The Dolphins boast the best offense in the NFL, averaging 453 total yards per game, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leads the league in passing yards while former Chiefs superstar Tyreek Hill leads the league in receiving.
Despite a poor Week 8 performance against the Denver Broncos, the Chiefs offense still sits at fourth in the NFL, averaging 381.5 yards per game. Patrick Mahomes is third in the league in passing yards with 2,258 through the first half of the season — and he's doing so without a No. 1 wide receiver. Tight end Travis Kelce is 11th in the league in receiving yards and has been banged up early on in the season.
While both quarterbacks have been terrific — likely MVP front runners — they have done so in different ways, and one key figure shows this separation.
Per Pro Football Reference, "pocket time" is "the number of seconds the quarterback was in the pocket between the snap of the ball and a pass or the collapse of the pocket." When looking at the quarterback rankings, the average quarterback time is roughly 2.4 seconds to 2.5 seconds.
When examining the quarterbacks in this matchup, we see opposite ends of the spectrum for pocket time.
Tua Tagovailoa has the third quickest pocket time of any QB with an average pocket of 2.1 seconds per play.— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 1, 2023
Patrick Mahomes has the third longest pocket time with 2.6 seconds per play.
Both quarterbacks have been highly successful, but both have done so in many different situations. Tagovailoa has been excellent at getting the ball out fast and playing within the confines of his offense, firing passes on time with pinpoint accuracy.
Mahomes has been in improvisation and scramble mode for most of the season. There are factors that have gone into why each has been outstanding with their different styles of play.
Mahomes: Plenty of time, but not always there
One of the biggest resources that Mahomes has had this year has been his offensive line. Solid protection combined with excellent improvisation skills has allowed Mahomes to be sacked only 10 times this season, which ranks lowest among all starting quarterbacks.
With his offensive line fighting hard and wizardry in the pocket, Mahomes has been able to keep plays going and buy time for his targets downfield.
This play is a good example of where Mahomes having to hold the ball for a long time works out. The OL is phenomenal at picking up the Broncos twist game. A little drift from Mahomes but the pocket is still intact for over 3 seconds. Gives Kelce time to find the void. pic.twitter.com/YE0yWpA8wi— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 1, 2023
The offensive line fights off both twist games, and even when one of the loopers does get through, it has taken too long, and Mahomes beams a pass to Kelce, who catches it over his shoulder for a long gain.
This is an example of where the elongated pocket helps Mahomes and the Chiefs. He didn't like anything on his initial read, so he worked the pocket until Kelce could find a way to get open.
With the good of holding onto the ball also comes the bad, and in the Chiefs' case, it is wide receivers not getting open downfield on a consistent enough basis.
Nobody open or created separation on the initial read for Mahomes. The pocket is good through the first 3 seconds of the play, but as Mahomes re-drops there is still no one open. Taylor mirrors the edge for as long as he can but gives up the hit in the end. pic.twitter.com/AvuCS1IKoF— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 2, 2023
Denver is playing zone coverage, and after about three seconds, there are still no Chiefs targets open downfield for Mahomes. The pocket is good, but as Mahomes stands and keeps looking downfield, the pass rush keeps pursuing. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is good initially and mirrors his man from the top of the arc back down the line, but he is not able to stick back to him as Mahomes drops again.
The play thankfully ends in an incomplete pass, but it came at the expense of Mahomes being hit.
Tagovailoa: Out quick and for a reason
The Dolphins' offense has quickly become one of the biggest stories of the 2023 season, and the explosive plays they have been able to create have left defenses in the dust.
Armed with Hill and the ascending Jaylen Waddle (plus an explosive run game), Tagovailoa has put up big numbers. Their offense incorporates speed, misdirection and timing.
This is why the Dolphins are so hard to stop. All eyes on Tyreek motioning over then the RPO action back the other way. Lastly Tua pulls the ball and quickly needles it 20 yards to Waddle. Blink of an eye timing and speed for the Dolphins. pic.twitter.com/NiKEmmkV6p— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 2, 2023
Hill can be the ultimate weapon or the ultimate decoy on any given play. The defenders lock in on him crossing the formation, but on the snap, the Dolphins show a run-pass option (RPO). Even when Tagovailoa pulls the ball, the eyes are still on Hill, but Tagovailoa turns and rips a lightning-quick 20-yard strike to Waddle.
One play, under two seconds in the pocket and one-fifth of the field covered in no time flat.
The release time, anticipation and accuracy from Tagovailoa are all outstanding, but there is a reason the Dolphins are getting the ball out so quickly — and why his pocket time is so low.
Empty set here for the Dolphins. Even with the speed at WR it still isn't enough time for Tua in the pocket. The right guard is beaten quickly by the 4i and he engulfs Tua before the play can even get going. There is a reason he has to get the ball out so fast. pic.twitter.com/xuPM39L4aF— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) November 2, 2023
The New England Patriots bring only three players on the pass rush, with a fourth on a delayed rush, but the 4-i (rusher inside the tackle) quickly gets through the Dolphins right guard. Not even the Dolphins' explosive playmakers had a chance to make anything happen with pass protection this poor.
The Dolphins' offensive line has been porous, as well as missing standout left tackle Terron Armstead during the past few weeks. Tagovailoa has not been sacked often this year, ranking 30th among starters, but of the 11 times he has been sacked, nine have come against the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills — teams with solid pass rushers.
With his concussion scares from last season, it is apparent that the Dolphins have made it a priority to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and they have used their misdirection and All-world receiving corps to facilitate this.
The bottom line
Both quarterbacks have been electric through 2023 despite getting there in different ways.
Tagovailoa has ripped the ball to his playmakers all season long, and the misdirection, as well as speed have masked the flaws in their pass protection. Mahomes has created all season long, using his legs and mind-warping ability to move in the pocket to make plays for his teammates.
High-level games like this in the NFL will often come down to which quarterback can make the most plays — or, in some instances, the least mistakes. With the No. 1 seed on the line —and a budding MVP race forming — all eyes will be on this early morning matchup.