The Miami Dolphins are 1-0 for the first time since 2018—perhaps not the highest of bars to clear in looking for optimism for their 2021 regular season campaign. But given the growing pains of a rebuilding franchise that had to tear the whole damn thing down before learning to crawl, walk, run and now (hopefully) fly? A road victory over the New England Patriots in Week 1 is a sweet start. But for the Dolphins, there are still more ingredients to be added to a passing attack that is hoping to provide second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with all the right stuff to be the best version of himself amid Miami’s renewed push for legitimate contender status.
Wide receiver Will Fuller V was not a part of Miami’s 17-16 victory over the Patriots. Instead, Fuller was serving the final game of a six-game suspension for a failed drug test in the latter half of the 2020 campaign—a punishment that cut short his final season in Houston and spoiled a bid to secure his first career 1,000-yard receiving season. Five games of 2020 were lost, plus the season opener against the Patriots for his new team in Miami.
Add in a significant amount of missed time in training camp due to an undisclosed lower-body injury and Fuller may not necessarily be ready to take on a featured role in the Dolphins’ offense starting this weekend against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins have been quite deliberate with preseason injuries this summer—they’re slow to put players back in the fray and even more deliberate to wean responsibility. But Fuller should certainly have a set role in this Dolphins passing attack right away, considering that some of the offensive concepts that the Dolphins ran on Sunday against the Patriots echoed some of the offensive concepts that Fuller was accustomed to running in Houston. Those parallels, particularly in the option game, certainly exist, suggesting there may be additional parallels that feature more aggressive downfield passing attempts.
Jenkins Elite founder and quarterbacks coach Tim Jenkins took a dive into one specific play from the Dolphins’ victory over New England, spotlighting a “new school triple option” concept that led to a score on the ground from Tagovailoa in the low red zone. Miami ran this concept out of double-wing pistol and flooded the right side with an arc release and a slice/split-flow action from the wing backs; plus the read-option dynamic for Tagovailoa at the meshpoint.
It proved to be incredibly effective, as Miami could have scored with either tight end Durham Smythe on the pass or as they did in reality with Tagovailoa’s legs. It was a beautiful play design by co-offensive coordinators George Godsey (the presumed play-caller) and Eric Studesville.
Here’s where things get interesting because this isn’t Godsey’s first stint as a play-caller in the NFL. Godsey called plays for the Texans under the direction of Bill O’Brien back in 2015 and the first three games of 2016. And although Godsey was out of Houston by the end of the 2016 season and missed the entirety of the following offensive era in Houston with quarterback Deshaun Watson, Godsey and the Dolphins offense appear to have “borrowed” a few looks from the Texans’ offense under O’Brien and with Watson at the helm.
Here’s the evidence.
June of 2020, NFL Game Pass releases a sitdown X’s and O’s film session with Kurt Warner and Brian Baldinger grilling Watson about the team’s option/naked/play-action play package. Watson’s opening monologue of the video sure sounds a lot like some of the double-wing and two tight end option concepts Miami implemented on Sunday against the Patriots.
“It just starts with the run game… and then if you include my zone read and my ability keeping the ball, it just brings up the linebackers. So they don’t know if I’m keeping it, if it’s a play-action, if it’s a zone read,” said Watson.
“I can keep it, throw it, or the running back can get it.”
The conversation sets the table for what we may see the Dolphins continue to expand upon as they add more layers to these new option dynamics of their offense.
“When I put these (plays) on here, I was like ‘I don’t know if he’s got a run read or not. I don’t know if it’s just a naked and it just looks like a run read’,” said Warner. “But, so you’ve got all three. You’ve got some that are just called runs. Some that are called nakeds and some that are run reads with the naked principles off of it.”
And, for what it’s worth, the Dolphins’ play-side concept of the look, wheel, and flat combination that Tagovailoa scored on was the EXACT SAME pattern combination that Houston scored on in the mid-red zone with Watson back in 2019. Against, you guessed it, the Patriots—only the Texans ran it out of a Full-House backfield as compared to a double-wing pistol.
