The Bills’ win over the Commanders was not even an hour old last Sunday when Buffalo coach Sean McDermott turned his attention to his next opponent, the Dolphins.
“I just saw the Dolphins put up 70 points,” McDermott said in his news conference. “I’ve got a long week ahead.”
Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon also faced a long week as he prepared to face the 49ers’ offense this Sunday.
“Obviously, the scheme is probably the best in the world, truthfully,” Gannon said.
The numbers are bearing that out. The Dolphins and 49ers are both 3-0, have the hottest offenses in the NFL, and may have broken defensive football as we know it.
They’re doing it with similar schemes, and coaches cut from the same cloth. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel worked under 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan for 14 years in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco, and brought the same offensive principles to Miami.
Entering Week 4, the Dolphins are first in the NFL in offensive points scored (43.3 per game), and the 49ers are second (30.0). The Dolphins’ 1,653 total yards through three games are the most in NFL history. They also rank first this year in passer rating, yards per pass attempt, yards per rush attempt, and points per drive. The 49ers are in the top four in each category except rushing, in which they are No. 6. The Next Gen Stats rank the Dolphins’ offense No. 1 in expected points added, and the 49ers No. 2.
Of course, the Dolphins’ stats are skewed by their performance last week, a 70-20 thrashing of the Broncos in which they gained 726 yards. But it was no fluke, as the Dolphins put up 36 points and 536 yards in Week 1. The 49ers have been a consistent juggernaut, scoring 30 points in all three of their wins.
The offenses are built on similar philosophies of playing fast, making quick rhythm throws, and getting the ball to playmakers in space. The Dolphins rank No. 1 in average yards after catch (6.7), while the 49ers rank No. 4 (5.7). Tua Tagovailoa has the quickest time to throw in the NFL (2.34 seconds), while Brock Purdy ranks seventh (2.53).
“They make you play in a way that you can’t junk it up,” Gannon said of the 49ers. “You can’t have in a bunch of new calls or you will get gashed. So you’ve got to play your staples, you’ve got to be sound, and you’ve got to tackle.”
The 49ers have a little more bulk and run-through-you ability with Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, whereas the Dolphins are built with pure speed with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert, and De’Von Achane. The five fastest speeds by ball carriers this season have been produced by Dolphins players.
“You can get a couple Usain Bolts — tell [Bills general manager Brandon Beane] we’ll bring them in for a week and run scout team with about three or four of those guys. I think that would give us a good look,” McDermott quipped.
The 49ers’ offensive success with Shanahan is no surprise, as they have finished as a top-six scoring team in three of the last five years, or whenever they have had a healthy quarterback. But the Dolphins have exploded under McDaniel, who in his second season has expanded Shanahan’s offense to impressive new frontiers.
The Dolphins are revolutionizing the NFL with their use of at-the-snap motion. It looks like something out of the Canadian Football League, with a runner going in motion horizontally at full speed, and turning upfield at the snap.
“We call it, ‘Cheat,’ ” Shanahan said.
Per ESPN analytics, NFL teams used this kind of motion only 4 percent of the time in 2017. This year, the average is 20 percent, and the Dolphins lead the way at 59 percent.
“Their schematics are almost revolutionary in what they do,” McDermott said. “It’s a handful. They put you out on the edge and try to get you in bad positions.”
Shanahan said the Dolphins’ mix of scheme and personnel is unique.
“Tyreek is such a unique dude. He’s the one dude with those motions who is fast enough to run any route known to man,” Shanahan said. “So they get to try a lot of stuff with that, which Mike’s as good as anyone at trying stuff and being creative.”
One advantage of the “cheat” motion is it reveals whether the defense is in zone or man coverage, and gives Tagovailoa a defined read.
“That’s the only way you can sometimes get a true understanding of what they’re trying to do or attack a certain part of their defense,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith said.
The motion also helps speedsters such as Hill and Waddle get a free release at the line of scrimmage.
