Tua, Mike McDaniel struggle with game-management in Dolphins’ win

By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

Mike McDaniel’s players will love the trust he’s showing in them. He came away with a narrow 16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and McDaniel made no shortage of gutsy decisions for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night.

It was an aggressive game from McDaniel. But it was also an impatient one.

The defense saved the offense, with two fourth-quarter interceptions that sealed the game. Prior to that, the Steelers looked like they were legitimately ready to challenge the Dolphins late in the game. Miami let Pittsburgh hang around.

On Pittsburgh’s penultimate drive, the Steelers faced a third-and-1 from the Miami 15-yard line. They were so close to the end zone. But one mistake led to another and Kenny Pickett gave up the football later in the drive. And because the Dolphins offense couldn’t pick up a first down, the Steelers got one more shot. But again, Pickett coughed up the ball when Dolphins cornerback Noah Igbinoghene managed a red zone interception.

If there was a game when the Dolphins might want to stray from their kill-shot identity, this was it. The Steelers were the lesser team. The Dolphins were supposed to use Pittsburgh as a get-right team. Tua Tagovailoa was back and the offense was supposed to fall back into place. But the offense fumbled control of the game.

For the Dolphins’ opening drive, they looked on pace to enjoy an absolute blowout. It was a beauty, with Tua completing 6 of 7 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. The passes came out quick. They were accurate. He was brilliant. That’s what made the close scoreline so surprising.

That competence didn’t last. And it centered around McDaniel and Tua’s inability to manage the game.

The most obvious situation was McDaniel’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 on the 14-yard line in the third quarter. Most analytics services showed there was little advantage to going for it. He could have simply kicked the field goal and , if kicker Jason Sanders made it, taken a two-possession lead. That way, they wouldn’t be sweating the Steelers’ fourth-quarter drives quite so much. But McDaniel went for it, and the team didn’t deliver. The situational decision was a strange one.

“We hit a lull after that,” he said postgame. “It was like we got punched in the stomach.”

The play-call was even more bizarre: a handoff to running back Chase Edmonds, who ran for no gain. Edmonds was among the team’s least reliable skill players this season, losing snaps and touches to Raheem Mostert. And Edmonds ran behind left guard Liam Eichenberg, the team’s least reliable offensive lineman. It was certainly a divergence from what you’d expect.

It was easy to dislike what McDaniel did at the end of the first half, too. The team was reluctant to use its timeouts, even when the offense looked frazzled on its way to a false start penalty, which cost the team five yards, a timeout (which they took to stop the clock run-off) and twenty valuable seconds of clock. Later in the drive, they committed a delay-of-game penalty. Neither players nor coaches looked crisp or organized on the drive.

Tua’s body of work showed his lack of maturity. He finished 21 of 35 (60%) for 261 yards and a touchdown. His stat line looked clean. But he will see no shortage of room for improvement on the film.

First and foremost, he threw a shoulder in the first quarter, taking unnecessary contact just a few weeks after he suffered a severe concussion. That’s just a bad decision. And he admitted it.

With the lead for the entire game, he struggled with draining the clock, instead rushing plays early in the play clock in the fourth quarter. He didn’t display strong ball security, watching the Steelers drop four near-interceptions.

“Those things are things that I shouldn’t be doing,” he told NBC after the game.

And he had issues with situational awareness. The Dolphins needed a conversion on third-and-3 and he fired downfield for an incompletion to Tyreek Hill, who was running a go-route. That’s a low-percentage play in a gotta-have- it situation.

Tagovailoa also missed Hill on the Dolphins’ last relevant drive (prior to kneeling the ball). The QB couldn’t hit his receiver on a third down — and Tagovailoa nearly threw an interception. The Dolphins had to punt.

Finally, I’ll pick knits at Tagovailoa’s accuracy, which seemed to get worse over the course of the game. Initially, he was hitting receivers exactly where they wanted the ball. But he began to miss high or behind them — and then the really bad, turnover-worthy plays started happening.

The Dolphins have the potential to be a truly elite football team. And it’s hardly a time for panic, especially because they’ve ended their losing streak with a win over the Steelers. They have the Detroit Lions (1-5) and the Chicago Bears (2-4) in the next two weeks. So the Dolphins should be just fine. But they’ll need to demonstrate more maturity, starting with their rookie head coach and their third-year quarterback. They’ll need to make cleaner work of their lesser opponents.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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