The Cowboys are looking for another signature bounce-back win this week as they take a trip down to Miami to face the Dolphins. But after a game in which the defense got ripped apart on the ground, the odds of getting back on track against this offense seem rather slim.
That’s because the Dolphins are one of the very best rushing offenses in the league. They lead the league in yards per carry with a 5.1 average and rank second in rush DVOA and fourth in EPA/carry. The offense as a whole is great too, third in offensive DVOA and second in EPA/play, but the run game is what this scheme is built around.
Head coach Mike McDaniel may be the funniest coach in the whole sport, a living embodiment of an internet meme, but he’s also an extremely sharp coach. The Colorado native was a ball boy for the Broncos as a kid and, after playing football at Yale, earned a coaching internship with the Broncos on Mike Shanahan’s staff. That’s where he built a close relationship with now 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Until taking the Dolphins job, McDaniel spent every season of his NFL coaching career alongside the younger Shanahan. When Shanahan started in San Francisco, McDaniel was brought in as the run game coordinator. After the 2020 season, he was promoted to offensive coordinator, though Shanahan still called plays. Still, that was all it took for the Dolphins to recognize his immense potential.
McDaniel brought the Shanahan offense to Miami, an extremely popular scheme that’s taken the league by storm. While there are now dozens of coaches who run it, all coming from various branches of coaching trees that trace their way back to Shanahan or Sean McVay, McDaniel is one of the few that’s been around it long enough to trace his roots back to the original Shanahan.
Of course, McDaniel has injected his own spin on the scheme since getting to Miami, which can be best described as supercharging the offense. On the surface, McDaniel’s offense is nearly identical to what Shanahan runs in San Francisco, but McDaniel took it to the next level by surrounding quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with a ton of certified track stars.
He inherited Jaylen Waddle, who had just set a new rookie record for catches in a season, but McDaniel wanted more. Miami signed former Cowboy Cedrick Wilson before later making a blockbuster trade for Tyreek Hill, arguably the fastest player in the league. They also signed two former 49ers running backs in Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert, the latter of whom was actually a track star in high school. In this year’s draft, they also added Texas A&M rookie De’Von Achane, who posted the third-fastest 40-yard dash of any player at any position in this year’s combine.
Schematically, McDaniel does the same things as Shanahan does. It’s a ton of pre-snap motion, wide zone rushing schemes, play action that’s married to the run game, and so many crossing routes. Having all this speed, though, makes all of these effects just a tad more difficult to defend. Suddenly, defenses have to play even further back to prevent against Hill’s deep routes, but quick crossers to other players in space - a staple of this offense - are deadly too because of every player’s elite speed on the move.
All of this is built around Tagovailoa, the former fifth overall pick. The short lefty quarterback has been a seamless fit in McDaniel’s offense, as his quick processing skills and plus mobility is perfect for what this scheme asks the quarterback to do. He’s currently fourth in EPA/play and leads the league in completion rate and passing yards while ranking fourth in big time throws.
However, Tagovailoa is prone to mistakes on occasion. He’s tenth in turnover worthy play rate and his 10 interceptions on the year rank seventh in the league. He’s been especially shaky under pressure, where he’s tied with Titans rookie Will Levis for 29th in passer rating. That doesn’t happen much, as Tagovailoa’s 15.2% pressure rate is second-best in the league and his 2.38 seconds per throw is the fastest release out there. However, the Dolphins offensive line has been banged up as of late - their entire starting line missed practice on Wednesday - and it’s caused some problems in the passing game.
Of course, like the 49ers, so much of this offense flows through the running game. The trio of Mostert, Achane, and Wilson has caused problems for just about every defense they’ve faced this year. The Cowboys have been especially vulnerable against the run, though it’s rarely been as problematic as it was last week against the Bills.
This defensive line’s performance against Buffalo has left exceedingly little confidence in stopping a rushing attack as efficient as Miami this week. To be sure, it will be a Herculean task, especially if the Cowboys are once again losing the leverage battle at the line of scrimmage. This Dolphins offense has answers to seemingly every question a defense can throw at them, making this matchup feel like an impossible task for Dallas. Can they rise to the challenge, unlike their games against the Bills or 49ers? Only time will tell.