The Miami Dolphins have so far passed every test thrown their way. The defeated Bill Belichick's Patriots in Week 1, stormed back to defeat Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, and knocked the Super Bowl-favorite Buffalo Bills from the ranks of the unbeaten in Week 3. On Thursday night, their latest test comes in the form of the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
Joe Burrow and Co. are coming off their first win of the season -- a laugher against the New York Jets. They'd previously gone 0-2 against the likes of Mitchell Trubisky's Pittsburgh Steelers and Cooper Rush's Dallas Cowboys. So, this is likely the toughest opponent they will have faced to date. That's especially true because of the style of defense Miami plays, which has the potential to cause significant problems for the Bengals.
So, will the Dolphins remain unbeaten? Or will the Bengals hand them their first lost of the young season? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's how you can watch the game:
How to watch
When the Dolphins have the ball
Early this season, the Dolphins are arguably the NFL's most fascinating offense. New head coach Mike McDaniel was the run-game coordinator in San Francisco and was expected to bring over a Kyle Shanahan-style offense that leaned heavily on the run and play-action, bootleg passing concepts. Only some of that has happened.
Rather than being run-heavy, Miami ranks second in the NFL in pass rate over expectation, according to Tru Media. McDaniel has indeed imported some of the Shanahan concepts in the run game and especially on play-action, but the Dolphins operate out of the shotgun at a much higher rate and incorporate far more run-pass option concepts than McDaniel's former team did -- presumably because those are the areas where Tua Tagovailoa is most comfortable.
All of this is working quite nicely so far. The Dolphins currently rank fourth in third-down conversion rate and the share of their plays that have gained 10 yards or more; third in yards per play and success rate; second in EPA per play and the share of their drives that have gone three-and-out; and first in points per drive. They're spreading defenses razor thin with all the speed they can put on the field. Tyreek Hill is drawing tons of attention on every snap. Jaylen Waddle is taking advantage. Both of those players are opening wide throwing lanes over the middle of the field.
Just about the only thing that isn't operating at a high level is the run game itself, which is an interesting development. Neither Chase Edmonds nor Raheem Mostert has been able to really get on track so far. Some of that is playing against a trio of opponents that are good at stopping the run in the Patriots, Ravens, and Bills. Some of it is an offensive line that, while improved, is still below-average. And some of it is the running backs themselves not doing much in the way of breaking tackles or creating yards after contact.
Despite the lack of rushing success, though, Miami's play-action passing attack has been elite: Tagovailoa has faked a run on 39.1% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate in football. When the Dolphins have gone to a run fake on first down, Tagovailoa has completed 19 of 23 passes (82.6%) for 289 yards (12.6 per attempt). He's taken just one sack on those dropbacks, and he's thrown the ball 20 or more yards downfield 26.1% of the time. All it all up and he's recorded the league's fourth-best EPA per play average on those plays.
The question in this game isn't so much whether the Dolphins can find a way to move the ball on the ground, but whether Cincinnati's linebackers and safeties can resist the temptation to come up and join the run fit on the plays when the Dolphins are actually throwing the ball. One false step and Hill, Waddle, or both will beat you -- either over the top or on the move. So far, Tagovailoa has shown the ability to find them in open space with a high level of consistency. Assuming he's under center, the only way to stop that from happening is to dominate the game up front and move him off his spot as soon as he hits the top of his dropback -- a feat made harder due to the fact that they're operating so often out of the gun and therefore he's not taking as many traditional dropbacks.
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When the Bengals have the ball
Cincinnati is coming off its best game of the season, and it's probably not a coincidence that after facing Cover-2 on 36.7% of Joe Burrow's dropbacks in Week 1 against the Steelers and 50% of his dropbacks in Week 2 against the Cowboys, the Bengals saw ONE snap of Cover-2 against the Jets in Week 3, according to Tru Media. In those first two games, Burrow was 25 of 34 for 243 yards, three interceptions and an incredible nine sacks against Cover-2. It's worth noting that Burrow faced Cover-2 on just 77 dropbacks all of last season, and the incredible ramp-up early this year has likely been designed to take away some of the "let's just throw it up to Ja'Marr Chase deep down the sideline" stuff that was so successful for Cincinnati last year.
The Dolphins have played Cover-2 on 14.6% of passing snaps this season, a significant increase from last year's 7.6% mark. They have been primarily a single-high coverage team, though, playing Cover-1 or Cover-3 on 57.5% of snaps. They've also used Cover-0 at by far the highest rate in the NFL -- 14.6%. It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Josh Boyer balances things in this matchup. Miami loves to blitz, and could potential overwhelm what has been a severely overmatched Bengals offensive line by doing so. But the Dolphins also might not need to blitz all that often to generate pressure on Burrow, and leaving more defenders in coverage could allow them to utilize more of the two-high stuff that has bothered the Bengals so far this season.
The decision Boyer makes can likely be viewed through the prism of second-year safety Jevon Holland, who is an absolute menace all over the field. On eight pass-rush snaps, Holland has three pressures and 1.5 sacks, per Tru Media. On 129 coverage snaps, he has been targeted just five times, allowing three completions for 37 yards and an interception. He's lined up as a true free safety more often than not, but according to Pro Football Focus, he has also dropped down into the box on 21 snaps, taken 17 snaps from the slot and played along the defensive line for 15 snaps. He's a chess piece whose movements can be used to dictate what the offense needs to do on any given snap. His alignment doesn't typically give much away, though, because Miami can rotate into any number of coverages or blitzes no matter where he happens to be pre-snap.
Playing more two-high looks (pre-snap, if not necessarily post-snap) invites and often entices opponents to run the ball. Cincinnati has been extremely unsuccessful in the run game so far this season, checking in 30th in yards per carry, EPA per rush and Football Outsiders' rush offense DVOA. Joe Mixon is averaging a dreadful 2.8 yards per tote, with just 0.91 yards before contact. He's been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage more often (29.3% of his runs) than he has gained five yards or more (26.7%). In other words, the offensive line makeover that was supposed to be a dramatic upgrade has instead not worked out at all. Miami is seventh in rush defense DVOA so far this season, so it seems at least somewhat unlikely that the Bengals will find much rushing success here.
Instead, the Bengals will likely have to depend on Burrow, Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Hayden Hurst winning on an individual level in order to move the ball. That group is, of course, more than capable of doing just that. Particularly with No. 2 corner Byron Jones still sidelined and Xavien Howard playing through a soft-tissue injury, there could be opportunities for that crew to do some damage on the perimeter. The Dolphins did just force the Bills to dink and dunk their way down the field all game last week and could conceivably do the same to the Bengals, but it is worth noting that this defense was on the field for NINETY plays just a few days ago, and could suffer from some fatigue here.
Prediction: Dolphins 27, Bengals 24