“It definitely gives us an advantage, especially for me being a smaller guy,” Hill said. “Corners aren’t able to jam me at the line of scrimmage, so I’m able to use my speed and run routes, so we all love that.”
Most importantly, the Dolphins’ scheme has kept Tagovailoa clean as he returns from a season ruined by concussions. Tagovailoa has been sacked just once in three games, and has been pressured on a league-low 7.6 percent of passes.
“Our plays allow me to be able to find the open read quick and distribute the ball,” Tagovailoa said. “It throws off the timing of the rushers, and it also helps our guys up front.”
The Dolphins have been so successful with their motion that other teams are quickly catching on. The Packers used it extensively in Thursday night’s loss to the Lions, in which the player in motion was often a decoy.
Shanahan has stolen the motion from his buddy McDaniel, too.
“We did it in Week 2 after we saw it,” he said. “The Rams did it about three times versus us in Week 2. I’ve also seen every team probably do it since Week 1. So, it is a cool motion. And they’ve got a real cool guy [Hill] to do it with.”
The start of the NFL season has seen a pair of former Patriots defenders speaking out in frustration against their current teams.
The most prominent case is Raiders pass rusher Chandler Jones, who reportedly was arrested late Thursday for violating a protective order and has been out all season as he posts cryptic criticisms on social media of coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler.
Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson is also disgruntled in his second season with his new team. Last year, he signed a five-year deal worth $82.5 million, with $40 million fully guaranteed, but his tenure with the Chargers has been a disaster — he was benched early last season for poor play, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7, and last week was termed a healthy scratch in the win over the Vikings.
Wednesday, Jackson vented his frustration with NFL Media.
“I told coach, ‘What else do you expect me to do?’ ” said Jackson, who had 25 interceptions in four seasons with the Patriots. “I came back from my injury pretty fast. I’ve been putting in extra work after practice, even in meeting rooms. The DBs every Friday we all meet to do extra film and being a good teammate, so I don’t know what it is. I’m still kind of confused and still don’t have answers as to why I’m getting treated like this.”
Jackson started the first two games and had an interception and three pass breakups, but was also hit for several big plays in close losses to the Dolphins and Titans.
Jackson said his knee isn’t 100 percent but he wants to be on the field when the Chargers host the Raiders on Sunday.
“I know that I can help the team, so it kind of frustrates me that I’m not starting and that coach has me sitting out,” Jackson said. “And I’m one of the best players on the team. I’m one of the best that we have.”
NFL is looking
far and wide
A few notes on the NFL’s international efforts, with the league holding its first of five overseas games Sunday in London:
▪ The NFL called a news conference for Friday morning with executive vice president Peter O’Reilly to promote its recent international efforts. O’Reilly confirmed that the league recently concluded diligence trips to Brazil (Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro) and Spain (Madrid), and would like to hold games there in the near future, though not necessarily next year. He mentioned France and Australia as other markets that could soon be involved.
O’Reilly said this diligence will help the NFL decide how to expand internationally. One plan is to create more games and require all 32 teams to play an international game each season to bring balance to the 17-game schedule (eight home games, eight away, one international). Another plan, O’Reilly said, would be to have teams based permanently in Europe, through relocation or expansion.
“Either of those is in the realm of possibility, and that’s what we’re determining now,” O’Reilly said. “It comes back to, there is passion and demand for the game outside the US.”
The NFL is speaking more openly than ever before about European expansion or relocation. Of course, it comes at a time when the Jaguars are having trouble getting tax dollars to renovate their stadium and are threatening to move. The NFL is tapped out of US markets, but Europe offers a continent of new cities for the NFL to use as leverage.
▪ The Falcons-Jaguars game Sunday is not one for football purists. It’s a 9:30 a.m. East Coast kickoff from Wembley Stadium. It is only being broadcast on streaming platforms ESPN+ and NFL+ (though it will be on local TV in Atlanta and Jacksonville).
And the game will have a secondary broadcast for kids that actually could be pretty entertaining — Toy Story Funday Football that will be broadcast on Disney+. It will be an animated, real-time broadcast that takes place in the Toy Story world, similar to the NHL’s broadcast with Big City Greens on Disney+.
