PHOTO: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

(All charting numbers in this piece are through Week 16)

On Sunday night, the Dolphins will host the Bills for a chance to claim their first AFC East title since Tom Brady’s knee popped back in 2008. This game will feature some of the most exciting offensive players in all of football, as well as one of the most exciting coaches. Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel is the league’s newest offensive genius, and he’s also a media darling who has charmed journalists and fans alike with his earnest and energetic pressers.

We could spend all day saying nice things about Mike McDaniel. In fact, we’ve spent most of the past year saying nice things about him. So, having established that we love and appreciate Mike for what he’s contributing to this great sport, let’s take a moment to talk about a strange phenomenon happening within his offense right now.

Miami has been far and away the best 3×1 gun (three receivers to the strong side, one to the weak side in shotgun) team in the NFL this season. On 172 neutral script plays, they’ve averaged a whopping 0.39 EPA/play in this family of formations, which is three times better than the second-best team. It would behoove every coach, offensive or defensive, at every level to take some time this offseason to study what Miami does in 3×1 (and we’ll get into what exactly they do in a bit).

On the other hand, they have been bad in their 2×2 gun formations (137 plays). They average -0.24 EPA/play – which is 30th in the league, just barely ahead of the New York teams – and the absolute difference between these two formation shells is easily the biggest for any team at a massive 0.63 EPA/play.

Scatterplot of offensive shotgun efficiency by team in the NFL in 2023, with 2x2 and 3x1 formations on each axis. The Dolphins are the only team off-trend.

This is seemingly not confounded by any basic scheme split. The pass rates are virtually identical, the motion usage is similar, and they actually use a bit more play action in 2×2. They have had worse fumble luck in 2×2, but even if you strip out the fumbles they’ve lost, there’s still a gap of 0.5 EPA/play. This is also not a single-season aberration, as they ranked 3rd and 27th in these formation shells last year.

So, let’s first set the table with what they do in 3×1 gun.

3×1 gun pass game overview

They attack the intermediate area extremely well (their bread-and-butter is a double overs concept they rake on); they are ruthless about isolating Waddle/Hill on the backside, particularly on digs and skinny posts; they have a variety of outside vertical stretch concepts they use (e.g. Smash, Flood); and they do a good job of abusing their speed via motions in order to stress the back end of the defense horizontally (for example, picture a Cover 1 safety having two seams running at him). 

Their best motion comes out of 3×1 where they trade a receiver across the formation towards a condensed split X. Most defenses respond with stack checks, which tends to create cushion for the motion player and often exploitable outside leverage for the new #2. Of course, they are also capable of abusing man-to-man in these looks. They try to accomplish a similar thing in 2×2 by motioning #2 outward behind #1 in condensed flanks, but the results have been mixed.

3×1 run game overview

Their use of motion in the run game is also effective. Their creativity with TE motion in 3Yx1 (3-receiver side with a tight end/Y attached) formations to create favorable blocking angles on both zone and gap concepts might be first thing you notice, but the way they marry their pass and run game is what stands out the most.

Screen cap of Dolphins lined up in a 3x1 formation

3×1 Tight Bunch Gun Strong vs. Patriots 4-2 under front (an even front with a defensive lineman in the A gap to the strength)

Defensive coverages and fronts go hand in hand, and Miami does an excellent job of abusing the fronts that they get. Take, for example, their same-side power concept in 3×1 gun strong. Teams are willing to play Cover 4 against the Dolphins in 3×1 because they aren’t spamming low horizontal stretches that typically abuse this 4-deep, 3-under coverage, which has a couple of implications:

1) Defenses generally don’t want the MIKE linebacker to be significantly out-leveraged by #3 (in the above case, the TE) in Cover 4, so it’s difficult for him to fit the strong A gap against the run, which means that, and

2) Defenses will often be playing an under front to alleviate the MIKE’s run-pass conflict.

‘[The problem, then, is that same-side power is typically free real estate against under fronts. Over the last five seasons, power runs against under fronts have averaged 4.6 YPC and 0.02 EPA/play.

2×2 alignment tendencies

Their 2×2 gun has deeper issues, but it’s worth briefly mentioning they have a few specific tells that opposing teams may be keying on. For example, any time they’re in 2x2Y gun strong with one of Waddle/Hill aligned on the ball at #2 on the strong side and the other at #1 on the weak side in a condensed split, they run a gap play action shot with a post from one side and a dig from the other. This resulted in the field safety intercepting the post in the Raiders game, although Tua sailing it admittedly didn’t help.

 Screen cap of the Dolphins lined up in a 2x2 formation2x2Y gun strong formation with a 2-open side and a 2-closed side with a cut split from the Z

Now, to be clear, such trends are not endemic to the Dolphins. Every team has quirks like this that can and will be found if you look hard enough, and sometimes these plays only get called every few games. Furthermore, coaching staffs regularly self-scout to correct for things like this and break tendencies in future games. In fact, Miami seemingly self-identified a tendency in 3×1 earlier this year, in which an outward motion by Tyreek towards a stack would be a tunnel screen if and only if the on-ball player was a tight end. They broke this tendency against the Cowboys by motioning him towards a standard split with Braxton Berrios on the ball, and it went for 10 yards to convert a critical 3rd & 3 in the final drive of the game.

