The Kansas City Chiefs are coming up against a tough playoff opponent in the Miami Dolphins in this late-season matchup. While this may have not been a game that Chiefs fans were targeting in the offseason, Brian Flores has his team playing hard on both sides of the ball and is one of the league’s best stories this year.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Dolphins’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and further their AFC West lead.
The Dolphins are led by rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, looking to start his sixth game of the year. He’s a mobile quarterback with a quick release, helping the Dolphins to a 4-1 record as a starter. In his only loss — a benching against the Denver Broncos — he showed an inability to handle pressure and resulted in his worst performance of the year.
Miami’s running back room is led by second-year player Myles Gaskin. He’s averaging just 3.9 yards per rush but has been effective in the pass game with 32 catches for 249 yards. The Dolphins had a nice one-two punch with Matt Breida in the backfield, but should be missing Breida on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week. With Salvon Ahmed also slated to miss this week, former Chief DeAndre Washington and Patrick Laird will be Gaskin’s primary backups.
The Dolphins wide receiver group was also ravaged by reserve/COVID-19 and injuries. They are missing Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns and Preston Williams from their anticipated rotation. That has left Miami with Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant as their starting receivers. Parker has been the primary target, leading the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Grant is a small, dynamic receiver that is third on the team in most receiving categories. With all these injuries, the Dolphins may have to rely more on Mack Hollins, Antonio Callaway, Malcom Perry or Lynn Bowden, Jr.
The Dolphins do have a strong tight end group, led by a dynamic player in Mike Gesicki. He’s gotten volume targets from both quarterbacks that have started this season and possesses Miami’s longest receiving play of the year. He’s a major red-zone threat that will need to be priority No. 1 for the Chiefs defense inside the 20. Both Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen have gotten plenty of reps as the second tight end this year. Smythe has been targeted more of the two, but Shaheen is the biggest vertical threat.
The Dolphins are dealing with some serious upheaval on their offensive line due to injury. Left guard Ereck Flowers is out this week, which could move rookie right tackle Robert Hunt to guard. That should put Hunt next to center Ted Karras and rookie left tackle Austin Jackson. Another rookie — Solomon Kindley — will line up at right guard. Either Julién Davenport or Jesse Davis should line up at right tackle if they move Hunt inside.
The offensive concept: Cover 2 Beaters from empty
KC might be forced into more Cover-2 this week, down a couple defenders. MIA hits teams with C2-beaters from empty.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 11, 2020
Double in-breaking routes pull second-level up w/ TE up seam. Hitch coupled with an out-and-up to weakside. Safeties waiting route distribution react late to post. pic.twitter.com/lvOKOWSuto
With the Chiefs missing some players in the middle of the field this week, they may rely on more split-safety looks to keep a lid on the top of the defense. The Chiefs already implement more two-high looks than almost anyone else in the league, so it wouldn’t be a strong departure from their normal game plan.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the Dolphins are fantastic at attacking Cover 2 — and are even better at it out of empty formations.
Gesicki in particular is a dangerous man up the seam, as Miami likes to keep him as the strong number three in a 3x2 formation — matching him up with a hook defender on a vertical route. Strong possession receivers will run underneath routes to force the second-level defenders forward, creating space between them and the deep safeties. The field safety has to wait out Gesicki’s break — as he could dart to the corner — and that creates a hole for Tagovailova to attack.
Even the weak side of the formation has a stressor for the safety, running an out-and-up against the underneath hitch. If the boundary safety collapses on the post, this late-developing route is open — likely for a touchdown.
These are longer developing routes, meaning the Chiefs could easily disrupt the Dolphins plans on Sunday with an effective four-man rush. However, if the Chiefs aren’t able to win their matchups up front, their split-safety looks might be easy fodder for some chunk plays.
The bottom line
This is a sneaky-good Dolphins team that the Chiefs defense might be catching at the right time.
Miami is going to shift their offensive line around while starting three rookies. They’re also missing a home run-hitting back and have had to piece together a depleted wide receiving corps around their rookie quarterback. The Dolphins are learning on the fly this season, and throwing any wrench into the equation makes things that much more difficult.
The Chiefs are not without their fair share of potential upheaval on defense as well. Damien Wilson was confirmed to miss this weekend’s affair, and Tyrann Mathieu could potentially miss it as well after popping up late on the injury report. The Chiefs have several options to replace Mathieu, and Willie Gay Jr. has already been confirmed to get Wilson’s snaps on Sunday.
While I’m just as excited as everyone else to see Gay on the field, missing two players in the middle of the defense could be some cause for concern against a good receiving tight end like Gesicki. There could be some blown coverages against a good player that could help keep the Dolphins in this game all the way through to the final whistle.
I do expect that the Chiefs defense will be able to stress the interior of the Dolphins offensive line. The Chiefs have struggled to get sacks (though there has been pressure) from their blitz packages the last two weeks. Spagnuolo will certainly test the rookie quarterback’s protection calls and some inexperienced players up front with some exotic blitz packages.
I also expect Chris Jones and Tershawn Wharton to find some success when rushing the passer. The interior of the Dolphins line doesn’t possess great lateral agility when trying to mirror players in the pass rush. Jones and Wharton are certainly not lacking in that department, and that could result in the four-man rush getting home a little more often. The Chiefs edge rushers may also find some success against a rookie and backup tackle for Miami.
Tagovailoa’s legs and ability to escape pressure are possibly the biggest problem the Chiefs defense may face this week. He will extend plays and afford his receivers the time to get open late in the play. For that very reason, the Chiefs may find themselves with more containment rushes from their defensive ends — keeping Tagovailoa in the pocket for Jones, Wharton and the blitz to get home more regularly.
There’s a lot to like about this matchup from the Chiefs' point of view, but missing some of their better communicators in the middle of the field could make for a bit of a “boom-or-bust” situation when the defense is on the field. I’m looking forward to seeing what Gay brings to the table in his first full week of reps, and I’m hoping the secondary can stay on the same page all game long.
This has the potential to be a fun game — and a “get-right” situation for the pass rush — that will be welcome this late in the season.