunately for Tua Tagovailoa on this play, the Chiefs were not playing cover one. We call concepts like this disguised coverage. Let’s talk about what the Chiefs did here.
Sorensen is a very athletic linebacker who is capable of playing as a prototypical safety in deep coverage. Kansas City used him to this capacity much throughout the season. While the Chiefs gave Tagovailoa the cover one look, the assignment was actually sending Sorensen deep into coverage in deep halves. It was actually a cover two-man play.
Tua watched Sorensen drop into coverage and assumed that the play was good to go up top. He watched Sorensen drop and then put his eyes on Parker. Tagovailoa failed to recognize that the middle of the field had opened up, and Albert Wilson Jr was wide open over the middle for a walk-in touchdown.
Check out the play in real time:
The biggest mistake that rookies make routinely in the NFL
The way that defenses play in the NFL is completely different than they do in college. That’s one of the hardest parts of evaluating quarterbacks in college – you have to be able to evaluate their ability to learn advanced concepts without ever seeing them go against them.
Tua Tagovailoa certainly had some understanding of advanced concepts because of his time at Alabama. The Crimson Tide run advanced concepts themselves on defense and play against a couple of teams that do as well. However, the NFL is much more creative about how they hide their assignments.
It’s something that he’s going to learn with more experience. He’s a brilliant quarterback. There’s a reason why he was taken fifth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft even after that hip injury. This is the biggest thing that he will have to learn to overcome in the NFL. He has the arm talent and the special ability to extend plays.
Tua is gearing for a special 2021 season, and I hope you aren’t sleeping on him.