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Habib: Heat's now on Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins' O-line to handle pressure that's coming

Sunday's six sacks allowed matched the total in the previous four games combined

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post
Broncos defensive end DeShawn Williams records one of six sacks of the Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa.

Vic Fangio’s days of coaching defense date back to the Jimmy Carter administration. To say Tua Tagovailoa hadn’t been born would undersell this by a mile. Tagovailoa wasn’t born for another 19 years.

So when Fangio sat down with his Denver Broncos coaching staff to construct a game plan against the Dolphins, there was one direction to point: squarely at the kid wearing No. 1. So much so that six sacks of Tagovailoa tell only half the story of the heat the Broncos brought.

“If you asked me before the game, I was planning on doing it even more than we did,” Fangio said after the Broncos won 20-13 to end Miami’s five-game winning streak.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa iss sacked by Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Walker (57) and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb (55) during the second quarter of Sunday's game in Denver.

Contained within that one sentence are all sorts of issues confronting Brian Flores and the Dolphins now.

The Broncos went into the game planning to be aggressive and came out of it with six sacks for 33 yards — after dialing back aggression? Any inclination to thank him for being gracious is put on the back burner out of concerns that this reconstruction project on the Dolphins’ offensive line — featuring three rookies seeing extensive playing time — has hit a bump in the road.

One bad week does not wipe out weeks of promising results, just as Tagovailoa’s rally at Arizona does not make him Patrick Mahomes. Six sacks allowed matched the previous four games combined, so the line had to be doing something right.

But the blueprint is there, on tape, for the Jets and Bengals to study and copy in a quest to end their own pass-rush issues.

Tagovailoa, too, must study it with the realization that the same guys running stunts and blitzes to confuse him also were coming after Ryan Fitzpatrick on Miami’s final two series. Even though they knew Fitz would be passing on every down, they never dropped him.

“They seemed like they were getting some pressure up front, so what are some things that I can do as a quarterback to combat that?” Fitzpatrick said rather rhetorically.

Amid their in-game and postgame teacher-student conversations, Fitz didn’t even have to point out the first correction Tagovailoa must make.

“I felt like I was holding the ball a little too long,” Tagovailoa said.

To wait more than about three seconds is to invite trouble. And trouble came, even with the Broncos minus the menacing Von Miller. In addition to the sacks, the Broncos had eight quarterback hits. Thus, the Dolphins gained just 3.8 yards per pass play — and that number hovered below 2.0 until Fitzpatrick passed for 117 yards.

“We just wanted to get to him early and try to rattle him up a little bit early, and we feel like we did that,” linebacker Bradley Chubb said of Tagovailoa.

By Pro Football Focus’ count, rookie left tackle Austin Jackson allowed nine pressures, most of any NFL tackle on Sunday. Jackson and rookie tackle Robert Hunt were hit with holding penalties. Rookie guard Solomon Kindley left the game with a foot injury. Versatile veteran Jesse Davis, who had issues in the game, on Monday was placed on the COVID-19 list for players who test positive or have been exposed to someone who has. If he's unable to face the Jets, all three rookies could start, although center Ted Karras wasn't sounding any alarms.

"I think we've got a lot of good depth," Karras said.

Getting back to Sunday, much of what went wrong is what had been going right.

“That’s been OK and it hasn’t been something that’s been spotlighted in weeks prior,” Flores said of the line’s protection record, pre-Broncos. “Obviously we’ll address it. I have a lot confidence in all the players on this team.”

It ought to be fixable. Line coach Steve Marshall, who has done nice work, must now juggle getting his unit back to where it was in protection while stepping up in class as run blockers. Having said that, if the Dolphins are going to be ahead of the game in either skill, better to assign the front five to bodyguard protection for the franchise QB, who still managed to impress the Broncos.

“We were hitting him, but he wasn't really going down easy,” said linebacker Malik Reed, who had 1.5 sacks and three QB hits. “I was impressed with (him). He just got in there and got after it. I feel like he's going to be a good quarterback. To get after him, like I said, to have six sacks on him, that's amazing.”

Flores created a stir by pulling Tagovailoa for the final two series. Some jumped to the kind of defense for Tagovailoa that he could have only wished for during the game. No, pulling a young quarterback who’s ineffective isn’t football blasphemy. The fact that the Dolphins averaged 64 yards per possession with Fitzpatrick under center and 11.9 with Tagovailoa proves the team needed “juice,” as Fitz called it.

The reason it’s rare to see a highly drafted rookie quarterback get yanked is simple. Guys such as Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow usually are learning on the job with teams that have no shot of going anywhere. That’s why they’re drafting early. Tagovailoa is gaining experience with a team built to compete now. It’s equal parts blessing and burden.

Flores is confident he wasn’t messing with Tagovailoa’s psyche by going to the bullpen. He has earned the trust in making such an important determination.

“Even in a game like today when I’m out there, I’m still talking with Tua on the sideline and we’re going through stuff and just trying to get him to see what I’m seeing and why I’m doing the things I’m doing,” Fitzpatrick said postgame. “This is such a tough position to play and you’re just going to continue to learn and it’s going to be a bumpy road, but you just hope that the things that you learn, you put them in the back and you make a catalog in the back of your head and you continue to get better.”

That applies to Tagovailoa, but also to a young line growing along with him.

More:Miami Dolphins' Brian Flores: Don't 'make too much' of pulling Tua Tagovailoa