Travis Wingfield Who: Dolphins (3-3) vs. Rams (5-2)
When: Sunday, November 1, 1:00 EDT
Where: Hard Rock Stadium - Miami, Fla.
Weather: 84 degrees, 50% chance of rain, 79% humidity, 11 MPH wind
Not long ago, both Brian Flores and Sean McVay were popular head-coaching candidates in charge of a prolific defense (Flores, New England) and offense (McVay, Washington) as coordinators. McVay was hired in 2017 as the Rams Head Coach and had his team in the Super Bowl one year later. There, he met Flores and the New England defense who held Jared Goff and the Rams offense out of the end zone.
Fast forward to 2020.
Flores and his staff, led by Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer, have developed the third-ranked scoring defense in Miami. Sunday, the Dolphins could be facing the biggest test yet with an offense that has ranked 11th, second and first in McVay's three full years in charge.
"They do a great job of being able to mix up a variety of looks, coverage principles, front structures that they had a lot to deal with and a very tough thing to prepare for, especially on a short week," McVay said of Miami. "They play hard, play physical and they've got good players."
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will make the first start of his career for the Miami Dolphins against the vaunted Rams defense. Rams Defensive Coordinator Brandon Staley is in his first year in the position and the results have been exceptional. The Rams defense is second in scoring, allowing an average 17.7 points per game.
The Dolphins are looking for their third straight win for the first time since Weeks 1-3 of the 2018 season. It's an opportunity to get over the .500 mark for the first time early in Flores' tenure as head coach.
The Ram will play the role of west coast team coming east for the early window game - a game played at 10 a.m. Pacific time. This year, the Rams are 2-1 playing in those circumstances. Since McVay's arrival in 2017, the Rams are 6-2 playing in the early slot in the Eastern time zone.
Thursday Injury Report
Two Dolphins did not practice on Thursday: Wide receivers Jakeem Grant (illness) and Lynn Bowden Jr. (not injury related).
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee was limited with a hand injury on Thursday.
For the rest of the Dolphins-Rams injury report, click here.
Rams running back Darrell Henderson has the 14
th-most rushing yards (412) in the NFL. He calls on his 4.49 40-yard dash speed (2019 NFL Combine) to hit those wide runs and break big runs off the edge. Henderson averages 4.7 yards per rush behind Pro Football Focus' No. 7 ranked run-blocking offensive line.
Andrew Whitworth is the marquee name up front. He's in his 13th year and fourth in Los Angeles. He's a four-time Pro Bowler with All-Pro honors twice in his brilliant career. Dolphins Defensive Line Coach Marion Hobby knows Whitworth well going back to their days in the SEC.
"He's been a great player his whole career, even through his college days (when I coached) against him - he was at LSU, I was at Ole Miss," Hobby said. "So I've watched his career all through college and into the pros. He's a pro. He's a savvy vet. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes."
At tight end, Tyler Higbee is 15th among his positional contemporaries with 223 receiving yards. His three touchdowns are tied for seventh among tight ends, but Dolphins safety Eric Rowe held All-Pro tight end George Kittle to one reception for 12 yards, per Pro Football Focus, two weeks ago.
The Rams have two wide receivers in the top 30 of the league in receptions (Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods). Kupp is one of the league's best route runner who piled up 1,161 yards last season (417 so far in 2020). Woods does a little bit of everything catching passes short, deep, intermediate, running the fly sweep motion to take handoffs and he makes big plays - he has a 56-yard touchdown reception this season.
Since Byron Jones returned from his groin injury in Week 5, the combination of him and fellow cornerback Xavien Howard have been targeted 22 times. The result: six receptions, 69 yards, two interception, three pass breakups and a passer rating of only 2.7, per PFF.
Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey is allowing only 53.5 percent of targets completed for 5.33 yards per target. The passer rating against Ramsey is only 77.1. Safety John Johnson is PFF's No. 19 graded safety.
Dolphins Interior Three vs. Rams Interior Rush
Arguably the most dominant player in the league, regardless of position, few players standout the way Aaron Donald does. Since entering the league in 2014, Donald has finished as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 interior defensive lineman every year sans his rookie season (second to J.J. Watt in 2014).
He's back at in 2020 with 45 quarterback pressures (most among defensive tackles) and 13 run stops (tied for 13th among DTs). Michael Brockers leads the Rams with 14 run stops and also has 15 quarterback pressures of his own.
The Dolphins interior line will have a great test on Sunday. On a combined 717 pass-blocking snaps for guard Ereck Flowers, center Ted Karras and guard Solomon Kindley, they've allowed only 21 quarterback pressures - one every 34.1 snaps. Of the 21 pressures, only seven have resulted in hits on the quarterback.
Donald commands the most double-teams in the league per NFL Next Gen Stats. How the Dolphins decide to block him, and deal with the blitzers and rushers operating next to him, will be an integral part of the Dolphins offense's ability to effectively move the football.