If the Dolphins, with Godsey co-heading the effort to construct an offense that is tailored to the strengths of Tagovailoa, were taking notes on the Texans’ option-rooted principles, as it appears they were, they most certainly have been studying how the Texans used Fuller during the course of his years lighting it up with explosive plays down the field in Houston.
What does that mean for the Dolphins offense in 2021 with Fuller under contract?
It means he may well take on some of the downfield targets that Dolphins receivers Albert Wilson and Jaylen Waddle took on Sunday afternoon. Wilson’s route in particular, which came just before half, stands out. It came on a double move against cornerback Jalen Mills and quite nearly offered a go-ahead score that Mills managed to get a few fingers on in the end zone to bat away from Wilson. Wilson is plenty speedy and he’s plenty quick. But Fuller? He’s on a different level. And he’s also one of the absolute best vertical receivers in football. You’d be hard-pressed to find many double moves in the Dolphins’ offense in 2020 under then-coordinator Chan Gailey. But then again, you’d be hard-pressed to find much speed on the outside capable of forcing a corner to bite on the fake, too.
Speed isn’t much of a problem for Fuller, who is the NFL equivalent of an F-1 car on vertical routes. And between he and Waddle, the Dolphins have two speedsters who can not only be a threat after the catch but also have the kind of explosive speed that can allow deeper routes and targets to develop in a more timely manner—allowing the offense more wiggle room with their young offensive line to take some deeper developing routes without the concern of needing to hold protection for drops that push beyond three seconds of time and duration. The Dolphins found explosive passes on Sunday against the Patriots with a slot-fade from Waddle and an isolated vertical shot from DeVante Parker—and projecting Fuller into either one of those roles, particularly from the slot, is going to make life hell for high-post safeties.
The other threat Fuller figures to bring to the table is the opportunity for Miami to target deeper passes downfield on routes that cross one another to take advantage of a lifted safety.
This was another concept that was tackled during the NFL Game Pass Film Room session with Warner, Baldinger, and Watson. With Fuller now in Miami alongside Waddle, the Dolphins figure to have the pieces to make these deeper cross concepts work in Miami, too.
“So you got a B-line, a cross and then the outside has a post,” explained Watson.
When you consider how often Waddle made a killing at Alabama with the deep crossing pattern, pairing Waddle and Fuller together for these intersecting routes figures to put similar stress on opposing defenses in Miami—assuming Miami is indeed borrowing additional concepts from Fuller’s time in Houston. And if they’re not, perhaps they should be given the successes of Fuller and Kenny Stills in Houston, the potential of the Fuller/Waddle pairing and the return on investment the team got from some very familiar zone read/RPO concepts to Fuller during his time with the Texans.
Fuller was scored as Next Gen Stat’s ninth-most-efficient route-runner in football in 2020 and his versatility extends beyond just vertical routes. Fuller’s 423 receiving yards against press coverage were, according to Next Gen Stats, the No. 2 figure in the NFL through Week 12 of last season. He isn’t likely to handle roles working in the traffic of the middle of the field, but his presence alone should be enough to get most teams to loosen up in coverage. And for a Dolphins team that is banking on that kind of speed to push the safeties out of the box and help improve the run game by extension, that will bring value in its own right for Miami.
So as Fuller takes the field and makes his debut in Miami, expect to see a lot of what he does best: working down the field and implementing his speed to help dictate coverage and, ultimately, continue creating explosive plays. And as Miami gets more acclimated to having him at their disposal, don’t be surprised to see a few more of his favorite hits from Houston come up on the playsheet in Miami, too. The forecast suggests it’s on the way, thanks in part to Godsey’s familiarity with the O’Brien school of thought and the team’s Week 1 implementation of the option concepts.