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How the Chiefs limited the Dolphins’ middle-field throws

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a sound plan when it came to how to defend the Dolphins in the Wild Card Round.

NFL: JAN 13 AFC Wild Card - Dolphins at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In my preview for the Miami Dolphins' Wild Card game last week, one thing I mentioned was how smart defensive coordinators had found ways to limit quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's throws over the middle of the field. Miami's offense was built on getting runaways for wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle by utilizing Tagovailoa's quick release and accuracy in those spots. What the best defenses did against Miami was limit those throws and make him throw outside the numbers, where he is weaker.

Well, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo watched the film and came to the same conclusion as I did. In between 10 and 20 yards, Tagovailoa only completed one of two passes inside the numbers. Here was Tagovailoa's throwing chart on Saturday;

So, how did Spagnuolo limit Tagovailoa's attempts in his sweet spot? 'A lot of it was tethered to messing with Tagovailoa's eyes and forcing him to win with his arm. Let's break down how that was achieved;

Multiple safety rotations — at the same time

In the NFL, a lot of the more complex passing concepts start with where the safeties align — pre or post-snap. Depending on whether the defense is in an Open (the middle of the field open with no post safety) or Closed (the middle of the field is closed with a post safety) determines a lot of the reads that quarterbacks make.

Spagnuolo likes to constantly change the looks from closed to open coverages, and it messed with Tagovailoa plenty. On this play, Spagnuolo toggles between both looks presnap, and Tagovailoa sees Closed before he snaps, but by the time it snaps, it's Open (Cover 2 Man). Tagovailoa's eyes should be on the field, but he tries his access read to Tyreek Hill, who he would have clearance to throw to if this were Closed man coverage.

But since the cornerback has safety help over the top, Tagovailoa's eyes should be on the field, where a Dig to Waddle opens up. However, his eyes get there so late, which affects his feet and this throw, and the ball sails on him. The throw looks bad, but this play started with Spagnuolo screwing with Tagovailoa's eyes and feet presnap.

Nick Bolton in coverage

Going into this game, I was worried about how Miami would attack Nick Bolton in coverage, but he arguably played his best coverage (and overall) game as a Chief on Saturday. Miami runs a staple of their offense on this play. They love to bring the motion across, have him run a wheel route, and the isolated wide receiver presnap runs the slant with a flat route sifting underneath. Tagovailoa has a simple three-layer wheel. If the defense doesn't push the wheel, throw it. If the linebacker pushes too far to the flat against the sift route, throw the slant.

Bolton takes away the slant and sifts in this play. As he recognizes the flat route, he still gets enough depth to take the slant window away, which has to be thrown quickly to avoid getting intercepted. He then flashes the range to get to the flat and blow it up. This was just one play, but Bolton was consistently taking away those reads.

Cover 2 Man calls

The Chiefs called a lot of Cover 2 Man this week. For Spagnuolo, it was the easiest way to get a double team on Hill and Waddle. He could bracket those players and let his cornerbacks press more, which hurt Miami's timing on their routes. The cornerbacks had plenty of help over the top, but they wanted Tagovailoa to hold on to the ball and deal with blurriness post-snap.

McDuffie takes away the crosser while Bolton gets away with a hold on the angle route. Those two routes were designed to beat this coverage, but the Chiefs defended non-Hill and Waddle players in man coverage perfectly, which was critical to getting those double teams.

Mixing in the blitz

Spagnuolo didn't rely on the blitz until the Dolphins got into a pass-heavy script, mainly because he was choosing to double Hill and Waddle instead. However, once the fourth quarter came and the opportunity opened to blitz Tagovailoa, he took advantage.

With quarters of disrupting timing and changing looks postsnap, Tagovailoa's eyes were a total mess, which we see here. The Chiefs bring a Cover 0 blitz, and Tagovailoa has two hot read options. His first hot read is the running back motioning out of the backfield if the linebacker doesn't get over the top of the cornerback. Bolton does that well here.

After that, Tagovailoa's eyes should scan to the backside curl route, which is open, but with Tagovailoa's first read gone, his eyes and feet fail him, and he ends up taking a sack.

The bottom line

Spagnuolo clearly knew what the mission of Miami's offense was and how to stop it. When they're rolling, it's because Tagovailoa can build a rhythm, and the designs give him maximum space to accentuate his quick throwing motion. When that timing is disrupted by either pressure or press coverage, it forces Tagovailoa to process a full progression and rely on his arm talent — where he's very deficient.

In terms of the playoffs moving forward, I'm not sure how the Chiefs defended Tagovailoa is instructive moving forward. The other quarterbacks they are likely to face (including Josh Allen) have the ability to create with their arm, and they are much better processors. However, it does show that Spagnuolo is still tremendous at drawing up a hyper-specific game plan to counter an opponent.

For this week, though, Spagnuolo deserves credit for what should've been a shutout unless Hill makes a truly fantastic play on his long touchdown. The Dolphins never once got in rhythm, and the Chiefs bullied them. It was an excellent defensive performance to watch.

It's Game Time.

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