What is probably more useful is to identify generalizable alignment tendencies, such as the one they have in 2×2 where Tyreek aligning on or off the line of scrimmage sends a pretty strong signal about the verticality of the offense.

Table showing the effect of Tyreek Hill's alignment (on or off the ball) on the Dolphins' average throw depth. The team's average throw depth is higher when he's on the ball, but the drop-off is much more when Hill is off the ball in 2x2 formations.

The value proposition of 2×2 pass game and Tua’s compatibility

Moving onto the nuts and bolts of it all, the Dolphins are generally integrating the back into their dropback passing game more often. They fast-release the back (i.e. he is not staying in to protect, or to chip or check for a blitz before releasing) 10% more often in 2×2 than they do in 3×1, and that’s largely a function of the concepts they’re running. You see more of the classical, West Coast, Shanahan influence in this family of formations; more low horizontal stretch concepts and triangle reads. Slant-flat. Snag. Texas. Stuff like that. And these concepts are fine – Miami runs them a bit in 3×1, as well – but they’re just inherently a lower value proposition compared to what they do in trips.

Setting aside the relative value of these things, there’s also an argument to be made that Tua just isn’t as good at some of them. He’s checking it down more often, with 17% of his non-screen attempts coming at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2×2, compared to just 5% of the time in 3×1. His turnover-worthy throw rate on passes past the line of scrimmage also jumps from 5% to 8%. More risky throws and more checkdowns is not a good combination!

Four-open 2×2 (i.e., two receivers to each side with nobody lined up tight) has been particularly tough sledding for the Dolphins. 53% of their passing attempts in 2×2 gun have come from these looks, and they are averaging an NFL-worst -0.53 EPA/pass out of them. They see the sixth-highest rate of middle field open (MOFO) coverage in such formations at 53%, and that is not a function of them being pass-heavy. The league-wide, neutral-script passing rate within these formations is a staggering 90%, so the problem here is that the Dolphins simply have not been good at forcing the issue.

Defenses playing split field coverages and getting 4 defenders over 3 offensive players (4-over-3) to the strongside and 3-over-2 to the weakside is a tough hill for any offense to climb, and opposing teams can afford to do this to the Dolphins with relative impunity for a couple of reasons. Arguably the most critical factor is that Tua struggles to make some of the throws that typically punish such structures. There are a lot of routes that he excels at throwing, but the slot out/flat is not one of them.

Among non-screen throws he’s attempted at least 25 times in the last two years, flat routes and out routes from the slot are bottom five in EPA/attempt, On-Target Rate Over Expectation (xOnTgt+/-), and passing Total Points/play. This is where critiques of his arm strength come into play; it’s not that he can’t throw rainbows 50 yards downfield, it’s that he doesn’t consistently have the velocity to beat defenders on throws like these.

This is not conducive to beating Cover 4. This is not true of all quarters variants, but, as a general rule, these coverage structures are susceptible in the flats. Furthermore, if a defense wants to play split field coverage and is less concerned about throws to that area, they can have their corners play looser techniques in Cover 2 that allow for sinking a bit longer if the outside receiver releases vertically. Anecdotally, the Dolphins are partial to Ohio (#1 on a go, #2 on an out) in 2×2, especially when Tyreek is in the slot, and they typically do well on it. However, some teams have had success playing Cover 2 to the Dolphins’ 2-open flanks despite that route concept being 1) a common pattern for Miami in those looks, and 2) a traditional Cover 2 beater.

2×2 run game cat-and-mouse

The run game has been another issue. They average 2 fewer yards per carry in gun 2×2, and have been more zone-heavy whereas in 3×1 they are gap-heavy. This is possibly a function of the fronts they’re getting. A lot of teams have liked to place a 3-tech away from the back against these looks and the Dolphins have a 39% success rate on RB handoffs against such fronts, compared to a 67% success rate when the 3-tech is to the back. There could be a lot of reasons teams are setting their front this way, but it can be difficult to run zone at that 3-tech. 

Now, what’s interesting is that, in the past few weeks, McDaniel has made a concerted effort to counteract this. When Miami has been getting a 3-tech away from the offset back, they’ve started to do two things: 1) get the offensive linemen on a zone track one way, and path the back the opposite way, which essentially washes down the 3-tech, and 2) run toss away from the 3-tech, which is an unusual mechanism in shotgun but something they’ve also done on pin-pull concepts. Both of these have generally been paired with a TE splitting across the formation to either kick out or serve as a lead blocker, and it’s led to a spike in their overall efficiency in 2×2 gun runs.

Whether or not this will be some Achilles heel remains to be seen. This umbrella of formations makes up approximately 20% of their offense – so we’re talking about roughly a dozen plays a game – and they’re still 4th in the league in EPA/play regardless. Furthermore, it is difficult for defenses to dictate to the offense what formations they have to use, and players ultimately have to execute on the field, anyways. If nothing else, it’s interesting that the same team can look so different just because someone moved an X on a board. It may not end up being significant, but not everything needs to be. Football is just cool like that.