Early Down Runs
McVay and 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan came from the same system in Washington that emphasizes the run. From there, the play-action passing game helps take advantage of all the pre-snap motion, shifting, and eye candy designed to create false steps for the defenders. Miami was able to successfully thwart the 49ers play-action game two weeks ago (Jimmy Garoppolo had a season-low 15.7 passer rating), but will have to top that performance against the Rams.
Jared Goff has the most drop backs (93) from play action in the NFL, per PFF. He's completing 68.8 percent of those throws for an average of 8.9 yards per pass and a rating of 114.6. That passer rating is 20.9 points higher than his 93.7 passer rating on non-play action throws. Goff throws off of play action on 42 percent of his passes, primarily on bootlegs. The Rams are averaging 6.5 yards per rush when running off left tackle and 9.1 yards off the right side, per Pro Football Focus, their two best rushing averages by gap.
For the Dolphins offense, the play-action game is the best friend of any quarterback, particularly a rookie. Tua Tagovailoa executed a play-action bootleg on his first career pass showcasing the athletic ability and strong arm when throwing on the run. On the next play, Tagovailoa moved the chains on third-and 7, but Miami would - ideally - like to cut down those third down distances significantly. That play was Miami's first third down conversion of the game and running the football successfully on first and second down will make things easier on the young quarterback.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker is a full-blown weapon. He pinned four punts inside the 10-yard-line on Monday Night Football against the Bears. He now has a league-high 16 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard-line.
Dolphins punter Matt Haack has Hekker beat in net punting average (42.4 to 42.0) and the Miami special teams units are collectively ranked third on Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average) metric. Running back Matt Breida and safety Kavon Frazier lead the Dolphins with three special teams tackles each and Jakeem Grant has the third-most punt return yards in the NFL (139).
Jason Sanders is a perfect 15-of-15 kicking field goals and hasn't missed a point-after-try (13-of-13). The Rams recently released Samuel Sloman leaving Kai Forbath as the only kicker currently on the roster. Forbath has not attempted a kick this season, but was successful on all 11 of his kicks in 2019.
The Rams offense ranks 18th in the NFL with 25.1 points per game and 10th with 385.7 yards per game. The 138.9 rushing yards per game ranks seventh and the 246.9 passing yards per game ranks 18th.
If play action is the Rams bread and butter on offense, 11-personnel is the milk and eggs. One running back, one tight end and three wide receivers is the Rams preferred offensive package by a long shot - they've run 317 plays from that grouping, sixth-most in the NFL. Aside from 11, the only other packages the Rams go to are 12- (two tight ends) and 13- (three tight ends) personnel. Miami's depth at cornerback and linebacker should help combat the Rams depth at both wide receiver and tight end.
No team in the NFL operates out of tighter splits than the Rams. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Rams average width between the two widest-split players is 20.4 four yards, tightest in the NFL. This will test Miami's communication and ability to fight through all the crossing and traffic these condensed formations create.
Defensively, only five teams have called more dime defense (six defensive backs) than the Rams. Of the 445 defensive plays, 107 have come from dime, 277 from nickel (five DBs) and 59 with four defensive backs. The 59 snaps in four defensive back packages is the fifth-lowest in the NFL. Los Angeles will typically defend two tight end packages in their nickel defense, as was the case for nearly all of Chicago's 12-personnel calls Monday night (14 out of 16, per PFF).
Los Angeles dials up an extra rusher 28.0 percent of the time, the 18th-highest blitz rate in the league. They get home with their four-man rush regularly; the 24 quarterback sacks is tied for third-most in the NFL.
The Rams defense ranks second in football allowing just 17.7 points per game and sixth in total defense allowing only 312.9 yards per game. The passing defense is ranked fifth with 212.4 yards allowed per game and 100.4 rushing yards per game ranks seventh.
Final Thoughts and Game Notes
The Dolphins lead the all-time series 11-2 over the Rams. Miami's winning streak over Los Angeles is at four games dating back to 2004 when the Rams played in St. Louis (St. Louis beat Miami 42-10 in 2001).
Tagovailoa is expected to make the first start of his NFL career. The fifth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Tagovailoa was the highest quarterback selected by the franchise since Bob Griese was selected fourth overall in 1967. Last week against the Jets, Tagovailoa became the fourth left-handed quarterback to throw a pass for Miami (Jim Del Gaizo, Scott Mitchell and Pat White).
When Tagovailoa starts, he will become the seventh rookie to start a game at quarterback in Dolphins history, joining Ryan Tannehill (2012), John Beck (2007), Dan Marino (1983), David Woodley (1980), Bob Griese (1967) and Rick Norton (1966).
He will step in to a lineup with an impressive performance on the offensive line. Despite starting four new players on the line, the unit has allowed just 10 sacks this season, the ninth-fewest in the NFL.
The Dolphins also rank in the top half of the league with 17 sacks. That mark is tied for 11th in the NFL. In six games, the Dolphins defense has nine takeaways. That mark is tied for 13th in the NFL.
Miami's third-down defense has also been solid, limiting opponents to just a 31.3 conversion rate. That mark is the best in the NFL.
After back-to-back late kickoffs, we're back to the early 1 p.m. window. We'll have the recap story, the Sunday spotlight and Drive Time recap podcast available Sunday evening.