▪ The NFL knew it was booking an exciting game when it scheduled Dolphins-Chiefs for Frankfurt, Germany, in Week 9. But now it’s looking like the game of the year — a potential AFC Championship game preview with two of the best offenses and some of the game’s biggest stars. Perhaps a certain tight end’s girlfriend will make the trip, too.
“That one has the opportunity to be off the charts,” O’Reilly said.
Kickoff-return rate on decline
The NFL changed its rules this offseason to allow for fair catches on kickoffs, with the goal of reducing the number of returns in an effort to reduce concussions. The kickoff play has about double the rate of concussion as plays from scrimmage.
So far, the new rule is having its intended effect. Through the first three weeks, a record-low 78 kickoffs were returned in 48 games, nearly half the number from last year (140 returns) and far less than the previous low of 124 returns in 2019.
Kick returners aren’t necessarily calling for fair catches — only eight were called through three weeks — but the rule seems to be discouraging kickers from kicking high and short. The touchback percentage is a record 81 percent, up 10 percentage points from the previous record and 15 from last year.
The fewer returns should result in fewer concussions, but the NFL doesn’t seem pleased that the kickoff is losing relevance. Executive vice president Jeff Miller said the NFL hopes to find a sweet spot in the future.
“The goal remains the same, which is to keep the kickoff in the game meaningfully, and yet finding a less risky way for that play to unfold,” he said.
The numbers are telling
A handful of stats that stand out after the first three weeks:
▪ The Raiders have scored a touchdown in the first quarter of all three games, but have been outscored, 27-6, in the second quarter, and they’re the only team in the league that hasn’t scored a point in the third quarter, being outscored, 17-0.
▪ Commanders quarterback Sam Howell has taken 19 sacks, tied for the second most all time through three games. Buffalo’s Rob Johnson had 20 in 1998, Houston’s David Carr had 19 in 2002, and Oakland’s Jeff George had 19 in 1998. Commanders coach Ron Rivera said Howell has been holding the ball too long.
“I’m not saying it’s all been Sam’s fault. I’m just saying he can help correct some of the issues,” Rivera said.
▪ The Packers have been outscored, 44-3, in the first half of their last two games. They came back to beat the Saints, 18-17, when Derek Carr got hurt, but got hammered by the Lions on Thursday night. Jordan Love needs to wake up sooner, with just a 47.4 completion percentage, 4.8 yards per attempt, and 66.0 passer rating in the first half.
▪ The Steelers have as many 70-yard touchdowns as they do scores in the red zone — two.
Matt Prater probably doesn’t get noticed when he goes out in public, and his name usually doesn’t come up in the discussion of the greatest kickers of all time. But the Cardinals’ 39-year-old continues to thrive, hitting a 62-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer of last week’s win over the Cowboys. Kicking in some of the best conditions in the NFL — eight years in the high altitude of Denver, 10 years indoors in Detroit and Arizona — Prater has authored an impressive career. His 64-yard field goal in 2013 was the NFL record until Justin Tucker hit a 66-yarder in 2021. Prater has nine of the top 100 longest field goals, most of any kicker, with the 64, two 62s, four 59s, and two 58s. He also has an NFL record 73 field goals of at least 50 yards . . . A mind-blowing stat from Dolphins media relations: Tua Tagovailoa became the first Miami player to win AFC Offensive Player of the Month in 30 years, since Scott Mitchell in 1993. Hard to imagine that Dan Marino only won the award twice, in November 1986 and October 1988 . . . The Bears have lost 13 straight since defeating the Patriots in Foxborough last October, with nine coming by multiple scores . . . From the Someone Has To Win Department: The NFL’s four 0-3 teams will all face each other Sunday — Minnesota at Carolina, Denver at Chicago . . . Drew Bledsoe will be the Bills Legend of the Game against the Dolphins on Sunday in Western New York. Let’s hope he gets a better seat for the game than the one Takeo Spikes got two weeks ago.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.