Defensive coverage will be the key when the Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa take on Justin Herber and the Chargers this Sunday.
The Miami Dolphins (8-4) and Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) have no real reason to be rivals. They’re on opposite coasts in different divisions and, aside from a legendary playoff game in 1982 dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “The Game No One Should Have Lost”, they haven’t had many epic clashes in the postseason. That doesn’t matter now, though. These two teams are now tied together thanks to their respective quarterbacks, and while a multitude of factors go into a game plan, Sunday’s matchup will likely hinge on which quarterback plays the best. Here’s what to watch for in Sunday’s AFC clash.
Tua vs. Herbert
Tua Tugavailo and Justin Herbert were selected back-to-back in the 2020 NFL draft. While Tagovailoa was struggling in his first two seasons, Herbert quickly became a popular choice as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Both fans and media members alike go back and forth with each other about which quarterback is better, and that debate could culminate in a matchup that breaks what’s left of Twitter.
Many people, including former Miami vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, preferred Herbert, with Tannenbaum saying he would have chosen him No. 1 overall.
“If everyone went through the process open-minded and just judged Justin Herbert as the player, I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision, but a very apparent one to me,” he said on The Mike Greenburg Show two years ago. “He was physical and had great intangibles. We have a million miles to go, but what I’m seeing now is really what I saw at Oregon.”
Now with Tagovailoa in first-year head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense and being surrounded by elite skill position talent, the race is neck and neck. Tagovailoa has thrown for 2859 yards, 21 touchdowns, and five interceptions while completing 68 percent of his passes. Even though he committed three turnovers against the San Francisco 49ers, one of the elite defenses in the league, he still threw for just shy of 300 yards and two touchdowns. The improvement is obvious.
Even with the inconsistent coaching from head coach Brandon Staley, a beat-up offensive line, and a rib injury, Herbert has still put up big numbers, throwing for 3339 yards, 20 touchdowns, and seven interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes. The season hasn’t gone the way the Chargers wanted and Staley is on the hot seat. If the season ended today, the Chargers would be ninth in the AFC and out of the playoffs.
Despite all that, Herbert is good enough to take over a game and steal a win. He and Tugavailo will be the focal points of Sunday’s game. In the hearts and minds of many fans — some media members, too — this game will decide who the better quarterback is.
Who will stick to the running game?
Both teams are quick to abandon the run, with the Chargers ranking 31st and the Dolphins coming in at 28th in rushing. As expected, the results have been mixed, at best. The Chargers are 4-5 in the nine games Herbert has thrown the ball 35-plus times. Tugavailo has not been as active, but last week’s loss to the 49ers highlighted a flaw in Mike McDaniel’s otherwise great offense. Miami only had eight rushing attempts for 33 yards. San Francisco’s run defense is good, but not good enough for Miami to only have single-digit rushing attempts.
The good news for the Dolphins is that the Chargers are also bad at stopping the running game, with the Chargers’ defense ranking 29th against the run. McDaniel has an opportunity to get running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. going against a soft defense, which will benefit the Dolphins as they head down the stretch. After signing Mostert as a free agent and trading for Wilson at the trading deadline, the Dolphins might as well use them.
Which defense will step up?
Both defenses are coming off rocky performances last week. Miami gave up 351 yards to a San Francisco offense led by rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy, who came in during the first quarter after starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo left the game with a foot injury. For a team known for running the ball, the 49ers’ receivers averaged 9.9 yards per catch and Purdy completed 25-of-37 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
L.A.’s defense just gave up over 400 yards to the 5-7 Raiders, with running back Josh Jacobs rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown by himself. As a team, the Raiders averaged 6.8 yards per play and 5.3 yards per carry and outscored the Chargers 17-7 in the second half. The injuries have piled up for the Chargers as well, most notably star pass rusher Joey Bosa, who’s out with a groin injury.
The matchup to watch will be Miami’s secondary against the L.A. passing attack. Pro Football Focus ranks Miami’s defense 25th in pass coverage with a grade of 57.7. The last passer Miami faced of Herbert’s quality was Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in week four when he proceeded to complete 20-of-31 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt.
Even in a loss, Herbert went 28-for-47 for 335 yards and a touchdown, and he did a good job spreading the ball around the field. Four different Charger pass catchers recorded five-plus receptions for 60-plus yards, giving Herbert plenty of options to choose from. For Miami to get the win, the secondary will have to bottle up Herbert as much as possible.
Miami Dolphins @ Los Angeles Chargers
When: Sunday, 8:20 P.M. ET
Where: Inglewood, CA – SoFi Stadium
How to Watch: Sunday Night Football on NBC
Odds: Miami is currently -3.5 and -190 on the money line. The over/under opened and has stayed at 51.5.